the enduring relevance of a tribe called quest’s understated street style

'So low key that ya probably missed it...' We explore why the seminal Queens rap group’s chill sartorial sensibility is still a touchpoint for New York youth today — as we remember one of its most formative members, Phife Dawg.

by Emily Manning and i-D Staff
24 March 2016, 10:35pm

Biggie's Coogi sweater, Run DMC's adidas, Cam'ron's pink mink, LL Cool J's Kangol buckets, Lil' Kim's lust for all things luxury (remember her Louis Vuitton logo full-body paint): New York's hip-hop heavyweights have often drawn connections between signature style and game-changing sound. For others, uniforms were defined, but not as narrow. The Bronx-bred Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five balanced leather daddy biker chic with rough-around-the edges glam rock; Long Island natives De La Soul embraced vibrant color and clashing graphics. But when it comes to A Tribe Called Quest -- the band of Queens-based rappers whose boundaryless beats and light-hearted lyrical optimism changed hip-hop forever -- no sneaker or hat, print or pattern immediately springs to mind. And that's exactly what makes the group's subtle style so relevant.

Yesterday, the world learned of Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor's passing. As we rewatch the crew's most memorable music videos, we're reminded not simply of the Five Foot Assassin's jubilant, whip-smart lyrical quips, but of Tribe's equally organic approach to fashion. In the midst of the machismo-fueled east-west rap battle, here was a buzzy band of youths spitting about healthy eating, safe sex, and everyday NYC excursions. (As Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg asked in a personal essay about Tribe, "Does any song in history more encapsulate a particular feel than 'After Hours' does late night in New York City?"). While Tribe's contemporaries on both coasts pursued fast-paced, aggressive production and posturing personal style staples, they sought an eclectic ease that's long outlived the beef.

Take the video for Tribe's 1990 single "Can I Kick It?". In it, Tribe's original four members rock light-washed Levis, baggy Champion sweatshirts, beat up Nikes or slip-on sneakers, simple canvas caps, and baseball jerseys. The "Scenario" video sees Phife himself sport a colorblocked rugby, denim coach's jacket, and heather grey hoodie. That's a uniform certainly familiar to today's Lower East Side skaters, whose penchant for boxy logoless looks seem symbiotic with Tribe's fluid sounds (the group's single "Award Tour" appears on Thrasher's legendary Skate and Destroy video game soundtrack, after all). The "Scenario" video's computer interface might be dated, but the diverse teens it depicts are in many ways indistinguishable from the kids who kicked it at Supreme's Lafayette Street outpost back in 94 and the skate hub's shop kids today.

That's not to say the Tribe were the progenitors of normcore; after all, they proudly repped the Zulu Nation -- the cross-cultural hip-hop movement spearheaded by the OG master of eccentricity, DJ Afrika Bambaataa. In the video for "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," another track off their debut album, the group rocks vibrant colors, Afrocentric prints and patterns, and layered accessories like shell necklaces and ankh pendants. It's this wilder side of Tribe's style that Stüssy celebrated in a collaborative capsule collection last year, and one that feels like a not so distant ancestor to the looks you see at Afropunk today.

Whether they were rocking hoodies or dashikis, Tribe's style was a lesson in the power of collective. The group became a central component of a larger movement, the Native Tounges posse -- a collective of positive-minded hip-hop innovators that brought together De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers, Busta Rhymes, and many more. That teen tribe flipped the script on armor-like style (think NWA's pristine Raiders Starter jackets) as a tool of staunch individualism, and celebrated an optimistic inclusivity. "Hip hop, it praises individualism," Q-Tip reportedly said, "I think that's the main achievement of the Native Tongues. It just showed people could come together." Today's New Yorkers certainly value individualistic style, but it's the confluence of all of us that makes the city so dynamic.

Though their beats bounced between blaring horns and deep basslines — between snare hits and soul grooves — at the end of the day, Tribe were some serially cool customers. Even when they were "Buggin Out," their style reflected a diverse effortlessness that's still shapes how New York's youth gets dressed today.


Text Emily Manning
Image via YouTube

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