Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 25, which explores the history of A Tribe Called Quest and rap posse cuts with help from our favorite collaborator, Shea Serrano.
“Scenario” is the last song on A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. All-time album closer. All-time posse cut.
I sound ridiculous saying the words posse cut. Don’t I? Ridiculous. The perils of the audio format. What are ya gonna do?
So the classic rap-video formulation, where there’s the rapper, rapping, in the center of the frame, and then a huge, raucous crowd enveloping the rapper, spilling out of the edges of the frame, nodding along, ad-libbing, waving their hands around, shoving one another, handling any call-and-response action, waiting for his or her own turn to rap, whatever—in these situations I tend to blur out the rapper and scan the faces of this entourage. Whether it’s their collective joy or their collective menace, I want a sense of the whole. I want to drink in their camaraderie. That collective energy is a tangible, infectious thing.
Furthermore, for the best groups—not necessarily the best rappers, the best groups—that collective energy is audible. You can see, clearly, right in front of you, the Classic Rap-Video Dogpile even when you’re not watching the video, even when it’s just the song itself blasting out of a boom box. That dogpile is audible whether it consists of 50 people or three people. Run-DMC had this collective aura immediately. Same with the Wu-Tang Clan. Same with Salt-N-Pepa, while we’re hanging around Queens. A Tribe Called Quest had this collective aura. Perfected this aura. You instantly know who these guys were, and what they were about, and what they meant to one another. How crazy they drove each other, yes. But how much they needed each other, and how badly you needed to hear them together.
You knew all that really from the title of Tribe’s first album, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. OK, so these dudes are a little mystical, a little flamboyant. The dashikis, the kente cloth, the Zulu beads, the early style Black Thought from the Roots summarized as “questionable-type shit”: also audible. Black Thought also said the Roots wouldn’t have been the Roots without Tribe. And you can hear that, clearly, too, even if all you ever hear is “Push It Along.” Track no. 1 on album no. 1. To this day it hits like the first day of spring. It hits like taking off your socks after wearing them for 72 hours straight. It hits like that singular moment when you finally truly get Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. On first contact, if this all hit right, instantly, you loved these guys, in part because it was so clear how much they loved each other.
This is what I want from a Tribe Called Quest song, any album, any era: this sense of friends rapping or chanting or just goofing around together. People’s Instinctive Travels is an especially Q-Tip-heavy album; Tribe overall is a Q-Tip-heavy group. He’s the leader. The nasal, brash, seductively scholarly leader. He’s the focal point. More the leader than the focal point. My favorite thing about Q-Tip’s voice is how it magnifies, and is magnified by, other voices. Best song on People’s Instinctive Travels is “Bonita Applebum.” This is canon. “Bonita Applebum” is a love song. It’s about butts. It’s a love song about butts. One butt in particular, I suppose. My guest in this week’s episode is Shea Serrano. Shea once wrote a bestselling book about rap music in which he called “Bonita Applebum” “the best rap love song that’s ever been.”
There’s an argument that Tribe get better the sillier they get, because the sillier they get, the more vivid their chemistry gets. I don’t think “Ham and Eggs” is anybody’s favorite Tribe song—stupendous Funkadelic sample, though—but “Ham and Eggs” is nonetheless a virtuoso performance in the art of enjoying one another’s company.
And this, above all, is what you really want: You want Q-Tip’s voice, and then Phife’s voice. You want Q-Tip asking a question and Phife answering, and then Phife asking a question and then Q-Tip answering. Q-Tip and Phife first met when they were both around 2 years old. Saw each other at Little League. Saw each other at church. Phife first suggested that Q-Tip should try rhyming, when they were both around 9 years old. You cannot manufacture a bond this pure, a platonic intimacy this absolute. People’s Instinctive Travels, of course, also has the song “Can I Kick It?” on it. “Can I Kick It?” has the Lou Reed sample, the dueling bass lines. It has some iconic individual rapping. Rapping so specific to the guy rapping. Q-Tip rapping, “Wipe your feet really good on the rhythm rug.” Phife Dawg rapping, “Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?” But on the other hand no one disputes that this, actually, is the best part of the song.
We want to hear Q-tip’s voice, and then we want to hear Phife’s voice. That’s what we want. That’s all we need.
You might be aware of this: Phife Dogg was a sports fanatic. A partial list of sports team logos I have personally seen on hats worn by Phife Dawg: Knicks. Yankees. Indians. Orioles. Phillies. Louisville Cardinals. Dodgers. Expos. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Tigers. Pirates. Penguins. North Carolina Tar Heels. Warriors. Jets. Patriots. Ravens. Stanford Cardinals. Reds. Brewers. Marlins. Celtics. I got tired of scrolling. You get the point. Styles upon styles upon styles is what he has. The 5-foot assassin with the roughneck business. He’s got more game than Parker Brothers. How else did he put it once? “The height of Muggsy Bogues / Complexion of a hockey puck.” So in his honor, how do we summarize the Q-Tip-Phife dynamic? To whom do we compare it? What is the sports equivalent? Your knee-jerk reaction might be Jordan-Pippen, but that is overstating the disparity between them. Try Karl Malone–John Stockton. The height disparity. The two-man assist machine. The pick-and-roll. The Jazz. (Hanif Abdurraqib, the poet and author and friend of this show, wrote a great book about Tribe, and likens them to Patrick Ewing and John Stockton. You can trust him.) Also, and this is interesting, sometimes Q-Tip and Phife don’t get along at all, or don’t mesh at all, and this straining of that bond only strengthens our fascination with that bond.
It’s sweeter when you gotta work at it. The disharmony only makes those moments of perfect harmony sweeter. The Low End Theory, released in 1991, is an album-length moment of perfect harmony. Between jazz and hip-hop, between soft and hard, between ferociously smart and blissfully stupid, between defiantly underground and spectacularly commercial, between conscious and unconscious, between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. “Check the Rhime,” on its own, is as perfect as perfect harmony gets.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.