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Marry/F@#$/Kill: A Tribe Called Quest

Beats Rhymes & Life, Michael Rapaport’s documentary on Linden Boulevard’s most famous hip-hop act, opens across America this Friday. We thought we’d take the opportunity to weigh in on all five albums.

A Tribe Called Quest

Grantland family, here’s full disclosure: I have a very intimate relationship with the music of A Tribe Called Quest. When I was born, I requested “Push It Along” for my intro. My iBeeper plays “Skypager.” My ex-girlfriend wore unitards with red and green ink blot patterns. (We broke up ’cause we both knew how it feels to be stressed out, stressed out. Also the unitard.) It’s all single black male stalker-y enough to be considered a classic, classic, classic example of a … A date rape. ETC. ETC.

So suffice it to say a Tribe news cycle courtesy of Michael Rapaport’s documentary Beats Rhymes & Life has meant nothing less than the chance to LIVE AGAIN! Forget Friends with Benefits, more like Tribe with Benefits, amirite Grantland? Doesn’t the air itself have that extra little Luck of Lucien?

Maybe that’s why we’ve decided to play Marry/F@#$/Kill with their catalog. All these emotions going through my body demand choices! If only so I can stop buggin’ out, get a hold, and maybe set up a butter playlist for some peace of Mind Power. (Oh My God. What? It’s just Youthful Expression, y’all. Let’s keep it rollin.)

Here’s what I’m thinking as the scenario for M/F/K Industry Rules 4081-4083:

Marry: is the song you can listen to forever-ever. (or wedding song)

F@#$: is the song you listen to once. Nice but no repeats. Thanks! (or sex song)

Kill: For better or worse you will never hear it again. (or murder song)

People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm:

by Patrice Evans

“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” “Can I Kick It?,” “Bonita Applebum” — these are the first three singles, the jams that launched a thousand Jansports, the Holy Trinity for the conscious rap gospels according to Jarobi. The founding essence of A Tribe Called Quest.

Let’s start with “El Segundo”, ’cause after 20+ years it’s clearly the third wheel here. Like over there on the patio hanging out are Mila can-we-kick-it-with-benefits Kunis and Natalie petite-but-muy-Bonita Portman, and here is Swan B-Gone El Segundo. No, it’s not that bad. I have fond memories of “El Segundo.” And it will always have an earnest, secure place in any ironic-kitsch-novelty mixtape playlist. It’s irreverent. And underneath the candy shell, the video has a certain deadpan charm (“I ordered enchiladas and I ate ’em. Ali had the fruit punch”). If today’s chillwave sensibility is one part sampling mixed with two parts of a slacker-infused hip-hop ethos, that cocktail was first stirred here.

But it’s also sort of immature and gibberish-y. A case where I bet your memory gives it more nuance than actually exists in the song. When Tip says:

“Just then a figure had caught my eye, A man with a sombrero who was 4 feet high
I pulled over to ask were we was at, His index finger he tipped up his hat
“El Segundo,” he said, “my name is Pedro, If you need directions, I’ll tell you pronto”

It’s probably offensive, certainly misleading, and definitely entry-level hip-hop lyrics for noobs. Or it’s the kind of line that requires a quirky “character” to bring to life, like “El Segundo” as hip-hop’s trailer for Napoleon Dynamite. Tribe as Monty Python, putting the twee in tweedle-dum. If you enjoy it you probably don’t like the story, per se, you like the storyteller. Oh, you drove from Cali to Brooklyn in a couple days and left your wallet? Well yeah, if the wallet had your jimmy hats of course you had to go back. Haha funny story, that sucks! OH, AND you wrote a rap song about it? And it’s a lead single. Huh. K, biii.

Eventually we all must sever ties with our youth. “Segundo” is a fun song (and where HOFer George Brett is from), but like budget cuts some things have to go in order for us to have universal health care. Tough choices must be made. And so for the sake of Jarobi’s perma-shit-eating grin in the video. For the glory of Phife’s gold track suit. For those who would Google Map 490 Madison. For offended Mexicans, the first thing we do is drive this song out to El Segundo and put it in a ditch somewhere. And we don’t just lose it, we kill it. Big-ass wallets are bad for posture anyways. RIP.

