Friday, February 22, 2008

Pantheon: A Tribe Called Quest

On the brink of puberty, I also had the fortune to skip a grade in my close knit parochial school. Nerds are never highly regarded. Amongst my older peers, it seemed as though intelligence was a disorder, some peculiarity that made me abnormal. They never pummeled me physically. It was a small school and there was some aura about me that I was untouchable. But the mental jabs were consistent. I was a fragile young pup. I wasn't battle tested.

So as I continued to raise my hand and follow the rules, the acrimony grew. But at home I found solace in the cable we had just put in, especially MTV, BET, and The BOX. This is where I probably developed my appreciation for really good R & B and the diversity of hip-hop. The early 90s were gold mines for both. I watched so much that I memorized the labels of the artists.

But it was one of those videos that eased my transition during that fateful year in the sixth grade. On a line to go to recess, someone started to repeat a rhyme and I quietly followed in kind. Well at least I thought it was quiet. But one of my more thuggish peers turned around and said "Yo, Carnegie knows the song". In that instant, I had some modicum of credibility. I was still clumsy and uncoordinated, but I wasn't as uncool at that point. Thank you A Tribe Called Quest for "Check The Rhime" and the lyrics you scrolled in the video. You made my life tolerable. That Christmas, I received a yellow sports Walkman and the odyssey began.

Five years later, I found myself in a music store and they had a CD which was #1. I picked it up using the logic that if it was #1 it had to be good. And the name was familiar. By the end of that trip, my copy of "Beats, Rhymes & Life" had some significant scratches. I quickly did my research and slowly got each of their earlier albums. By the time I went away to school two years later, each of those CDs had been replaced at least once.

And what was it about Quest? The music is probably the biggest draw. Extensively combing the crates of their parents, they created a sound based largely on jazz as opposed to the James brown and funk samples that populated much of hip-hop at the time. They even brought in bassist Ron Carter on one of their records. Their lyrics also spoke of a conscientiousness that was more prevalent at the time. Along with Public Enemy and their counterparts in the Native Tongues collective, they advanced a discourse about social issues that weren't exactly embedded in poverty and violence solely.

But the intangible that made them special was the chemistry. Starting with their debut album, they exuded playfulness while being students of their craft. With tracks like "Bonita Applebum" & "Can I Kick It?", they displayed something markedly different than anything that was around. And with later songs like "The Infamous Date Rape" and "Sucka Nigga", they showed that they could take on controversial topics with maturity yet in a conversational tone. Though their last two albums are good, that playfulness started to disappear and so they pulled the plug in 1998 after "The Love Movement."

The legacy they leave though is pretty impressive. For one, it opened an avenue for socially minded hip hop to have a consistent voice. The music they produced is just as important. They made it okay to look towards unconventional sources for samples, and also reawakened the long dormant element of live instrumentation. Tribe, though, embodied a vibe that is consistent with the best who ever did it, a sense of ease amidst intense dedication.

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