Simply the Quest

A Tribe Called Quest meets the press--in a manner of speaking.

As an act becomes more successful, its relationship to music critics mutates in tangible ways. Take the frequency with which artists do interviews with the print media, for example. New performers trying to make a name for themselves will talk to anyone, anytime: high school students putting out mimeographed fanzines, calendar editors at monthly newsletters, whoever. Musicians blessed with decent airplay and climbing sales, by contrast, speak only to scribes at publications with circulations over, say, 50,000 copies per issue, while entertainers whose recordings are selling in the upper six figures and above prefer to communicate with reporters at national magazines or daily or weekly newspapers in major cities. (Sometimes groups force one of their number to speak with smaller operations even after reaching this level. Usually the drummer draws the short straw.) Superstars, meanwhile, can get away with sitting for a profile by someone at Rolling Stone, Spin or Vibe every couple of years, leaving other journalists to twist in the wind.

A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most consistently inventive and impressive rap combos of the Nineties, exists somewhere between the two top echelons of fame. Tribe associates Q-Tip (Jonathan Davis), Phife (Malik Taylor) and Ali Shaheed Muhammad have an unimpeachable reputation among the citizens of the hip-hop nation--so much so that their latest album, the first-rate Beats, Rhymes and Life (on Jive Records), just entered the Billboard magazine Top 200 album roster in the number-one position. But from a hit-singles perspective, they have not yet crossed over to a mass audience as have Coolio, the Fugees, Snoop Doggy Dogg and the like. (The lead single on Beats, "1nce Again," isn't even on the current pop-singles chart.) Hence, they must talk to the press--but not often, and not for long.

But how to do so with the least possible amount of muss and fuss? The answer for celebrities on the rise is the telephone news conference. In this instance, the Questers make a conference call linked by an operator who serves as the equivalent of a master of ceremonies for the duration of the chat. The operator controls the questions posed by a dozen or so representatives of newspapers and magazines phoning from locations across the country. When one of them wants to ask something of the rappers, they press the digit "1" on their phones and wait for the operator to let them talk. No follow-up queries are allowed; participants are required to state their questions briefly, then shut up.

The result is the most non-interactive conversation imaginable, but at least the service that oversees these interchanges presents the reviewers who struggle through it with a weighty transcription of everything that's said. That's a mixed blessing, though. Half the time the various Tribe rappers are identified as "Man." As for the spelling, it indicates that the typist hired for the task isn't a regular viewer of Black Entertainment Television. Take this remark, ascribed to writer Tiara Ellis: "Could you please comment on the old school, like Run DMC and (Houdini), versus the new school, like To Pac and Dr. Dre?"

The members of the Tribe don't seem any more excited by this process than the interviewers. The conversation, moreover, is plagued by intermittent technical difficulties. At one point, "Man" complains, "My battery is about to die." Nevertheless, the players patiently put up with the glitches and the surreality of so many disembodied voices buzzing in their ears from one moment to the next. One gets the impression that they're genuinely proud of their latest effort, and (shock of shocks) don't mind discussing it.

Tribe certainly has set a high standard for its work. The title of the trio's 1990 bow--People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm--served instant notice that these guys weren't content to toss together a few samples, offer a couple of lyrics about the tremendous size of their gonads and consider it a chore well-done. Principal spokesman Q-Tip offered a refined, guileful approach to his vocals that couldn't have been further removed from the bombast preferred by many contemporaries. Meanwhile, his phraseology (like "Rhythm is the key as we open up the door," from the cut "Rhythm [Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts]") was every bit as trippy and amorphous as the poetics that marked De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising, which emerged the following year. (With De La Soul and other performers, Tribe formed Native Tongues, an organization dedicated to furthering the hip-hop form.) But what made Paths so influential was the Tribe's decision to merge be-bop and other forms of jazz to hip-hop beats. While in retrospect this blend seems utterly natural, at the time, tracks such as "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" caused listeners to realize that rap was capable of more variety than many doubters claimed.

As proven by The Low End Theory, from 1991, Tribe hadn't shot its wad with Paths; if anything, the second album was an even more capable and cocksure presentation of the act's style than the debut was. (A highlight of Theory is "Scenario," featuring Busta Rhymes [see page 66].) And while Midnight Marauders didn't hit the same heights as its predecessors, it served as a positive recapitulation of the outfit at its peak.

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