This leaves me alone with my two babycakes. My loves. My dahhhlings. My wife and mistress. Comfortably sitting next to each other like 7 and 8. Can I Kick It? Yes, I do believe I can thank you very much don’t mind if I do ol’ chap (this is the full name when the song is in trouble for not cleaning its room). One’s a party jam, the other’s an after-party jam. And I guess, then, that makes this choice easy: Parties are not wifey material. They’re unsustainable. There’s a sweet spot in the Party Bell Curve, and if you stay too long you end up as bored as when you started.

So “Can I Kick It” is a song you can smash. Great body with the Lou Reed sample and Lonnie Smith’s crashing drums. Great personality with Tip and Phife trading fun, quotable verses. And you know it’s good in bed when everyone keeps revisiting it (Lykke Li, amongst other covers, remixes, re-samples). But, ultimately, the truth is I’m an elitist. A snob. A dilettante. I call it being a slave to genius, maybe it’s hi-falutin’. But I cannot write vows of unconditional commitment to the sweet energetic sidekick. I will mos def smile, sincerely, at “Mr. Dinkins will you please be my mayor,” very funny. David Dinkins! Let’s have some fun, inhale the fresh air and kick it! But after the laughter comes going home at some point …

This is so I can be alone with my boo. My boonita. And honestly, it’s not the 38-24-37 (I can do 32-26-32, i think, what’s that look like anyway? And does that match Nicole Kidman’s measurements?), though, sure, that doesn’t hurt. “Bonita” actually plays as a sex song. All glazed in batted eyelashes and furtive glance. Smoothed out in chill lounge ambience. But marriage, in this case, doesn’t neuter the passion. “Bonita Applebum” is a song you cherish, grow old with, and have crazy prophylactic sex with. She’s like a hip-hop song, y’know. Of these three, it has inspired the muse remix angel the most. And really, I just couldn’t stand for anyone else F’ing her, I may have to kill them. So, ’til death do us part. Honeymoon in El Segundo.

The Low End Theory

by Chris Ryan

Marry: “Check The Rhime”
The song always makes me think of the video, which makes me think of the end of middle school, which makes me think of jean shorts, oversized Cross Colours, snap-back hats with NBA team nicknames written in cursive, West Philadelphia, a Chris Mullin Dream Team jersey I wore and was mercilessly mocked for (“That jersey does not make you an outside shooter!”). For some reason, nothing brings back that time, which now feels like the most important thing I lived through, like this song and that video. Tender, I know.

F@#$: “Buggin’ Out”
It’s not faint praise to say that this is my favorite use of the word “yo” (the first word uttered on this monster) in all of music. And it’s no lie to say that the opening notes of this song, sampled from Jack DeJohnette’s “Minya’s The Mooch” have induced the most “Ohhhhs!” I’ve ever witnessed when it unexpectedly jumps up on car radios, at house parties, and in nightclubs. In fact the beginning of this track — the bassline, the 5-foot assassin — is so immense I sometimes forget there’s more than 10 seconds of it.

Kill: “What?”
Don’t think I could really catch a homicide charge on any of these songs, but for “What?” I’d probably do time for criminal negligence. The gimmick rap is totally fine, but I never really learned to love the Casio-set-to-“Axel F.” track that backs it.

Set Up On The Other Side of Town In A Nice Condo And Secretly Love
More Than Your Wife Or Kids
: “Scenario (Remix)”
A.k.a. the version with Kid Hood, who was murdered shortly after recording his verse. This one is neck-and-neck with “The Symphony” and “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber Pt. 2” (I know, I know) as my favorite posse cut of all time. Was sort of an obsession of mine for a long time. I first heard it on a Maxell tape that I used to record a late-night rap radio show on WPRB in New Jersey. I obsessively listened to it, in the middle of Side 2 on that dark grey cassette, for about nine months and wore the tape out. When Jive reissued it on vinyl as part of classic singles series, I wore that out, too. I still think now what I thought then: It’s better than the one on Low End Theory.

Midnight Marauders

by Rafe Bartholomew

There’s a scene in Beats Rhymes & Life in which Questlove reminds viewers of the significance of November 9, 1993, the release date of both Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It might have been the last hurrah of hip-hop’s golden era. Now, we might like to remind Brother Question of Rappin’ 4-Tay, whose Don’t Fight the Feeling didn’t drop till September 1994, but if you must pick a day to mark the beginning of the end, that one works as well as any other.

