One Band, One Week: Why Tribe?

If we’re being honest, I was more of a De La fan at the start.  

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was so much menace and anger in hip-hop, most artists seemed to fall along a Run-DMC/Public Enemy/NWA continuum.  That was probably to be expected, and totally reasonable, but still a little much for a boy of 11, so I ended up drawn to the fun and DayGlo colours of the Native Tongues.  

That first, nascent incarnation of the crew, consisting of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and Monie Love is the one I always hold dear, even though I came to love and appreciate later members and affiliates like Common, Mos Def and The Beatnuts.  But I feel like I was there at the beginning, as much as a white kid from Canada watching videos after school could be.  I’ve always had one of those obsessive minds that zero in on something and become consumed by it.  My something was the Native Tongues. I recorded every video and watched them endlessly. I recorded songs off the TV with a boombox and listened to the hissy recordings as I walked to school.

Of all the primary members of the collective, Tribe made the least sense to me.  Latifah and Monie were the feminist pioneers, Jungle Brothers the Afrocentric hip-house innovators, and De La the linguistic outlaw sample diggers with the benefit of a radio friendly single and memorable video [Kangol dunce cap still kills me].

Tribe were like this weird combination of all of them, like if you threw De La and Jungle into a blender, with the dashikis and nonsensical lyrics.  Maybe it was that first video, a story rap about leaving your wallet in El Segundo.

I remember being 11, watching the end of that video as their names got rattled off with a stinkface on, like, ‘What the hell is a Phife?!

I think it was just a case of Tribe just being too far out in front of where I was as a kid.  I dug the singles as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was a man and went back to actually listen to the albums as complete works that I began to realize the genius of the group.  I once compared Tribe to that episode of South Park where every evil plan Butters wants to attempt has already been done by the Simpsons.  Tribe is The Simpsons of hip-hop.  It seems like every dope sample you can take, they already got to, and that’s not even taking into account outside production work Q-Tip did.  Even the albums no one liked when they came out are only inferior in light of what came before.  If ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ or ‘The Love Movement’ had been debuts by unknown acts, they would be celebrated as classics.  Their only inferiorities lie in not being Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders.  Actor and Tribe doc director Michael Rappaport once likened Tribe to The Rolling Stones, and it’s a fitting comparison.  A few have come close to keeping pace with them, but no one has ever surpassed them, no one has ever, probably will ever, come close to outshining their collected body of work.

As we go through the week, I’ll try to steer clear of the singles, dig a little deeper into the rare grooves of the back catalogue, maybe turn you on to some joints you hadn’t heard before.  But for right now, a story.

Like I’ve said many times, I got most of my hip-hop delivered after school on video shows, mostly watched while sprawled on the couch in my parents’ den.  I remember the first time I saw this video, it just lulled me into the softest sleep.  I didn’t know it was some revolutionary track exploding the notions of what a hip-hop sample could be, birthing an entire sub-genre in the process, or that there were questions of ownership regarding who actually built the beat [Q-Tip, Large Professor or Pete Rock].I just know it chilled me the eff out and  carried me into peaceful slumber, the kind of power nap you fall into with no difficulty and when you wake from it 20 minutes later you feel utterly refreshed. That’s what that sleep was.

As a bonus, the original sample from saxophonist Lucky Thompson’s rendition of the jazz standard Green Dolphin Street. I love to to listen to the original samples my favourite hip-hop songs are built on, to think about what ran through the group’s head when they heard it. Did they know what they were going to flip?  Why would they even come across that record in the first place?  Craziness.


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