Since last month, when the trailer for Michael Rapaport‘s “Beats, Rhymes, & Fights” documentary on A Tribe Called Quest was leaked, I’ve been in anticipation for it. I’m still not sure what its fate or release date will be, but the word is that the premiere got quite a reaction last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Despite Q-Tip‘s inexplicable and sudden resistance to the whole project, I’m hopin’ it sees a release in some form. I spent almost the entire ’90s as a serious follower of ATCQ, all the way up until their breakup in ’98.
I first heard Quest on De La Soul‘s “Buddy” in ’89, but my earliest memory of knowing them by name was the summer of ’90 when the video for “Bonita Applebum” started rotating. Matter fact, I even wrote down the lyrics, passed them off as my own, and titled it “Carissa Applebum” for a girl I knew in 6th grade (HA!). My brother ended up buying their Peoples’ Instinctive Travels… album later that year, and it was a lil’ much for me to get into at the time, but I eventually got back around to it. As members of the Native Tongues crew (along with De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, etc.) Quest carved out a following for themselves that year.
A year or so later, as the different groups within Native Tongues were growing apart, ATCQ was just gettin’ started. As respected as they were at the time, The Low End Theory was the point where Quest became more than another part of that crew. They switched the beads and wild-ass lookin’ pants for hoodies and jerseys, and developed a sound that was more their own than the JBs/De La-ish flow of Peoples…. The beats (mostly done by Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad) hit harder, Phife Dawg stepped up his role as the second MC in the group, and the album cover even introduced a character that went on to be a defining part of their legacy. A lot of artists love to say shit like “yeah, this new album is more mature”, but with Low End, Quest made good on that without even saying it.
In hip-hop- especially in hip-hop- it’s rare that an artist outdoes the first album. The “sophomore jinx” has crushed even the best of ’em. But in ATCQ’s case, not only did they top the first one with the second one, but then, they topped the second one with the third. Midnight Marauders in ’93 was their best yet, led off by the single “Award Tour”. This was one of those albums where the first listen was enjoyable, but I liked it even more with every listen that followed. Songs like “Lyrics To Go” and “Electric Relaxation” never got old to me, no matter how many times I heard ’em. Much like it was alluded to on the album by the “Midnight Marauders Tour Guide”, I spent more than a few nights between late-’93 and mid-’94 with the headphones plugged in and MM played at top volume.
It’s also worth noting that in that time when some were complaining that “positive” hip-hop didn’t get respect, ATCQ was able to maintain their status as one of the best and most popular groups in hip-hop. They didn’t jump on the hardcore bandwagon when it became the way to go, and they didn’t try to hold on to their earlier glory while the rest of the game passed them by. Not for nothin’, if I had to think of another group that was as consistent in the first half of the ’90s, it’d be tough to name one that comes close to Quest’s. The second half of the ’90s, however…
Maybe it was bad timing, high expectations… whatever it was, ’96 wasn’t quite a championship year for the Tribe. I was ready for a new ATCQ album, and diggin’ the lead single “1nce Again”, but once it dropped, Beats, Rhymes, & Life didn’t do it for me. First, there was the nepotism of Q-Tip letting his not-yet-ready-for-prime-time cousin Consequence rhyme all over it. Then, there was JayDee aka J Dilla (and I know ey’body loves him now, but still) joining the production team and makin’ shit sound all murky and mundane. Those two elements, along with the random feel of most of these songs, made most of BRL a pretty boring listen. I thought maybe it was just my own opinion, but it ended up not getting very good reviews by other ATCQ fans or critics either.
By Tip and Phife’s own admissions, BRL and its backlash was a turning point for ATCQ and their future. Over the next two years, hip-hop changed a lot, and so did Quest’s relationship with their label, Jive. After going thru numerous issues with the label and with each other, they decided The Love Movement would be their last album. I’d like to say they ended things on a high note, but I’d be a damned lie. Outside of the single “Find A Way” and one or two others, this was Quest at their least listenable. As disillusioned as they were by then, it reflects in the album that came out of those frustrations. To this day, despite the group reuniting for performances, The Love Movement remains the last ATCQ project.
I caught ATCQ last summer at Rock The Bells and in my opinion, theirs was the best set of the whole show. Every track they performed threw me back to those years when I was checking for every album and single (because they were always good for a nice remix or b-side) with their name on it. Long after their breakup, their influence in hip-hop has been evident, as some of the most well-known producers of the last 10 years (including Kanye, Pharrell, and Just Blaze) have credited Quest as being inspirations for their own music. Tip, Phife, and Ali (and sometimes Jarobi) may not be on the same page when it comes to this documentary, but when they were seeing eye-to-eye with the music, the result was some of the best of the decade.