The best rap duo in hip-hop history, to date, was Q-Tip and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. I know you are supposed to triangulate down to your thesis, but let’s just get that out of the way. You can now nod your head in agreement, shake your head in dismay, or go read something else because you don’t necessarily care. This is not something I’m willing to argue about (although I would entertain civil discourse regarding Andre 3000/Big Boi). This is not to say I wouldn’t love to talk about it, but I will not budge from this opinion.
It’s hard to describe the clouds parting effect that ATCQ (along with De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and others in the Native Tongues collective) had on listeners in the early ‘90’s. It was a revelation, a beautiful confluence of two of the three greatest American art forms, jazz and hip hop. (The third is musical theater. That’s another essay.) The poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraquib’s deeply personal book Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest is required reading if you are interested in the movement generally and ATCQ specifically.
Q-Tip was the unquestioned leader. Ali Shaheed-Muhammad had the beats. But, there was the essential voice of Malik “The Five-Foot Freak” Taylor aka Phife Dawg. Q-Tip had the vision and the insanely cool, relaxed nasal rap, like he was just talking to you, in your ear, whoever you were. But then Phife would come in, and it was like putting butter on what was already the tastiest bread you had ever had.
ATCQ’s three consecutive album run, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) is the best in hip hop history.
The Low End Theory is at the apex of this monument and my favorite song on it is “Butter.” That’s a Phife song. And the opening refrain, “1988 Senior Year Garvey High/Where all the boys were corny/but the girls were mad fly,” is on repeat on the CD stuck in the cheap car stereo that is my brain. And when Q-Tip comes in to say, “it’s strictly butter baby, not Parkay, not margarine, strictly butter,” he’s commenting on the flow of his long-time friend.
And then, ATCQ faded away (yeah, I know they had two more albums) and fell out, apparently another victim of time and the difficulties of hanging out constantly, let alone making music, with the same people year after year.
Phife Dawg died in March 2016. Complications from a long battle with diabetes. Eight months later, the country took a regrettable, but probably inevitable turn, electing someone who tapped into its bedrock bigotry as a powerful source of a toxic populist energy.
Out of nowhere that year ATCQ released We got it from Here…Thank You For Your service with the fierce anti-gentrification rap ‘We The People…’ The bass and drums blew your head off and Q-Tip spit fire.
Just days after the November election, ATCQ performed that song on Saturday Night Live. When Q-Tip and Jarobi parted to allow a painting of Phife to unfurl, as his recorded verse kicked in, there were more than a few tears. We knew we had lost a lot more than Malik.
Six largely terrible years later, on the anniversary of his death at 45, we have this release. Phife had a bunch of tapes and loving producers and contributors. This album is a memorial service. If you love ATCQ you have to listen to it. I listened to it quite a few times for this review, probably too many times. You only want to go to a memorial service once.
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, a poet and his mom, lends her own voice and old recordings of Malik as a young kid. “Round Irving High School” is heartbreaking. I loved the tracks featuring the De La Soul guys, “Wow Factor” with Maseo and “2 Live Forever” with Posdnuous. De La Soul was the slightly older brother to ATCQ and, of course, are legends in their own right. These songs are celebratory of both a person and a time.
People’s Instinctive Paths… opened, memorably, 32 years ago, with a baby’s unsettling cry and a spooky chiming bell. That chimes for all of us and chimed for Phife too soon. “I float like gravity, never had a cavity.” Float on forever, man. You made my life appreciably better.
Words by Rick Larson