A Tribe Called Quest

We’re publishing two new books in the series in the month of June – the first of which is Shawn Taylor’s entertaining and personal take on A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.

This is Chapter Two from Shawn’s book


1990 was one of those years. It was the year that Desert Shield became Desert Storm; the Hubble telescope was launched into space; Mandela was released from prison; Germany was on its way to reunification; and it was also the year when crack still held sway over many lives. During the early 90s, crack use was being overshadowed by other drugs, but it was still a force to be reckoned with on the streets of the “inner city” and, increasingly, in suburbia. And this is just a sliver of the social milieu in which ATCQ crafted and let loose their vision.

Just as American comic books took a darker turn during and post-Reagan (see Frank Miller’s The Return of the Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s Watchmen), hip-hop became more hard-edged, violent and hopeless during the crack crisis. Public Enemy’s oft-predicted apocalypse seemed to be that much closer to reality. War, drugs, renewed racial attacks against blacks, unconscionable police brutality – all these things forced hip-hop to turn its back on the feel-good jams of its recent past and reflect the horrors of black American life. Ice-T, NWA, Public Enemy, KRS-One and others painted the vivid pictures that would inspire many a current emcee and also serve as white America’s window into one interpretation of American black cultural existence. But despite all of the near-nihilistic worldviews of many hip-hop groups, the Native Tongues were a splash of color on an increasingly bleak landscape.

At the time of the album’s release, most hip-hop heads considered only three geographic locations – Africa, New York and California – as the places where their music and culture could dwell. Even though the Rock Steady Crew had done a world tour and hip-hop groups had traveled the earth, your average stateside hip-hop head couldn’t think outside of the geotrinity listed above. However, ATCQ’s album had an unmistakably global feeling about it. Whereas the JBs led us around an idealized Africa and the pan-African Diaspora, and De La took us down a trippy, Prince-Paul created rabbit hole, A Tribe Called Quest were our tour guides through a new type of city: the psychosomatic megapolis.

The pyschosomatic megapolis is a city, an urban landscape that is housed in the mind and the body instead of existing as asphalt, concrete and smog saturated constructs. In Tribe’s vision, you could carry this city with you no matter where you went, and your individual take on the city was how you oriented yourself in any new situation. It was this idea – the idea of the urban environment, the city, being portable and individually adaptable – that caused many non-blacks to be able to vibe with the album and cause several of the songs to be staples of college radio stations from the University of Minnesota all the way over to the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Even though Tribe mentions specific geographic locations, no one of them was more important than the other. The city was a city and wherever you went, it went right along with you. This was a big help to me when I started to travel intracountry and overseas. Whenever I felt overwhelmed or out of place or just a little homesick, I’d pop People’s into my Walkman or home stereo and conjure my inner city, instantly making me feel more relaxed and ready to deal with whatever I had to encounter.

Aside from giving us a new version of what a city could be, they also gave us a means of locomotion: the rhythm – the engine that ran the psychosomatic megapolis – was our train, bike, cab and bus ride through the body metroplex. Horns, drums, sitars, pianos and the scratching of records carried us from one point of interest to another. Tribe’s version of the urban landscape can be compared to Prince’s Uptown. A place where all of the beautiful, cool and interesting people converged and had adventures. But while Prince’s Uptown seemed a bit exclusive – and just a wee bit freaky – the urban center in Tribe’s vision was a place where everyone could go and all were welcome. It was this idea of an all-welcoming city that existed inside the body and mind that changed my crew from a bunch of outcasts to the most popular kids the latter part of our senior year in high school. But more on that later. Maybe.

At the time, ATCQ, along with the other Native Tongue groups, seemed less like people making music and more like people trying to establish a movement on some kind. A movement that we were all invited to join. Once the video for “Can I Kick It?” (Tribe’s Lou Reed-sampling minor hit) was broadcast, their look was adopted in a nanosecond. People mixed kente cloth with sneakers, dashikis with Nikes, shaved their heads into interesting shapes and patterns, and – just for a little while – spoke to each other with a bit more respect and seemed to respect themselves more than they had previously. The style could have been called afro-urban or neo-African, and while it was almost completely annihilated during the Puff Daddy, Hot Boys, bling-bling era, the style is stealthily making a comeback via Common, Wyclef Jean, Cody ChesnuTT, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, the Roots, Dead Prez and others of the same orientation.

This is important to note because, along with the subtle shift in the mode of dress of these artists, the politics that inform the clothing are also making a comeback. While these artists are more pragmatic, politically and socially aware and less “hate-whitey” then their predecessors, black pride, black determination and blackness as all-encompassing psychospiritual orientation is on the upswing. Black standpoint theory is different from African standpoint theory because it takes the black experience in America and legitimizes it, instead of using the black American experience as a stepping stone to hop right back to Africa. Now, the black experience on American shores is an experience all its own. It is post-Diaspora living chronicled through music, clothing and language. And A Tribe Called Quest, and their Native Tongue brethren, are all directly responsible for this resurgence.


(We’ll have an extract from the PJ Harvey book later in the week.)

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