As all my blog posts have started so far, Phife Dawg died recently. If you do not know who this is then you will know him and miss him just as much as we all did by the time you’re done. A Tribe called Quest isn’t A Tribe Called Quest without Phife. Because of them we have Chance, Logic and the ever tumultuous Kanye West. In paying reverence to one of the greatest and most revolutionary hip hop groups of all time, this post shall look at their amazing (and relatively not so amazing) albums with the hopes that you realize what the world lost this year.
I could tell you about their origins but we have wikipedia for that. If that’s too long for you then all you need to know is that Q-Tip and Phife Dawg both grew up in New York. Q-Tip originally teamed up with Ali Shaheed Muhammed, another pioneer of the group and all four made an ep with Jarobi White, the least present member of ATCQ.
Their first ep featured songs that eventually made it onto their debut album, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. As far as hip hop debut albums go, this was a masterpiece. If you can remember, the early 90’s was was saturated with gritty rap. Gritty like Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, N.W.A’s 100 Miles and Runnin’ and Public Enemies Fear of a Black Planet. Along with groups like the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, ATCQ brought alternative hip hop into the running. Hip hop was moving from gang shootings and vivid descriptions of sex to unfortunate road trips and girls that remind you of the peach emoji. Songs I’d suggest are ‘After hours’, ‘I left my wallet in El Segundo’ and my personal favorite, ‘Can I kick it?’
This is far from the groups best work, especially in regards to Phife’s rapping skills, but it certainly gave a glimpse of their vision.
Onto my favorite ATCQ album, The Low End Theory. I could write an entire thesis on this album, but I shall have to limit myself if i’ve kept your attention so far. If you check that side section on their wikipedia page, you will see that one of the genres ATCQ is known for is jazz rap. What comes to mind when you hear that? Kendrick maybe? Well, never did this genre come out more clearly than in The Low End Theory. The album is littered with jazz samples. Not the pretentious Kenny G cd that your dad has on repeat but jazz pioneers like Art Blakey and Jack DeJohntee. Names whose greatness means nothing until you listen to the album. ATCQ itself upped their game with this gem. A month prior to the release of the album, Phife was diagnosed with diabetes and thus, while Peoples Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm was largely Q-Tip’s showcase, Phife played a bigger role in the album. His verse on Buggin’ Out is one of my favorite verses in hip hop. Compare it to Can I kick it? It’s like Chrysler to Bentley. Beats to Bose. Bing to Google. Worlds apart.
The songs I’d suggest from The Low End Theory include ‘Excursions’, “Buggin’ Out”, ‘Verses from the Abstract’, ‘Butter’, ‘Vibes and Stuff’, ‘Check the Rhime’, ‘Jazz (we’ve got)’ and ‘Scenario’, featuring one of the most referenced verses from Busta Rhymes.
There’s a lot of conflict as to what ATCQ album is the best. To any sane person, it’s obviously the The Low End Theory. But a fair number of fans think its Midnight Marauders. This album came two years after The Low End Theory to critical acclaim. ‘Award Tour’ and the ever laid-back ‘Electric Relaxation’ are two of their biggest hits. Personally, and shamefully, I didn’t listen to this album until a few weeks ago. It was one of those things where you want to listen to an entire artists discography but you get to one exceptionally good album and stop there. I didn’t know that Logic took the idea for his Under Pressure guide (another exceptionally good album) from the Midnight Marauders. I didn’t even know that Chance the Rapper sampled the beat from Sucka Nigga for Acid Rap. I guess this brings out the lasting effect of good music. The songs I’d suggest are ‘Award Tour’, ‘Sucka Nigga’, ‘Midnight’, ‘Electric Relaxation’, ‘Oh my God’, ‘Lyrics to Go’.
