A Tribe Called Quest released what is likely to be the group’s final album this past year, celebrating a catalogue of work that resonated throughout the rap community for more than two decades. For any up and coming rap artist, though A Tribe Called Quest may be ‘old news’ to them, the content that is served up in each of their albums boast impressive lessons to learn.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)
A Tribe Called Quest’s first album was recorded at the same time and in the same location as records were being developed by artists such as the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and Stetsasonic. The importance of building a scene of artists to support one another and to provide some common inspiration was key in establishing a brand of hip hop that was not present in the mainstream at this time. Surround yourself by other musicians and get yourself in the room with your instruments and your music – don’t be distracted by cell phones and other influences pulling you out.
The Low End Theory (1991)
Don’t ignore the courage to chase something that inspires you, even if it falls outside of what the mainstream deems as acceptable. The Low End Theory saw the group delve into a simplistic percussion-and-bass and is still credited as one of the first albums to mix hip hop with jazz. Though the dominant musical themes on The Low End Theory may not have matched up to the mainstream feel, over time, this body of songs arguably won the group more fans than any other piece of work. If something is calling you, go after it and do it well.
Midnight Marauders (1993)
Where so many groups of the era were discussing violence, Midnight Marauders delved into other stories. It provided an alternative to the violence by being fun, humorous, random, and borderline escapist. There is something to be said for providing an alternative to what is going on in the world. Though the group continued to discuss urban issues, they did so while furthering a jazz-driven, hip hop sound on a body of work well worth a listen.
Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)
The darkest album in the group’s catalogue, Beats, Rhymes and Life moves away from the positivity of the work that preceded it. Though it has continued to receive mixed reviews, the album marks a point in time where some form of departure was almost required in order for the group to survive.
The work on Beats, Rhymes and Life represents a response to the Death Row/Bad Boy rivalry of the time and though some have praised its darker elements, the album eliminates much of the charm that attracted earlier fans to it. To an artist, Beats, Rhymes and Life may be a model for different things – a need to re-invent, a need to respond to contemporary concerns, and/or an example of taking the risk of abandoning a previous identity in order to find a new one.
The Love Movement (1998)
The Love Movement returned A Tribe Called Quest to their earlier positive, joyous sound but was produced under trying circumstances – frustration with the group’s record company and the stresses of changing priorities essentially breaking up the group. Though the behind the scenes shows a group on the verge of breaking up, the album itself and the content therein demonstrates a maturity that was not necessarily present in earlier work. The Love Movement is an important piece of A Tribe Called Quest’s catalogue as it shows the importance of leaving a musical identity behind to experiment and try new things (as they did on Beats, Rhymes and Life), before returning to it in a triumphant way. If The Love Movement was their last album, as many long said it was, it marked a fitting return to the bones of what got the group noticed in the first place.
We Got it From Here.. Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
When Phife Dawg passed away in early 2016, Q-Tip and the rest of the group stepped in to finish an album that might be among their best. We Got it From Here.. Thank You 4 Your Service was recorded in secrecy, away from the press and away from the pressure of knowing the commercial/artistic significance of what A Tribe Called Quest album meant. The end result speaks for itself, as one of the highest rated albums in A Tribe Called Quest’s catalogue. When there is pressure put on to produce, sometimes the best thing for an artist to do is to disappear and use their own inspiration as the guide for any music that might come together.
The contemporary, modern influences present on the album also keep it centered among what is going on in the world today, abandoning irrelevant themes of the past. So much of We Got it From Here.. Thank You 4 Your Service borders on protest songs from a lyrical perspective, exploring current trends in socio-political American culture, and musically, takes A Tribe Called Quest to places that seem both familiar and new.
The lessons in the catalogue of A Tribe Called Quest demonstrate a group that pursued artistic success over any commercial reward. Though they did succumb to pressures in the 1990s similar to other rap groups, they came back together throughout the years to reinforce the uniqueness of their brand. A Tribe Called Quest’s influence has extended far and wide across the spectrum of hip hop scenes in the United States.