The question was never if hip-hop acts like A Tribe Called Quest are “rock ‘n’ roll.” Of course, they’re not. But then neither are Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin. Or James Brown, Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye.
Yet all of those earlier legends were members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s first two induction classes. This honor has never been reserved for axe-shredding arena gods, as rightly noted by rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest.
“I guess you could say there’s a lot of people in this country who think rock ‘n’ roll looks a certain way: The synonymous instrument with rock is the guitar, and the face of rock ‘n’ roll is the white male face,” Q-Tip told Billboard. “As innovation goes on, one of the ideas of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is to praise innovation. With any innovation, you have mutations like splinters — but it starts from the root and the root of rock ‘n’ roll [was] Black faces. The synonymous instrument of rhythm and blues … was a blues voice, and the face of it was Black.”
It follows then that rap – which stems from that same foundation-building genre – would find its place in the Rock Hall. The door cracked open when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were honored in 2007, and has since been knocked off the hinges by subsequent inductees Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and N.W.A.
Main producer Q-Tip, fellow rapper Phife Dawg, DJ and co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest should follow in those funky loud footsteps. Here are five reasons why.
They Changed Hip-Hop Forever
A Tribe Called Quest’s remarkably intricate sound lived at the intersection of hip-hop and jazz, while their lyrics avoided the toxic masculinity then sweeping through rap. Instead, A Tribe Called Quest explored the issues of the day with a cerebral, sometimes abstract philosophical bent. Their samples echoed these erudite sensibilities, eschewing the now-standard hard-and-bright sounds of James Brown for the minimalistic, comparatively more laid-back elements of hard bop. Former Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter appeared on their second album. When asked which heroes they originally wanted to emulate, White name-checked expected figures like Stevie Wonder and Prince, but also Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker. Together with the underrated Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, De La Soul and others, A Tribe Called Quest formed the nucleus of an Afrocentric New York collective known as the Native Tongues. None was as perceptive or as deeply intelligent as Tribe.
They Brought the Music to New Ears
A Tribe Called Quest emerged from their Queens high school on a hot streak, releasing four consecutive enormously important albums in the early ’90s. They were initially shaped by the emerging rap culture around them: Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis) has said that the smart production techniques on N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton served as inspiration for The Low End Theory. But that platinum-selling 1991 album in turn had a huge impact on N.W.A leader Dr. Dre‘s first solo album, The Chronic. A Tribe Called Quest’s influence kept growing, sometimes in surprising places. They toured with groups that bore little resemblance to their friends back at St. Albans, beginning as an opening act for the Clash offshoot band Big Audio Dynamite. Dates with Green Day, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins followed. “At our time, we kinda helped bring white audiences to hip-hop,” Q-Tip argued. Elton John would later call them “the seminal hip-hop band of all time,” while Q-Tip credited Iggy Pop and the Stooges for their influence on A Tribe Called Quest’s final album.
They Came Down on the Right Side of History
Native Tongues engineer Bob Power has referred to The Low End Theory as “the Sgt. Pepper’s of hip-hop.” But even contemplative thinkers like A Tribe Called Quest were subject to era-specific beefs. Phife Dawg (born Malik Isaac Taylor) memorably promised to focus on his own “strictly hardcore tracks, not a new jack swing” in 1991’s “Jazz (We Got).” That angered Wreckx-n-Effect, a group of Teddy Riley proteges who had recently topped the rap charts with a song titled “New Jack Swing.” One of their crew reportedly punched Q-Tip outside a Run-D.M.C. show at Radio City Music Hall, prompting a Zulu Nation-brokered peace summit in Harlem. But not all arguments were created equal. Phife Dawg got it exactly right on 1992’s “The Scenario (Remix),” when he exclaimed, “Vanilla Ice platinum? That shit’s ridiculous!”
They Overcame Crushing Adversity to Return
A Tribe Called Quest released five albums over eight years; three of them went platinum, and three reached the Top 10. Then they just as quickly collapsed amid label and management issues, and personality conflicts between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, as captured in the 2011 Michael Rapaport-directed documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Still, their brotherhood remained, as evidenced by the fact that the group reunited about a decade later with the sole initial purpose of helping Phife Dawg with his medical expenses. He battled diabetes since their earliest days, and a kidney transplant was required as his condition worsened. A Tribe Called Quest eventually got to a place where they were willing to attempt another album, but Phife Dawg died while recording 2016’s We Got It from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service. He’d been traveling back and forth from the sessions to receive dialysis treatments, but still managed to complete enough verses for the album to be completed posthumously. Phife Dawg was just 45.
Their Music Predicted a Key Modern Trend
They never had a significant crossover moment, yet A Tribe Called Quest became one of the most important hip-hop acts ever by presenting a thoughtful alternative to the hardcore movement. They launched the solo careers of Busta Rhymes and Consequence while making an incalculable impact on future stars. Questlove, the bookish drummer for the Roots, said A Tribe Called Quest convinced him that he could find a place in hip-hop. “We’re all [Q-Tip’s] sons,” Pharrell Williams has said. “Myself, J Dilla, Kanye [West] – we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Tribe albums.” He added that they highlighted “the turning point [that] made me see that music was art.” Together with like-minded later acts like Common and Lupe Fiasco, they helped lead the way as gangsta rap took a backseat to music with an exciting new complexity. A Tribe Called Quest “gave birth to neo-everything,” former Ebony editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo told The Village Voice. “That entire class of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Lauryn Hill — and moving on to Andre 3000, Kanye West and Talib Kweli. Everything that is left of everything begins with Tribe.”
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