Following their stellar album hat trick, cracks began to show. Their next cut, Beats, Rhymes and Life came three years after Midnight Marauders. In that time, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed honed their production skills by forming The Ummah, a production group featuring them and Jay Dee (later known as J Dilla , an extremely big deal in hip hop) while Phife worked closely with TLC. Oh, and Q-Tip and Ali converted to Islam. It understandable that at this point Phife began to feel left out. There’s an entire documentary on this troubled period. As for the music, it was noticeably darker. Note that I haven’t said worse. The problem is that ATCQ were playing a role their fans weren’t cool with. They had moved from the playfulness ‘I left my Wallet in El Segundo’ to the needless bravado of ‘Phony Rappers’, which to me sounds like a less masterful version of Outkasts ‘Two Dope Boys (In a Cadillac).’ Also, the album featured Q-Tip’s cousin, Consequence, quite prominently. Listening to the album you can tell how Phife struggles to flow with Consequence as easily as he had done with Q-Tip for so many years. There’s so much that could be said about this album. If you’re still interested, Questlove did a pretty comprehensive article on it way back when. Songs I’d suggest are ‘Get a Hold’,’1nce Again’,’The Hop’,’Keep it moving’,’Stressed Out.’
Some time prior to the release of their next record, ATCQ announced that it would be their last. The Love Movement closed the chapter on the greatest hip hop group of that decade. As is common in hip hop, this was brought about by label conflicts. The record, however, doesn’t place very highly among their better albums. It’s been criticized for being minimalist. Not in the way that The Low End Theory was but less … masterful. At this time, it was getting more and more expensive to sample songs. This could be a likely factor in the quality of The Love Movement. But then again, ATCQ were making bank for quite a while. This isn’t to say that its a bad record, it’s just not as good as their earlier work. In a sort of ‘I miss the old Kanye’ way. The songs I’d suggest would be ‘Find a Way’,’Steppin it up’ and ‘Give me’.
This was the last ATCQ cut for a while. The members went solo and met occasionally for reunion performances. Mostly to provide for the rising costs of Phife’s diabetes treatment. Q and Phife had many conflicts during this time. However, reconciliation came on the 25th anniversary of Peoples Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm. The group came together like never before. Q, Phife and even Jarobi bounced off each other like it was 1990. This camaraderie gave ATCQ the motivation to give their fans the send off that they always deserved. They decided to reunite for another album.
The band was back together. Ali Shaheed was working on the Luke Cage soundtrack while Phife was working on his own solo stuff. They dropped all of this and put everything into the music. As put by a (must-read) New York Times article on the album, Q-Tip believed that what Phife was working on wasn’t just the new cut, but repairing their fractured relationship. Everything was coming up ATCQ for the legendary group.
In the middle of their sessions, Q-Tip sent Phife a sample of a beat he wanted him to hear. Phife, eager to get his verse on this track, said he’d work on it. A few hours later, Phife’s manager called. He had passed on. The 2016 death rampage continued.
The entire group was distraught. Phife, the five-foot assassin, was gone. The member that got the band back together. The heart of the band. The right limb to Q-Tip’s left.
The adhesive holding the band together was gone. Instead though, we got one of the best albums of 2016. If anything, this united ATCQ even more. We got it from here … Thank you 4 your service is a masterful cut. It doesn’t try too hard to be modern or experimental. It sounds just like an ATCQ album should. We have the political aggressiveness of ‘We the People’, the playfulness of ‘Dis Generation‘ and the lyricism of ‘Kids’. We even have contributions from Andre 3000, the ever present Busta Rhymes, Kanye West, Elton John, Jack White, Anderson .Paak and Talib Kweli. A grouping as strange and as varied as The Breakfast Club. And it all works. Kendrick complements ‘Conrad Tokyo’ without drawing too much attention, Anderson .Paak’s soul fits into Phife’s grit in ‘Movin Backwards’ and Jack White’s riff’s mellow Q-Tips rhythm on ‘Ego’.
This is ATCQ’s last album. In a way, that isn’t a bad thing. As someone put it on reddit, it’s like the Breaking Bad Finale. It left you satisfied. You understood that this was the end and this had to be the end. It wasn’t too abrupt or suspenseful. We lost Phife and this means ATCQ had to go. We got one more record though, and as Q put it ‘the understudy for the star, the show must go on.’
Here’s YouTube playlist on the songs I’ve mentioned so far.
Image: The Source