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.
What followed, however, was a three-year gap between recordings--a lifetime in hip-hop terms. During this period, Phife dabbled in journalism and began work on a solo album, Consequence, that should be available soon. Q-Tip and Ali, meanwhile, formed a production company, the Ummah (the term translates to "community of brotherhood"), and oversaw studio work by crews such as Tony, Toni, Tone. In addition, Ali worked with neo-soulster D'Angelo on the big-selling Brown Sugar CD, and he serves as director of East Coast A&R for the Qwest label. This last position, Ali believes, gives him an opportunity to affect the future not only of hip-hop, but of other styles of music, as well. "I don't like to isolate myself just doing hip-hop music," he says. "I love all kinds of music. And I saw a few different forms of music that just need help.
"I could be better trained as far as the inside of the business goes and how it's run. And once I get experience from that, I'll be able to implement how I really feel about music. I want to bring back true music and bring something back into the corporate world--which is to be fair--and to not try to choke nobody." He emphasizes, "The music--that's what it's all about. But some people are not really concerned with the blood, sweat and tears that goes into it. And there has to be some compassion for that."
Given his growing knowledge of marketing, Ali understood why Jive executives wanted a new Tribe platter in stores as quickly as possible. But he says he and his compatriots felt no pressure to rush a new recording into the marketplace. "There wasn't really a risk, because we have confidence in what we do," he says. "We're very, very, very hard critics of our music. We're harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. So we were going to make sure--and we've made sure--that what we were doing was definitely going to stand out."
Judged by these standards, Beats is an unqualified success; despite the layoff, it has no rust on it. As before, Tribe uses astutely chosen samples, by artists ranging from jazzer Gary Burton to James Brown and the Ohio Players, to construct a smooth backdrop over which the Tribe's linguistics flow. In the case of Q-Tip, his recent conversion to the Muslim faith has had the effect of deepening his already meaty and stimulating wordplay. "The Hop," for example, uses hardcore imagery against itself: "MCs, be ready to die/'Cause I'ma kill all your negative feelings/Standing on two feet/While I make the hotties move to the hip-hop beat/You know what's really killer?/Well, then you can't imagine/Using every source of pain in my range to make it happen."
Like these couplets, the other interchanges on Beats juxtapose themes that reach for a higher consciousness with a verbal unwillingness to back down that's exemplified by the lead track, "Phony Rappers" ("who do not write/Phony rappers who do not excite"). Phife, generally the most aggressive of the Tribe rhymers, refuses to specifically name the microphone wielders being jabbed on the track. "That wouldn't be right," he says. "We're all supposed to be in this together." Nonetheless, he's openly critical of many peers.
"You know, everybody's on this money trip," he notes. "Which is cool, because we all have to eat and drink and live. But it's getting out of hand to the point where it's now just like everybody's jumping on the bandwagon. Everybody wants to wear this type of clothing and rhyme about it all day. It's like a trend. One person started shooting at somebody, and everybody did it. Everybody has to start thinking for themselves and doing it from the heart. That's all."
The Tribe members don't simply espouse more direct, meaningful communication; they practice it on "Stressed Out" (featuring Q-Tip's cousin, soul crooner Faith Evans), "Motivators," "Mind Power" "What Really Goes On" and numerous other Beats efforts. Still, Q-Tip insists that he wants messages like "The Crew," an examination of violence in our times, to enlighten without seeming preachy. "It's important to have that balance, because if you don't, then you're going to be looked at as having some sort of disjunction--or as, you know, being excessive. And that's not going to aid what our plans are, which is trying to implement good music, good vibes and good, positive standards.
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"You have to be realistic. And I think we present ourselves in the most sincere way because we don't present ourselves as being these cherubs or these angels that just float around and do everything good. Because we do wrong, too. And we let that go out in the music as well. We're aware of the balance that we need to implement, and we strive to do that. And I think we do, you know, a pretty cool job of it."
Under ordinary circumstances, Q-Tip might have elaborated on this observation, but on this day, it was not to be. Because of "time constraints," the operator interjected, then invited the musicians to make a closing statement. According to the transcript, "Man" took the challenge, stating, "Our album comes out July 30th. Again, it'll be our fourth LT."
As he hung up his phone, "Man" no doubt was hoping that this telephone news conference would be his last. Unfortunately, he'll have to wait for a while to find out when this eventuality will come to pass. Perhaps he'll know by the time Tribe releases its fifth "LT"...
Smokin' Grooves Tour, with Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, Cypress Hill, the Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Spearhead and Busta Rhymes. 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 27, Red Rocks, $25, 830-