I remember the day well. Maybe you do too. I was sitting in my friend’s basement during the tail-end of eighth grade, the Xbox controller in my hand pushing Master Chief left and right as I dodged a cascade of virtual Halo bullets. Then I heard Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (and sometimes Jerobi) coming through a set of speakers behind me, and it all changed. You weren’t with me, but we all reminisce over the first time we heard A Tribe Called Quest.
Respect the Architects: ATCQ’s music was rooted in samples from Sly & The Family Stone, Lou Reed, George Duke, Jimi Hendrix and countless others. A.K.A. a wealth of knowledge.
From that point on, Tribe – and the musical genre they turned me on to – became a defining factor of who I was and what I would become. In high school, I had a radio show that focused on Golden Age and underground Hip Hop; in college, the name of that show became “Beats, Rhymes & Life.” My time at school not only featured a new radio show but an internship at a local music venue known for launching the careers of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller: The Shadow Lounge. It was a fellow Shadow Lounge employee that introduced me to then-HipHopDX Editor-In-Chief Jake Paine. Shortly after graduation, I moved to New York City, pursuing an internship at a boutique public relations firm specializing in Hip Hop acts, which turned into my first full-time gig.
One week after my 26th birthday, seven months after Phife’s passing and 13-years after I first heard the kick, snare, kicks and hi-hat, Tribe released their sixth and final album: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. The group that had helped me into adulthood had grown up and moved on.
I wasn’t supposed to be a Tribe fan. A white kid from Chicago’s wealthy north suburbs, I was just eight-years-old when the group disbanded in 1998. Yet Tip, who invited me to jam with him no matter what age, race or background I came from, expanded my worldview through a mix of musical styles that ranged from my grandfather’s jazz to my parents’ rock, soul, funk and blues. The lyrics varied from poignant to exuberant, and the mellow, laid-back vibe was different than any rap I’d heard previously. This was a side of the genre made for me, if not my generation.
Throughout high school, as artists like Soulja Boy and Lil Wayne produced hit after hit, I retreated back to an era when Hip Hop sounded more like music and less like a ringtone soundbite. Soon, that retreat was no longer enough and I began to push back against the artists dominating the charts, preaching the virtues of ‘90s Hip Hop and receiving a range of responses in return. The same passion for convincing others that Tribe and their peers were “real Hip Hop” continued into my early college years, but eventually waned as I gave up on forcing Golden Age hits into my pregame playlists. It wasn’t that I’d stopped listening to Nas, Biggie, De La Soul and more, but that I no longer had the desire to try and thrust my musical opinions onto others, perhaps influenced by a rising crop of young, talented emcees whose sound was heavily influenced by the groups I held so dear. My love for Hip Hop had never been stronger, but my want for Hip Hop arguments was a thing of the past.
When We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service dropped, I read all of the think pieces I could find on the project. Unsurprisingly, many of those who penned their critiques of the album had come of age alongside Tribe, or shortly thereafter. As a twenty-something still extolling the virtues of what I consider to be rap’s greatest group, I’ve felt like one of the many old heads looking down on today’s artists (thank you, Pete Rock), wishing they could better emulate Pharcyde or a younger Jay-Z.
While that cyclical change is coming, what I’ve realized is that it’s unfair to try and expect a genre’s sound to stay forever frozen in time. It’s important to acknowledge the past, using it as a reference point, but it’s detrimental to use it as the end-all-be-all benchmark as sociopolitical events – along with technology – continually change the world, and music, around us. Phife and Tribe are both gone, but the foursome that brought the world “Can I Kick It?” (and appreciation for its layered samples) will live on forever through the artists they’ve influenced and their timeless catalog. If Tribe taught me anything, it’s that acceptance and experimentation is key, and that, above all else, is a message that will stick with me forever.