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Lyrics and Life


By Caitlin Ward

A Tribe Called Quest

Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael
It’s all expected, things are for the looking
If you got the money, Quest is for the booking

Come on everybody, let’s get with the fly modes
Still got room on the truck, load the back boom
Listen to the rhymes, to get a mental picture
Of this black man, black woman venture
Why do I say that, ‘cause I gotta speak the truth man
Doing what we feel for the music is the proof and
Planted on the ground, the act is so together
Bona fide strong, you need leverage to sever

The unit, yes, the unit, yes, the unit called the jazz is
We deliver it each year on the street for the beat ‘cause
You can find it on the rack in your record store(store)
If you get the record, then your thoughts are adored and appreciated
Cause we’re ever so glad we made it
We work hard, so we gotta thank God
Dishing out the plastic, do the dance till you spastic
If you dis, it gets drastic

Listen to the rhymes, ’cause it’s time to make gravy
If it moves your booty, then shake, shake it baby
All the way to Africa a.k.a. The Motherland (uh)
Stick out the left, then I’ll ask for the other hand
That’s the right hand, Black Man (man)
Only if you was noted as my man (man)
If I get the credit, then I’ll think I deserve it
If you fake moves, don’t fix your mouth to word it

Get in the zone of positivity, not negativity
’cause we gotta strive for longevity
If you botch up, what’s in that (ass) (what?)
A pair of Nikes, size 10-and-a-half (come on, come on)

We gotta make moves
Never, ever, ever could we fake moves (come on, come on) (x4)

You gotta be a winner all the time
Can’t fall prey to a hip hop crime
With the dope raps and dope tracks for you for blocks
From the fly girlies to the hardest of the rocks
Musically the Quest, is on the rise
We on these Excursions so you must realize
Hip hop continually, about the Zulu
If you don’t like it, get off the Zulu tip

So what can you do in the times which exist
You can’t fake moves on your brother or your sis
But if your sis is a (...), brother is a jerk
Leave ‘em both alone and continue with your work
Whatever it may be into this society
Everything is fair, at least that how it seems to me
You must be honest and true to the next
Don’t be phoney and expect one not to flex

Especially if you rhyme, you have to live by the pen
Your man is your man, then treat him like your friend
All it is, is the code of the streets
So listen to the knowledge being dropped over beats
Beats that are hard, beats that are funky
It could get you hooked like a crackhead junkie
What you gotta do is know that the Tribe’s in this sphere
The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare


It’s been a while since I watched Beats, Rhyme, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, but there’s one section of the documentary that sticks in my head these years later. Phife Dawg is being interviewed in a sunny park, sometime in 2008 or 2009, I’m guessing. He talks about recording A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, Low End Theory. In the story, he’s taking the F Train from Queens to Manhattan, writing verses on the subway and arriving late to the studio, walking right up to the mic and spitting the verse he’d just written. Then he comes out to the control room and everyone says, “Son, you’ve arrived.”

After Phife tells this story, the documentary cuts through Questlove (The Roots), Pharrell (N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes), Pete Rock, Mike D (Beastie Boys), and MCA (also Beastie Boys) talking about how intense that verse is. And if you listen to the track the verse became, Buggin’ Out, you know exactly what they mean: “Yo, microphone check one two, what is this? / The five foot assassin with the rough neck business.” It’s the only song in existence where I’m actually annoyed to hear Q-Tip start rapping. And when I say that, you need to know that the only reason I started listening to alternative hip hop at all was because of Q-Tip’s voice. I love it that much, and Phife is that good on this track.

I think this part of the documentary stands out not only because this song is such a punch to the gut, but also because it’s one of the few moments in the film that’s this focused on the group’s music. Much of the narrative revolves around the difficult relationship between Phife and Q-Tip, the group’s main MCs. They use the history of Quest’s music as a way into that narrative, and in fact the music might not exist without that narrative. Members of the group talk about themselves like a series of interlocking pieces, and the spiritual place they occupy in the group is as important as the skills they bring to the table. Q-Tip is characterized as some sort of cosmic alien genius, and Phife the earthbound five-foot assassin who keeps the music from sailing off into the ether, so that it might still be comprehensible to us mere mortals. That contrast in personality doesn’t make for an easy relationship, but it has made for some excellent albums.

If you haven’t listened to much of A Tribe Called Quest, the idea of hip hop floating into the cosmos or an MC being a semi-celestial extra-terrestrial may seem strange. But when you do listen to their music, especially their second album, you begin to see why people talk about them that way. It’s in the first hissing seconds of the album: a bassline stripped out of a song from decades previous, a lyric that finds music in the rhythms of speech rather than traditional melody, and a kind of social and political resistance that is defined by sound as much as words. Excursions, that first track on Low End Theory, is the album’s statement of purpose. The idea of otherworldly dudes from Queens making hip hop jazz might be weird, but some of the tracks really are transcendent.

Unfortunately, the conditions that allowed this album to come into being were ephemeral. Most, if not all hip hop artists of the time, created songs using parts of other songs. These alien geniuses built tracks by pulling song samples apart and putting them back together in their own image. Those songs were almost familiar but at the same time unrecognizable. It was a new way to make music, and a new art form: sound collage.

The trouble was that this new art form, while popular, was really flouting copyright law. Excursions, for example, samples four different songs, and it’s pretty stripped down compared to a lot of hip hop tracks of the era. Public Enemy’s Fight the Power has about 20 samples. So far as I know, neither group got permission for any of them. That was fine for a while, but in 1991, the landmark case Grand Upright Music vs. Warner Brothers Music ended hip hop’s “Wild West” era. Without any precedents one way or the other, the judge ruled that sampling was stealing. That ruling irrevocably changed the ears of hip hop. People mark the end of the Golden Age of Hip Hop in different places, but in most historians’ view, it follows relatively quickly on the heels of that lawsuit.

I sometimes wonder what hip hop would have become if that ruling had been different — if a burgeoning art form hadn’t been crippled so early in the game. Oh, people still use samples now, but not so many and not so well. The use of each one has to be weighed against the potential cost. I don’t profess to be an expert on hip hop, either historical or contemporary. I think it’s safe to say, though, that it would be difficult if not impossible for an album like Low End Theory or Fear of a Black Planet (Public Enemy) or Three Feet High and Rising (De La Soul) to emerge these days. Back in 1991, a judge ruled that a corporation’s musical property was more important than an individual’s expression.

There are no doubt many eloquent things to say on the unfairness of that, never mind the fact that it seems no coincidence that a predominantly African American art form was cut off at the knees by a predominantly white establishment. Instead though, I’ll quote the man who brought us to this conversation in the first place. As Phife Dawg would say, “what is this?”

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at