In a 2010 interview with the “Juan Esptein” podcast, Jay-Z was asked somewhere around the halfway point by host Peter Rosenberg whether he’d listened to De La Soul during his formative years in Brooklyn. “Not so much” replied the Forbes-topping megastar, then basking in the success of “Empire State of Mind,” while there to promote a book about his legacy, who on his debut album, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt repurposed the hook to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” When asked why by co-host Cipha Sounds, the pride of Marcy projects (who just seconds earlier confirmed his love for Tribe along with Boogie Down Productions) said, seemingly shrugging, “I didn’t really relate,” before trailing off.
It’s a moment remarkable not so much for its casual dismissal of a great hip-hop group (Questlove recalled, “The same way a white kid would look at Eminem and say, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ I saw De La Soul and was like, ‘Yeah, that’s me’”) as it is for its bulletproof validation of another equally great group — as remarkable in its cool bohemian orthodoxy as its Native Tongues comrades are in their nerdy insider’s eclecticism — whose appeal and bona fides are unusually palpable in their reach and mellifluous disruption of boundaries, both social and generational.
In his own book about a legacy, the engrossing Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib reflects on the congenial allure of the legendary group in vivid prose and with formidable insight informed by a lifetime of close listening.
The book, part biography, part memoir begins with a condensed, albeit concise history of the Black musical tradition, which is really the American musical tradition (“Ralph Ellison said, “If there is such a thing as a Yale accent, there is a Negro wail in it”), before going into some of Abdurraqib’s personal history as it relates, eventually to A Tribe Called Quest and their esteemed place in it. “It started as a joke,” the author of two other books (2016’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, and the 2017 essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us), who teaches in the MFA program at Butler University says, “to mimic European dance music during Black cakewalk dances. But even the mimicry sounded sweet, and stole a small and precious thing after having a large and precious history stolen from them.”
Already he’s setting the tone, making the irrefutable case for African ingenuity, the most modern iteration of which is, of course made manifest through hip-hop — making something out of nothing (“Power from a streetlight made the place dark” according to Boogie Down Productions, instructive as always). He goes on to tell us about his childhood in Ohio, which was steeped in jazz, and his attempts to strengthen the bond between he and his father, a musician who has him enrolled in trumpet lessons, which he becomes increasingly disillusioned with (the lessons are too tedious; he wants more time to play outside) up until his early enchantment with the pathbreaking trio (by all accounts Jarobi, the group’s heart and soul, is the “sometimes Y” factor and official fourth member). He particularly falls for their classic second album The Low End Theory. Like many back then, Abdurraqib’s parents had a problematic relationship to rap at best. But, tellingly, they were both unanimous in their acceptance of the jazz-inspired music of A Tribe Called Quest.
But in Abdurraqib’s account there was not always unanimous support for a group that, while early hip-hop royalty (thanks to its affiliation with Kool DJ Red Alert and the Universal Zulu Nation) was, nonetheless, part of a movement many associated with an overzealous Afrocentrism and snobbish music for people who watch PBS all day. These skepticisms he observed may have something to do with his upbringing in the Midwest where folks had no real reference points for Zulus outside of “Roots” reruns. They weren’t plugged into the inner-circles of New York City, and by then had other options in more user-friendly regions — a point he later stresses when contrasting the high-minded poise of the Native Tongues posse to the angst-ridden everyman appeal of N.W.A.
But it’s his recollection of the brilliant video for Tribe’s 1991 single, “Jazz (We’ve Got),” which is most revealing in this regard. “It’s an easy relic of a time past when watched now, and it was easy to dismiss in the moment” he writes. And when talking about it the following day he remembers older kids would “dismissively wave their heads and say things like, ‘I’m not listening to this shit! This the kinda shit old people like!’” Just the same it was older kids (admittedly in gate-keeping positions in New York City and, specifically, at The Source magazine) who were spot-on in awarding the group a perfect score (five mics) for its debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
Those gatekeepers recognized something new and fresh and revolutionary in Q-Tip’s perfectly balanced, though no less outre production methods (Dante “The Scrub” Ross, who signed De La Soul, has said that nobody other than maybe Pete Rock is better at blending sounds together than Q-Tip) and the group’s easy bookish cool, which distinguished it from even its larger-than-life friends in the Native Tongues crew. Abdurraqib himself seems to imply this when (beautifully) describing their amiable frequencies:
“Excursions” is the first rap song I knew that could sound good in almost any situation: in headphones, in the background on any night with a thick and heavy moon hanging above your head, in a car with the windows rolled down on a hot day.
His point, however, that the musical tastes of some kids in Ohio were not especially in alignment with those of writers at The Source, who had their own agendas and biases they often imposed on an art form no one really had any experience writing about up until then is well taken. (The specter of class is never far from these pages either, as the author discloses more than once that his family wasn’t among the poorest in his neighborhood.)
