in search of the low end theory: a personal history of a tribe called quest
How can I possibly write a succinct article about what A Tribe Called Quest means to me? They mean everything. My entire career path was dictated by the love I have for this group. I went from being an obsessive teenage fan who waited for hours to see them from the front row to a colleague of sorts who has introduced them in front of 20,000 people. Music is the passion of my life — and I love no one in music more than A Tribe Called Quest.
A Tribe Called Quest is responsible for more people falling in LOVE with hip hop than any other act in the history of the genre. Other artists sold more records and some reached more people, but no other artist turned people into hip hop heads more than Tribe. I know it first hand. I went from clearly curious and interested in hip hop to full blown obsessed after one listen to The Low End Theory.
I then went back and listened to People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (I had really only known the singles previously). The love got deeper. The music, the words, the general feel (does any song in history more encapsulate a particular feel than After Hours does late night in New York City?) were so exciting. It all just felt like home. I somehow identified with these three (sometimes four) kids from Queens.
In a way, the personalities of Tribe can be applied to any regular group of teenage friends. Q-Tip was the cool friend. He was still likeable and smart, but he had game with girls since elementary school. Phife was the sports obsessed homey, who still loved girls and partying, but was all about his sports and hanging with the crew. Ali was the most studious of the three, but still cool. He played the background, but when he talked, everyone listened. And Jarobi brought the passion and energy. I knew these guys. They were my friends.
Tribe also had the uncanny ability to feature other artists who I was also starting to discover. Diamond D., Brand Nubian, Pete Rock, Busta Rhymes, and Redman were all guys I loved on my own — and so did Tribe. They knew where I was going as a hip hop fan and they helped shape my interests in the culture. They taught me about the Zulu Nation and made me love De La and the Jungle Brothers more than I already did (Black Sheep and Leaders too).
Bonita Applebum and Can I Kick It? were legitimate hip hop hits. Check the Rhime was big too. If forced to choose THE ONE that changed everything, though, it has to be Scenario. Scenario has been a club winner for over 20 years at this point, but at the time it was just this incredibly fun posse cut with multiple parts that you could sing along to. Scenario is not only Tribe's defining song, it is arguably Busta Rhymes's defining song as well. It took Tribe to new heights and was the perfect appetizer for what was to come next.
Midnight Marauders, their third LP, dropped in November of 1993 — the best month in hip hop history (the same month that brought us Wu Tang and Snoop Dogg's debuts). This album sealed the deal. It solidified Tribe as more than kids who were making some good music. They became one of the best groups in music — period. The underground loved them, they played at the party, spring summer 2015 and they received critical acclaim.
If you were 14 in 1993 and attending a multi-ethnic school like I was, Tribe was life. My first kiss was soundtracked by Electric Relaxation. My first real concert was seeing Tribe at Richie Coliseum on campus at the University of Maryland. They started the show with Steve Biko (the first song on the album) and closed with God Lives Through (the last). They did everything right for the young music fan who was falling in love with music for the first time.
While touring for Midnight Marauders, a young producer named Jay-Dee came into the picture and changed Tribe's aesthetic forever. A rapper named Consequence also appeared out of the blue and rapped alongside Tip and Phife for most of their fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life. During the same period, Phife was living in Atlanta. Things got different.
I still loved their music. In my opinion, their last two albums are both excellent — particularly Beats, Rhymes and Life. And their fifth and final album, brought one of their best singles ever, Find a Way. The glory days were gone, though. They had problems internally and as a fan, I could feel it. They never quite got back to that 1993 zone.
In the years since that last album they have pulled it together for some wonderful moments. They headlined the Rock the Bells Tour (where I was able to be around them and introduce them) and were tremendous on stage even if they struggled behind the scenes. New York-born actor Michael Rappaport made a great documentary about them named for the aforementioned Beats, Rhymes and Life album. Two years ago they opened two shows in New York for Kanye West and declared the shows their last as a group.
The Tribe story is not over. For starters, they will perform together again one day. Beyond that, though, A Tribe Called Quest cannot cease to exist in the same way Led Zeppelin cannot cease to exist. As long as there are young people discovering music for the first time, A Tribe Called Quest will continue to be a critical part of American music. And as long as there are millions of fans like me, there will forever be people around to remind you of their greatness just in case you forget.
Text Peter Rosenberg
Text and photography courtesy Stussy Biannual