The late ’80s and early ’90s were a golden age for hip-hop. Several cornerstone acts, ranging from Public Enemy and Queen Latifah on the East Coast to N.W.A and the Pharcyde in California were in peak form and there was rampant experimentation in this genre. It seemed like each week brought forth a new act with a new style. One of the most enduring recordings from this era, A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” was released in 1990, and Legacy Recordings is celebrating the 25th anniversary with a deluxe reissue featuring three remixes.
The recording was the debut from Tribe and
the first of three consecutive classics—”The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders” were the others—they released in the decade. The group was comprised of a trio of boyhood pals, Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) and Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, whom the three met when they were in high school. The group offered a unique style and outlook. Rather than bellicose declamations and gangster posturing that had made many groups famous, Tribe had little interest in being tough guys. Instead, their raps were conversational in tone; it was as if the listener was eavesdropping on four guys hanging out at a cafe speaking in verse with rhythmically innovative music as a sonic backdrop. Their lyrics ranged far beyond the usual topics of girls, ambition and money; they also critiqued dietary habits, machismo and the power of epithets.
The album cover, a collage of brownstones, storefronts and churches by Bryant Peters and Paije Hunyady, differed substantially from the usual egocentric approach. Q-Tip underscores this difference at the start of the first track, “Push It Along,” when he raps in a voice so mellow it’s disarming, “Q-Tip is my title / I don’t think that is vital for me to be your idol / But dig this recital.” Most rappers considered their shows to be boisterous parties, not easygoing recitals. The backing music was different too; rather than strive for rhythmic intensity, Tribe offered a more laid back approach and created a smooth nuanced support for their raps. On the track “Youthful Expression,” they build the backing from a subtle snippet of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), and it is emblematic of their less is more approach. The reissue features remixes by Pharrell Williams, CeeLo Green and J. Cole and all are strikingly faithful to the original versions of the songs, which underscores how current Tribe’s music has remained.
A Tribe Called Quest proved extraordinarily influential within their genre and beyond. Their approach is evident in both mainstream hip-hop successes like OutKast’s “ATLiens” and Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and in the alternative work of the collective Odd Future. It also affected the work of trip hop and downtempo acts ranging from Kruder and Dorfmeister to Thievery Corporation. A Tribe Called Quest disbanded in 1998 and have reunited sporadically for concerts but not recordings, but the paths of rhythm they set forth continue to run throughout popular music.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.