The discerning tastes of a close listener, the kind who feels the need to put into impassioned words his sui generis preferences for an album like The Low End Theory, easy and cool as it is, were the stuff of barbershop discussions before people argued all day about Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas. And Abdurraqib reminds us that even back in ’91, when limited access to the culture seemingly made aficionados of us all, not everybody in the barbershop was in the barbershop like that.
The necessity of having a crew, something that makes you make sense to the larger world, relative to your peers (whether you were a cool bookish group in contrast to your zany brothers with the funny haircuts, or a Black boy growing up in the ’90s trying to hold his own like that in the barbershop) is something Abdurraqib emphasizes in the chapter “Push It Along,” where he remembers drawing inspiration from the figure of Phife, who he deems “the guy you wanted in your crew.” Being likewise small and of dark skin, he too learned to weaponize his wit as a means of adapting to the subtle gradations of Black cool (and uncool) as they evolved throughout the years:
By all accounts, me and my boys were nerds, but we were acceptable nerds. We were kind of ahead of our time in this way. . . . But there is an age where that became cool, and an age where it still appears to be cool now — one where black people age into some kind of alternativeness that allows for a celebration of simply doing nothing but appearing smart or interesting or witty. If nothing else, my boys and I were tuned into popular culture in a way that many of our more popular peers simply weren’t at the time. Some of them were going out at night with other cool kids from other schools, and some of them were on sports teams, or some were simply reveling in the type of teenage debauchery that makes memories for adulthood. My crew and crews like mine were at home, watching sitcoms and cartoons, or dubbing tapes from the radio.
This, which obviously ties into the dynamic at play within Tribe (thus, the reason I quote it at length) speaks to the different ways the group (and by extension the Native Tongues, with their penchant for off-the-wall samples) tuned into popular culture. But it also speaks to the lane they carved out (Phife has gone on record about how Midnight Marauders in particular provided the blueprint for neo-soul and all that that movement entails) for younger Black kids like Donald Glover or Issa Rae or, hell, even Kendrick Lamar (see also: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City), who (because they were “different”) had different relationships to media than did other (more conventionally cool) kids their age who were out living their lives at the time.
Maybe these people, for all that are stuck in a moment somewhere wearing bootcut jeans, or trying to relive their prom years today as if “Gangsta’s Paradise” is at the top of the charts or something. (Remember those memes from a couple years back with Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Rihanna photoshopped to look aged and cheaply attired like they were in a Glamour Shots booth somewhere in the mid-1990s? It’s funny, naturally, because it seems so preposterous: the people, the artists we look to for what’s cool aren’t supposed to age. Maybe that’s their reward in the rough balance for an earlier formative period spent in sacrifice.)
Maybe even Phife (remember subtle gradations of cool/uncool at play within the group?) was the more conventionally cool kid out there living his life (“1988 senior year at Garvey High” — would his more cerebral companion have begun anything that way?) when compared to Q-Tip who thought in abstract, big-picture concepts. And while this is something Abdurraqib highlights in the form of a letter he dedicates to Phife, who died from complications of diabetes in 2016, where he eschews all the studio-nerd stuff (“Maybe you don’t give a shit about basslines or sound frequencies or how low the human ear can hear”) to talk up the Knicks, nowhere are these differences better illustrated than in the chapter marking Tribe’s emergence as a favorite at festivals in the years after their breakup. He reminisces:
Q-Tip would be decked out in a high fade haircut and a leather jacket, despite the summer heat, a completely rebuilt look from his days in Tribe. Phife — remaining customary — would cover himself in an old sports jersey or T-shirt. There was perhaps no better metaphor for the direction of the group’s two main vehicles than this one: Phife, clinging to how people saw him then, and Q-Tip, dressing as a version of himself from the future.
Why would this award-winning poet name his book after maybe the least memorable Tribe song (“Go Ahead in the Rain,” off 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm) from an album he, again, doesn’t even consider to be his true entry point to the group? (Full disclosure: I played the song, near the time of its release, for a friend who probably at the time knew more about Tribe than I did, and even he was like, “Who’s this? That’s Tribe?”) Because the story is ultimately in the sounds:
“Go Ahead in the Rain” mashes up Jimi Hendrix and “Brother” Jack McDuff while also managing to sneak in a Slave sample.
What better way to define a timeless group that is, wonderfully, all things to all people, making room for otherwise conflicting vibes (and stuff) while carving out a new concept of cool? Go Ahead in the Rain — part biography, part memoir — is a vital and absorbing tribute to A Tribe Called Quest, which, much like those legends shows that competing narratives make for a winning combination that’s on point all the time.