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A Tribe Called’s Bests

From best sitar to best album to best album that never was, the staff (and Michael Rapaport) chimes in on everything great about ATCQ

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On the occasion of A Tribe Called Quest returning from an 18-year hiatus to release their sixth studio album — We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, out on Friday — Ringer staffers have put together a list of our favorite songs, videos, and memories from the group’s storied career. Michael Rapaport, director of the essential Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest documentary, joined us in reminiscing.

Of course, our collection of superlatives is limited in the way that any “best of” list on artists of this magnitude will inevitably fall short; pretty much every Tribe song — each verse, even — merits its own individual tribute. That said, our aim is to celebrate the work of a group whose profound influence has never waned. R.I.P. Phife.

Best Use of a Sitar: “Bonita Applebum” (1990)

Sam Schube: Q-Tip opens “Bonita Applebum” with a question for the object of his affections. “Do I love you?” he asks. “Do I lust for you? Am I a sinner because I do the two?” It’s a great question. A smart question. It’s sensitive, probing, a little too clever — exactly the kind of question that made the debut album on which it appears, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, such a reflexive, self-aware breath of fresh air. But while Tip spends the next three-and-change minutes trying to provide an answer, a sitar butts in — and answers for him. Four notes, one hellaciously bent: It tells you everything you need to know. Because — goddamn — that is one lusty sitar line. It’s mean. It’s salty. It’s funky. It’s Bonita making fun of you, and then cracking a smile as she turns away to walk down the hall. Are you a sinner, Tip? Probably not. But that sitar — that sitar definitely is.

Best Low-Key NYC Hood Song: “Footprints” (1990)

Michael Rapaport: “Footprints” is a classic New York song. The sample, the break … like that’s a song that in New York, specifically, that stick-up kids liked and sort of brought a street cred to Tribe that the other songs didn’t. Because when “Footprints” goes into the break, that used to be like a signal to start tearing shit up. I remember having a conversation with the late, great Sean Price, and he told me that was his favorite Tribe song and he mentioned it in terms of that time with all the hoodlums in New York. “Footprints” is a low-key hood song.

Best Precursor to ‘Atlanta’: “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” (1990)

Donnie Kwak: The first time I ever saw A Tribe Called Quest in the flesh was in their very first music video — the experience back then was what I imagine a lot of people felt when they first saw Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Like: Here are some wildly original, talented characters I’ve never seen on TV before that I can sense, almost immediately, that I will want to spend a lot of time with. And so it was.

Best Phife Verse: “Buggin’ Out” (1991)

Sean Fennessey: “Yo.” It’s the first word we hear from Phife Dawg on The Low End Theory. It’s a great “Yo.” In many ways, the definitive “Yo.” Not a yell or a threat or a come hither. Just a simple two-letter note: “Pay attention, captivation imminent.” It’s right on the beat, hard on that snare from Lonnie Smith’s cover of “Spinning Wheel.” It’s just a “Yo,” but it’s the only “Yo.” From there, Phife unfurls a verse that is unflashy but familiar, the modest stunting of your most confident pal. “I float like gravity, never had a cavity.” Could you imagine such a simple boast today, so groundbound and small?

We remember “the 5-foot assassin with the roughneck business.” It’s the first Phife lyric that struck me when news of his death found me in March. Has there ever been a clearer self-identification in rap history? But think of the little markers of Phife’s real life, the details that comprised him: “I sport New Balance”; “Drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper”: “Mess around with this you catch a size eight up your (ass).” “Buggin’ Out” is Phife in miniature, 45 seconds of perfection.

Best Beat: “Check the Rhime” (1991)

Justin Charity: Q-Tip hasn’t just make a ton of fantastic beats; he patented a sound that bent jazz to hip-hop’s will. “Check the Rhime” is a perpetually fresh slice of that sound, and it’s one of life’s simpler joys: an iconic groove, with bass and drums that snap like fresh rubber bands. It blows my mind how sparse this beat is, a simplicity underscored every time the bass line cuts out to reveal a lone cross stick marking time. “Check the Rhime,” “Scenario,” and “Buggin’ Out” are all defined by their rich bass patterns, but “Check the Rhime” is the sharpest, clearest bounce — I mean totally spotless, spiffy like Mr. Clean, from that sax circus at the break through the very last pluck. Why does this song even end?

Best Music Video: “Check the Rhime” (1991)

Michael Rapaport: Right now it’d sort of be a simple video, but then, with them on the rooftop of the cleaners, Phife with the Seton Hall jersey and Kadeem Hardison and Large Professor on the roof — that’s their best video. With a song that’s as good as any hip-hop song or pop song in the last 50 years. Fucking perfect. Perfect song, perfect video. Literally fucking perfection.

Best Live Performance: “Can I Kick It?” on MTV (1991)

Chris Ryan: This was the year of Color Me Badd, C+C Music Factory, and Marky Mark. This is the kind of performance that can change your life. In 1991, MTV broadcast Yo! MTV Rap Unplugged, a kind of crossover between its acoustic live performance program and its delightful rap-and-chat show. Tribe triggered their samples to sound like a pickup band in some smoky club. This is what that band would look like. The improvisatory flourishes are what get me: the little guitar stabs, the jazzy drumming, the piano figures. But Tip, Phife, and Ali are the real improvisers on this stage. Watch how they take their signature song, arrive at the “Tribe flies high like a dove,” and let the lyric take off into staccato cadences and slapdash harmony. The band follows their lead. So did everyone else.

Best Remix: “Scenario” Remix (1992)

Michael Rapaport: Tribe is one of the only groups that made a remix of a classic that might be better than the classic. The “Scenario” remix might be better than “Scenario.” Some groups have taken songs that were good and the remix was better, but here, the remix was better than the already classic original.

Best Album: ‘Midnight Marauders’ (1993)

Rob Harvilla: Prefer The Low End Theory? You’re fine. Prefer one of the other three? Oooh, congrats on being an iconoclast. For the rest of us — the righteous, the wise, the eternally awed — there is Midnight Marauders, streetwise and celestial, high-minded but sweetly lowbrow. It’s the best one. Don’t overthink it.

It’s the sunny, triumphant road-trip classic “Award Tour” and the sumptuous, bleary-eyed “Midnight.” It’s the nimble bass line anchoring the gritty “Sucka Nigga,” with the fiery Q-Tip verse so vivid you don’t mind that he immediately repeats it. It’s Phife Dawg’s winsomely grouchy litany of complaints on “8 Million Stories” (“And to top it off, Starks got ejected”), and the uncouth relief he finds on the gorgeously prurient “Electric Relaxation.” (“Bust off on your couch / Now you got Seaman’s furniture.”) It’s the playful Phife-and-Tip interplay on “The Chase, Part II” (“Damn, Phife, ya got fat!”) or the deftly thunderous “Oh My God,” which one Ringer staffer remembers vividly, the first time he heard that beat drop. He was in an unglamorous Toyota hatchback. Any vessel is heavenly, if you know what to fill it with. Don’t underthink it.

Best Song to Wake Up To: “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” (1993)

Rodger Sherman: I like to wake up to songs I actually like. Every iPhone sound is the most annoying set of noises possible, which is good for actually causing your brain to become awake, but provides a crappy start to consciousness.

No song I’ve chosen has ever been more effective than “Steve Biko (Stir It Up).” Every day, that obnoxiously loud trumpet sample — DA DA-NA-NAAAAAAAAA — would blare in my ear, encouraging me to start my day with a furious dopeness.

There’s no inessential moment on Midnight Marauders. “Steve Biko” is the perfect intro: a warning that for the next 51 minutes, your life was about to be stirred up.

Best Sample: Freddie Hubbard, “Red Clay” (“Sucka Nigga,” 1993)

Chris Almeida: “Red Clay” is the framework for a perfect song.

