The Washington Post

Archive: A Tribe Called Quest, 20 years ago


A Tribe Called Quest, a long time ago. (Photo by Janette Beckman, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

After the jump, read a Post profile from nearly 20 years ago, written by Joe Brown shortly after classic album “The Low End Theory” was released just before a show at the Capital Centre which also featured Geto Boys, Brand Nubian, Leaders of the New School, Junkyard Band, Stinky Dink and the Pump Blenders. Man. Maybe it really was better back in the day.

Rap Tribe’s Jazzy Quest

By Joe Brown

November 29, 1991

SOUND PROVIDER Ali, the DJ for A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most innovative and intelligent rap groups in the hip-hop nation, is jamming clothes in his suitcase while calling from Portland, Ore., for a quick interview. In the background you can hear the other guys in the group shouting for him to hurry up — the bus is leaving for the next stop on what the guys in Tribe call its "pre-PE" tour. But before heading out with righteous rap stars Public Enemy, Tribe will appear at Capital Centre's "Back to the Streets '91" package show Saturday, along with the notorious Geto Boys, Brand Nubian and Leaders of the New School, Junkyard Band, Stinky Dink and Pumpblenders.

The Queens-bred Tribe's signature sound is a standout in the rap race, distinguished not so much by its seriously slamming beats as by the moody, melodic samples borrowed from instrumental jazz records, and the subtle, fluid rap styles of Q-Tip, Phife and Jarobi, which occasionally resemble jazz scat-singing. Ali (a k a Ali Shaheed Mohammed) says all four members of the Tribe were passionately drawn to jazz from a young age.

"Jazz is soothing," Ali says. "Well, some of it — there could be some that will really tear your insides apart. It's just a forgotten music, you know. And sort of like hip-hop, it was viewed as underground and threatening till guys like Miles Davis brought it up to the forefront."

The Tribe vibe of hip-hop, hyped-up jazz may introduce a younger generation to the older form of music invented by black musicians.

"I don't know if what we do necessarily turns kids on to jazz," Ali says. "But it definitely opens their eyes a little bit. They've never heard this stuff before. And that's one of the reasons why we always use jazz — because number one, we love it, and two, it's time for little kids to hear what this music is all about. And we try to tell them if you can like it in our song, with the beats, you can like jazz just by listening to it as a whole, by itself."

These guys aren't just jazz dabblers — while working on their recently released sophomore album "The Low End Theory," they went for the real thing, seeking out jazz veteran Ron Carter, who contributed his supple, slippery acoustic bass on a track called "Verses From the Abstract."

"He's one of the best bassists in the world, besides Mingus, we figured," Ali says. "And we just like the way he played so we called up his record company and told them we'd like him to work on our record. They gave us his number, and we told him what was up. He had never heard of us — his son had. And when his son gave him our tape, he was like, 'Yeah, this group is hot.'

"He's a musician, he's professional, he's a session worker," Ali says of Carter. "He came into the studio and said, 'OK, tell me what you want.' Q-Tip hummed the melodies, and we played the basic {rhythm} track for him, and he got down. He tuned his bass up, ran through the basic about three times, and then he said, 'Well, let me have fun with it now,' and he did his own little thing with it."

Although Ali says Tribe plans to work with live musicians, including Carter, in the future (they performed with a live band on MTV's "Unplugged" a while back), their live performances consist of "just us doing our regular thing — just the DJ, two turntables and the MCs. We keep it simple."

Ali says Tribe can come very close to the sound of its recordings on stage. "That's because we use the exact record," he says, and laughs. "The record company made up special records for us, so we use that. Just throw the record on and get busy."

The title of Tribe's new album has a double meaning, according to Ali.

"First, the low end in the music is basically the real bass and bottom woof-woof sound that you get when you play it, especially when you have a great set of speakers. We did a lot of stuff in the studio to make it really punch you in the gut.

"The alternate meaning," Ali says, "is because African-Americans, especially males, are considered the low end of the totem pole in this great country of ours."

A look at the current crop of rap hits reveals a widespread concern with Afrocentrism and socially conscious themes — check out the Geto Boys' chilling warning "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," and Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex." Ali says Tribe steers clear of out-and-out message-making.

"We're not a political act. We don't try to beat anybody over the head with how we feel about certain things. We like to put out slammin' records and dope tracks. We don't devote whole songs to a social problem — we just mention it little by little, drop a little bit of bait and a little bit of candy. That gives us a mystique," says Ali.

Within the hip-hop enclave, Tribe is considered one-third of an unofficial triumvirate called the Native Tongues, a group of groups that also includes the imaginative, unconventional hip-hoppers Jungle Brothers and De La Soul. Tribe contributed raps to the Jungle Brothers' album "Straight Out the Jungle," and can be heard on the track "Buddy" from De La Soul's debut "Three Feet High and Rising."

Right after the PE tour, Tribe will begin work on album number three. When they finish, says Ali, "we want to start a jazz group. We want everyone to earn to play an instrument here and there so we can just have fun with it. Q-Tip is interested in bass — he wants to take lessons from Ron Carter in the future, and I already play saxophone, but I'd have to brush up on my piano."

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read

entertainment

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing