An Urban Tribe Called Quest

Tomorrow alternative hip hop legends A Tribe Called Quest will release their sixth and final album, We got it from here… Thank You 4 Your service, featuring guests Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Elton John, André 3000, Anderson .Paak, and Busta Rhymes. After thirty years and a shift to an increasingly neotribalist society, is A Tribe Called Quest one of our most successful urban tribes?

Afrika Bambaataa is not a sociologist, but he may have touched upon an important theory of subcultural studies when, in Queens, 1988, he dubbed the hip-hop group, Quest, a “tribe”1. In the same year, French sociologist Michel Maffesoli coined the term “urban tribes” with the publication of his book, Le temps des tribus: le déclin de l’individualisme dans les sociétés postmodernes (The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society). Maffesoli’s “tribes” are real and imagined communities separate from the mainstream, that flock to each other’s shared ideologies. Disproving Maffesoli’s fears2, regarding declining individuality, A Tribe Called Quest is an empowered urban tribe taking over from the masses, without sacrificing individualism or longevity. On the contrary – the Tribe was the brightest light of individualism in 90’s hip-hop, in the shadow of gangsta rap, and have created lasting influence that places them among hip-hop’s greatest of the Golden Age. Thirty years into tribedom, eighteen since their last record, and one member recently lost to diabetes, A Tribe Called Quest is about to release their final album.

The general postulation of neotribalism – what Maffesoli was exploring with his ideas of urban tribes – is that society is trending toward smaller tribal living, as an alternative to mass society2. The theory doesn’t necessarily carry a universal outlook regarding the success of a neotribalist society; Although Maffesoli’s argument took on a worried tone, many responses have surfaced with a more optimistic slant. (On this far opposite, most optimistic side of the spectrum, a program called Neotribes is offering a four-day retreat for business owners to explore the global economy through neotribalism. Their website is sleek, ranked high on search engine optimization, and wildly outdated.) But like any –ism, neotribalism is impossible to pin down to one ideal – it’s a kaleidoscope, in which each tribe complicates the composite image. If tribes exist as an alternative to the mainstream, by definition, it allows for the existence of alternative viewpoints. Instead of supporting or refuting one universal mold, if we accept A Tribe Called Quest as our urban tribe, we can discover a practical and hugely successful example of neotribalism in hip-hop, and popular culture in general.

In her review of the documentary Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, HipHopDX’s Lakeia Brown says, “Tribe made it cool to be weird, eclectic, and expressive” by challenging many of the accepted, jaded norms of mainstream hip hop3. The same sentiment pours in from artists as diverse and influential as Common, Questlove, Black Thought, and Pharrell Williams – a testament to the Tribe’s continued relevance in the hip-hop landscape1. The Tribe presented hip-hop as an earnest, socially conscious art form by strong subcultures as large as Queens, the Native Tongues, and hip-hop itself; and down to the individuals that shape them.

A Tribe Called Quest adheres to, and disproves the anxieties of neotribalist studies on several levels. Musically, they developed unconventional styles by sampling genres like jazz and adding a cushion between lines for more laid back rapping. Socially, the group’s lyrics trend toward the conscious, responsible, and lighthearted, characterizing the Tribe as an approachable, supportive group based on mutual respect and emphasis on individuality. These values are further backed up by the Tribe’s public image, both in costume and in tight relationships with other groups like De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers – as well as deeply committed internal relationships between Q-Tip, Ali, Jarobi, and Phife Dawg.

In his 33 1/3 series book on People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the Tribe’s debut album, Shawn Taylor describes the group in exactly the same way a neotribe would be defined; “even to this alternative [of aggressive mainstream hip-hop] there was an alternative.”4 Q-Tip’s record obsession and Ali’s smooth, laid-back style of mixing beats created an unexpected twist for a heavily sample-based group that was virtually unheard of in hip-hop. Instead of using classic samples from funk, and even hard rock, the Tribe sourced material from jazz and blues. The group’s most famous single, “Can I Kick It?” is timeless for its use of Lou Reed’s assured, jazzy vamp from “Walk On The Wild Side”. In Beats, Rhymes and Life, Q-Tip relives his discovery of Drives by jazz organist Lonnie Smith, from which he derived the beat for the same single. According to Q-Tip, the record’s chic cover caught his attention from within the stacks. This novel, almost arbitrary approach opened the Tribe’s sound up to a wealth of styles most hip-hop artists at the time wouldn’t seek out: most importantly, jazz. Over the plucked bass of “Excursions” Q-Tip draws an explicit parallel between the two worlds: “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 bebop.” This absorption of other genres contests the common fear that neotribes suffer from insular tendencies. Our urban tribe’s involvement in the larger alternative hip-hop ecosystem – with similarly idiosyncratic artists like De La Soul – in the collective, the Native Tongues is another hint of the inclusionary potential of neotribes. If hip-hop consumes other genres, it is only natural that its tribes should represent an amalgam of culture as well.

Another idiosyncrasy worth noting through a tribal lens is the juxtaposition of rapping styles within the Tribe. Q-Tip distinguishes himself by taking pauses between lines in his relaxed near-drawl, settling into Ali’s uniquely assured beats. Meanwhile, Phife Dawg’s high range and slightly more aggressive attack provide a foil to Tip, but continue to represent a quirky alternative to the styles of their contemporary mainstream. A common resistance to traditional hip-hop values of machismo voices and masculine posturing unites the opposing forces. The confidence with which they’re delivered is almost miraculously unselfconscious (remember the paradoxical bravado of the “five foot assassin”).

We can find more explicit resistance in mostly any lyrics, specifically those that reference women – a group specifically excluded from, and often abused in mainstream hip-hop. “Bonita Applebum” is a love song that begs for Bonita’s attention, but more importantly, acknowledges her power to accept or reject the pleas – a subtle contrast with common hip-hop brags of sexual prowess. There’s no doubt that Q-Tip wants to present an alternative when he assures her (and us), “I like to tell you things some brothers don’t.” Even more striking statements in other tracks set an example for male listeners, especially within the growing number of impressionable college-age fans. Take, for example, “Description of a Fool”. Shawn Taylor testifies to the intense emotional impact of the song when he first heard it as a teenager, especially in the powerful lines “Said ‘Forget him, don’t you know he’s a loser?’/Who would love a woman, turn around, and abuse her?” Taylor’s personal account, wonderfully ordinary, is exactly the kind of evidence that proves the message really was internalized by young fans. And rather than allowing our female-centric lesson to be completely dominated by male perspectives, it certainly helps to remember that Q-Tip was known to be popular with the ladies1. Not only does the Tribe’s collective public relationship with women represent a laudable, yet vulnerable stance in alternative hip-hop, it signifies a fundamental respect for women as individuals – an application of the last, and most significant discovery through A Tribe Called Quest as an urban tribe.

If loss of individuality is a concern in neotribalism, it’s turned on its head by Q-Tip, Ali, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi. The Tribe came up together in Queens from ages as early as two years old, with strong, unshakeable relationships between duos like Tip and Ali, and Jarobi and Phife. And although even some of the Tribe’s greatest fans strip Jarobi’s role to minimal importance, Q-Tip confidently names him “the soul” of the group. Despite the group’s insistence that no member was more important than another, the open acknowledgement of smaller relationships and roles built a complex network within the Tribe; with the Jungle Brothers, from the same high school; and outwards into the surrounding community. The unapologetic celebration of love as a theme in lyrics, african dress, and exuberant performance practices set the Tribe apart, even within these networks, as a unit of its own with the ability or even the purpose to attract other alternatives. Individuality begets individuality.

The Tribe brought closet individualists out of the woodwork simply by proving they could make it in the bigger picture. The Tribe extended themselves, as Monie Love testifies, as “a time, and a group, and a place” for individuality. They did not just fight the power of the mainstream, they were a new kind of power. “We don’t have to do ‘fight the power’”, she says. “There’s a time, and a group, and a place for that. We’re allowed to be different.”

Here’s the tracklist for the album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, out tomorrow:

01 The Space Program
02 We The People….
03 Whateva Will Be
04 Solid Wall of Sound
05 Dis Generation
06 Kids…
07 Melatonin
08 Enough!!
09 Mobius
10 Black Spasmodic
11 The Killing Season
12 Lost Somebody
13 Movin Backwards
14 Conrad Tokyo
15 Ego
16 The Donald

1. Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. Directed by Michael Rapaport, starring all members of A Tribe Called Quest. Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.
2. Hitchcock, Michael. “The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 3, no. 3, 1997, pp. 615–615.
3. Brown, Lakeia. “Movie Review: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest”. HipHopDX, June 23, 2011,
4. Shawn Taylor. “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.” 33 1/3. Bloomsbury Publishing Inc., 2007.

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