The title track from Hubbard’s 1970 album is hard bop, stopping immediately before the point of diminishing returns. If one were to make a completely ahistorical guess about what created the hard bop subgenre, it would be reasonable to believe that a group of musicians decided that bebop was too accessible. Hard bop often gets a bit … busy, especially for those without a particular interest in jazz. “Red Clay,” though, is built for accessibility. It is perfect parts escalation and anticipation; a “groove” if there ever was one. Give the changes to a rhythm section, and they can accommodate any number of tempos, rhythmic feels, or solo instruments, from Hubbard’s trumpet to Q-Tip’s vocals. “Sucka Nigga” chops up Jack Wilkins’s recording of the song, speeds it up, and pulls the ride cymbal in favor of a stronger kick drum and hi-hat. Even without Ron Carter on the bass, Tribe’s “Red Clay” treatment is, of course, perfect. Not that the song needed any help.

Best Q-Tip Verse: “Sucka Nigga” (1993)

Michael Rapaport: I think this song should be in the Smithsonian. Not just for what he’s saying — because obviously what he’s saying is so socially conscious — but the rhyme pattern, the flow, the beat. To me the song is perfection, amongst a bunch of other times that they really had all guns going. It’s perfection on so many levels because from an MC’s perspective, it’s great, and as a socially conscious song, it’s timeless. Then, as a constructed rhyme, it’s great. It’s a stroke of pure brilliance.

Best Misinterpretation of the “Electric Relaxation” (1993) Hook: “Relax yourself, girl, peace out Premier”

Donnie Kwak: Careful enunciation and precise diction were once qualities to admire in an MC; in those days, when a lyric was misheard, fans would argue incessantly over their own interpretations rather than simply chalk it up to a rapper’s mumble-mouth style (or, duh, look it up on Genius).

The hook for “Electric Relaxation” may be the most debated lyric of its era. We could all agree, at least, that there were nine syllables within it. It was the last four that proved troublesome, and somehow “peace out, Premier” was how they were most popularly misheard. Anyone who grew up with the song should long have learned the correct words; I’ll let uninitiated millennials have a listen now and figure it out for themselves.

Best Post–‘Midnight Marauders’ Song: “Find a Way” (1998)

Justin Sayles: A Tribe Called Quest fans have a conflicted, if not downright adversarial, relationship with the group’s post–Midnight Marauders output. While 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life received glowing reviews upon its release, diehards saw the album in a different light: a claustrophobic, paranoid work that bore little resemblance to the three classics that preceded it, partially due to the inclusion of the rapper Consequence and a pre–Fantastic, Vol. 2 J Dilla. That album’s follow-up, 1998’s The Love Movement, shed the negative overtones of its predecessor, but doubled down on Dilla’s production influence, resulting in a distant, minor affair. Eighteen years later, TLM plays like the work of a bored group already looking to future endeavors, but it does contain the last great, joyous ATCQ song: the album’s first single, “Find a Way.”

Built on a sampled Bebel Gilberto lyric and a thumping bass line, the euphoric “Find a Way” stands out on an album featuring awkward pirate appropriations and peak “What What”–era N.O.R.E. cameos. The song recaptures ATCQ’s playful spirit by following Q-Tip and Phife as they interpret mixed signals from love interests. “Should I just sit out or come harder?” they ask on the chorus, before ratcheting up the thirst and literally panting like a dog during the verses. It’s cut from the same cloth as the group’s previous love anthems, including “Bonita Applebum,” which my Ringer colleague Shea Serrano called the first rap love song to “step away from the loverman style” in his excellent The Rap Year Book. “Find a Way” likely isn’t the best-crafted post–Midnight Marauders song the group recorded — that honor probably belongs to the aspirational “Peace, Prosperity & Paper” from the High School High soundtrack — but it’s how we should remember Tribe: as rap everydudes who, after all the award tours and gold plaques, could still respectfully spit game and do so in a relatable, enjoyable way.

Best “Oh Shit” Moment While Making the ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest Documentary, Part I

Michael Rapaport: It was the first interview I did with Phife. It’s in what I call the Blue Room — he would call it his Carolina Room because it was Carolina blue. Phife literally was the biggest sports fan I ever met. There was no interview where he didn’t start listing off his favorite point guards or his favorite running backs or his favorite teams. It always somehow got to that. The first interview I did in the Blue Room where he was so open and honest and vulnerable about what was going on with his health makes me even have emotion right now. When he was doing it, it sort of knocked us … it stopped us in our tracks. Because I didn’t know Phife that well at the time and him being so honest and open and sharing what was going on as soon as we started was something I’ll never forget. It changed the course of what I thought the movie was going to be, because when we started making the movie I thought it was just going to be an overview of them as musicians and then I realized there was this whole other dynamic and element that was going on with him personally.

Best Post–ATCQ Video: Q-Tip, “Vivrant Thing” (2008)

Shea Serrano: I don’t mean the Hype Williams official video for “Vivrant Thing.” To be sure, that one was a tremendous amount of fun and also part of an especially impressive and influential run for Williams, yes. It was beautiful and perfect and Hype’s ability to bend light and angles into circles was a wonderful pairing to the way Q-Tip’s words feel less like sentences and more like clouds or nebulas, yes. But still. I’m not talking about that one. I’m talking about the one that bubbled up onto the internet earlier this year from a show at a House of Blues in Las Vegas in 2008.

Q-Tip was performing “Vivrant Thing” and things were normal and even kind of boring, then all of a sudden things were super-not-normal and also super-not-boring. Here’s the video:

For the first 53 seconds, it’s mostly whatever. It’s a concert at House of Blues, it is what it is. But then at 54 seconds DJ Scratch shouts, “Ohhhhh!” and points to the side of the stage and then the camera moves over … and … IT’S … FUCKING … PRINCE. He just walked out on stage, took the guitar from the guitar player, then started playing. Three things about the video are neat, and one thing from the video is substantial.

The three fun things: (1) that Q-Tip somehow never flinched or hiccuped or stopped rapping for even a second as Prince arrived, and that’s incredible because, per Scratch, nobody even knew that Prince was there, let alone that he was going to go on stage; (2) there’s a tiny moment when, once Prince gets the guitar, he drops down a little into his playing stance and it’s like a beam of light shoots out of him up to the sun; (3) that when Prince decided he was done, which came during the middle of the song, he just fucking took the guitar off and left. He didn’t say a word to anyone. Scratch, who told Miss Info about the surprise cameo, had a great line about it: “None of us knew he was there until he popped up on the stage … then the n — -a vanished like Batman, LOL!”

And the one substantial thing: I can’t think of a single thing more telling of the respect and admiration that A Tribe Called Quest garnered than Prince deciding to get on stage for a minute during a House of Blues concert in Las Vegas to play guitar during a song by one of its members.

Best Lost Project: The Collab Album With OutKast

Victor Luckerson: Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s an alternate reality in which OutKast and A Tribe Called Quest actually completed their planned collaborative album, and I would abandon all of you right now to live there. The project, which the groups had kicked around over the past couple of years, was revealed by André 3000 at a remembrance for Phife Dawg in April, eliciting moans of “ughhhhnooowhyyyy” from rap fans everywhere. It’s almost too perfect a match: The everyday tales of urban life that André and Big Boi spun in their early work owe a clear debt to Phife and Q-Tip, and the sonic experimentation on an LP like Midnight Marauders feels like a blueprint for the genre-bending that would ultimately turn ’Kast into legends.

What would it have sounded like to hear hip-hop’s greatest descendants of jazz and funk going back and forth over an entire album? Would the LP be narrated by Peaches from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik or the robot from Midnight Marauders (or a robotic Peaches)? Would the CD art have illustrations of not one, but two naked women? Would Big Boi and Phife have made a new anthem for Atlanta sports? Would 3000 and Tip have sung a duet?!

Sometimes, it really sucks living in the Darkest Timeline.

Best “Oh Shit” Moment While Making the ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest’ Documentary, Part II

Michael Rapaport: The first time I interviewed Q-Tip in his house when he, spur of the moment, reconstructed the “Can I Kick It?” beat in front of us. Gave me fucking goose bumps. I remember saying to the cameraman like, “Yo, can you fucking believe this?” Like I mouthed that: “Can you fucking believe this?”

In that scene, the way Tip physically handles the record, he treats it like his baby. Like, he loves records. He loves everything about them: the artwork, the liner notes, the whole fucking thing. You hear it in Tribe’s music. You hear it in the samples. You hear it in the craftsmanship. It’s one of the reasons I feel like they didn’t make so much music is because I think it was precious to them as a group and particularly Q-Tip. The music was precious to him.