“Probably their most important contribution was the canvas that they used. A lot of records that was in our parents’ collection that we didn’t bother to look at.”
In the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes And Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots’ drummer Questlove pretty much nailed the enduring impact of this New York group who paved a new way forward for hip hop in the 90s with the release of their second record, The Low End Theory.
The group explored the strong links between jazz and hip hop and they made the fusion feel natural.
“In the improvisation of jazz and sometimes the freestyling of hip hop, just being right there in the moment and just rhyming about something and changing a pattern or whatever,” Q-Tip explained in the documentary.
“Although it’s devoid of melody, it still has pattern and it’s still improvisational. It’s the same thing for jazz; somebody’s playing a solo and they’re improv-ing, they may be searching to find something melodically, whereas MC’s search for something lyrically.”
Making their sophomore album was a focused and productive affair for A Tribe Called Quest.
“We were in our groove,” Ali Shaheed Muhammad said. “It’s like we’ve been practicing this shit for so long. When you pass the ball, you don’t gotta look, you know your dude is gonna be there.”
He also added what he thought was the strongest distinction between the group’s sophomore record and their previous album.
“In making The Low End Theory, I think what’s evident to everybody is the emergence of Phife Dawg.”
It took the late rapper some time to accept his calling.
“You come into your own as an MC, you know what I’m saying?” Phife said. “I had this stupid little high voice, I hated my voice but everybody else seemed to like it.”
Since The Five Foot Assassin’s passing last year, it’s been made very clear how much his crafty rhymes were treasured by so many of today’s biggest hip hop stars.
In an interview with HipHopDX, Kendrick Lamar remembers being awestruck by ‘Scenario’ when he heard it as a youngster.
“The flow was crazy, the beat was crazy, but one line stuck out me in particular: ‘I’m all that and then some, short, dark and handsome / Bust a nut inside your eye, to show you where I come from’.
“I just thought that line was witty at the time, being a kid as six years old. I’m short myself so I was rocking that way.”
Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi say their career wouldn’t have happened if not for their heroes in Tribe.
At Phife Dawg’s memorial last year, Dre told the story of how as young up and comers, they loaded up their cassette copy of ‘Scenario’ and rapped for producer Rico Wade in a carpark.
He also spoke on the specific influence of Q-Tip’s lyricism.
“He actually made me want to know more about words and use them as tools,” he said. “Like, words that you may have not even know before. He made it actually cool to use those words.
He referenced hearing ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ specifically as a significant moment in his life.
“There was a point where I was listening to Tribe in high school and there was a point where a lyric Tip was saying, ‘Like getting stomach aches when ya gotta go to work / Or staring into space when you’re feeling berserk / I don’t really mind if it’s over your head / Cuz the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead / So pay attention, it’s not hard to decipher / And after the horns, you can check out the Phifer.’
“When he said that, I knew what kind of rapper I wanted to be.”
A Tribe Called Quest set out their purpose as a group very clearly on the Arsenio Hall show in 1992.
“The Low End Theory, we got it from the 808s, as synonymous with hip hop,” Q-Tip said of the album’s title. The bottom, you know? The boom, boom, the low end.
“Plus, as a double meaning its talking about how the black male in America is put in the low end of society. They always pin us with drug selling and toting guns and we’re trying to flip the script and to say ‘here we are three black youths, black young men, doing something positive’.”
The positivity and messages of empowerment were central driving forces behind this group and the Native Tongues Collective, to which A Tribe Called Quest belonged along with The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul.
But perhaps the distinguishing feature about this Queens outfit and why they continue to be so highly regarded by so many contemporary hip hop artists lies in their unique chemistry and their songs that struck a chord with ordinary kids.
They weren’t shouting out ‘Fuck The Police’ or ‘Fight The Power’, rather they encouraged all to cultivate a positive awareness and identity.
On this occasion, Kanye West summed it up the best.
“Anything I ever did wrong, blame Tip and Phife, 'cause y'all raised me,” he said at Phife’s memorial service. “Y'all made it OK for me to be me.”