For me, though, 11/9/93 was just the beginning. The first two CDs I ever bought were released that day — 36 Chambers and K7’s Swing Batta Swing — and I’ve been trying to expunge the latter from my rap permanent record ever since. I think I buried it in a sock drawer, under some shamefully worn issues of Playboy‘s Book of Lingerie. The fact that Midnight Marauders hit stores the same day meant that my relationship with Tribe has always been tainted with guilt. I slept on the last great album from one of hip-hop’s truly seminal acts, and since then I’ve felt honor-bound to exaggerate my love for them ever since. But when the lights are out and no one’s around, I still hum “Zunga Zeng” under my breath.

Marry: “Electric Relaxation”
You might say that a song about bumping uglies, whose best-known lyric is “Bust off on your couch now you got Seaman’s furniture,” is not marriage material. Well I’d gladly turn this whore into a housewife. When I first heard “Electric Relaxation” on the radio and Phife came on the track with “I like ’em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, and Haitian,” I realized I needed to save $10.81 ($9.99 plus tax) and hit Vinyl Mania on Carmine Street to make amends for “L’Affaire K7.” Sure, I was 11 years old and might not have even understood where Haitians came from, but Phife jumps in with so much gusto that I could sense Tribe’s greatness even though I didn’t really know what they were talking about. ‘Til death do us part — I can’t think of many other songs in the Quest catalog I could say that about.


F%#@
: “Award Tour”
Is it the best beat ever? The best hook? It’s in the running. More interestingly, there’s often a Proustian element to people’s favorite ATCQ songs. They hear “Bonita Applebum” and all of a sudden they’re back in middle school, cradling Attiyya Smith’s back with a clammy palm at the eighth-grade dance. “Award Tour” does that for me. This song — along with Li’l Vicious’ “Freaks” — seemed to play every Saturday morning, when I piled into a green NYC Parks Department van with 10 other kids and we rode to basketball tournaments. I hear Q-Tip Plug Two from De La sing “We on Award Tour with Muhammad my man” and I think of how proud we felt after losing a nail-biter to a Queens team that featured Omar Cook at Crack is Wack Playground on 127th Street and FDR Drive. I remember standing behind a six-foot Italian sub at an awards ceremony after winning the 1994 Manhattan Parks Department championship, hoisting four-foot trophies with my teammates, and thinking we would all play for the University of Michigan Wolverines someday. And, to solidify my deep, as-yet-unrealized bond with Beats Rhymes & Life director Michael Rapaport, hearing “Award Tour” reminds me of how crowds at Harlem tournaments nicknamed me “Remy,” for Rapaport’s loco skinhead character in Higher Learning. That was as close as I ever got to “Helicopter,” “Whole Lotta Game,” or any other respectable streetball moniker. “Award Tour” is that old jump-off who hits me in my softest spot, and I’ll get with her anytime.

Kill: “Oh My God”
People love this track. I don’t. The drums get your head snapping almost like a Premier track, but instead of Jeru tearing up “Come Clean” or Jay-Z be-bopping and scatting all over “A Million and One Questions,” we hear the Abstract Poet Incognito spitting enough filler to make mid-’90s Missy Elliott proud. When Tip doubles up on the “Licks, licks, licks, boy on your backside” line, all I hear is “Hee hee hee hee how.” I think the clumsy stereotype Middle Eastern or South Asian bodega clerk who tries to rhyme at the beginning of the “Oh My God” video might have done better with this verse. Then we have the coup de grâce, Busta Rhymes in full-blown “Woo-ha!” mode, spazzing out on top of a marquee in a yellow leather suit that he might have borrowed from a very tall rodeo clown. This Busta is lesser than speed flow “Gimme Some More” Busta is lesser than Finding Forrester Busta.

Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement

by Jay Caspian Kang

Marry: None
F@#$: None
Kill: The entire album

For my very first assignment for my high school newspaper, I wrote a 3,000-word review of Beats, Rhymes & Life. This was back in 1996. I can’t remember if my 16-year-old self actually liked the album or not, but I do remember writing up some very positive words about Q-Tip’s lyrics, Phife’s timing, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s “jazz-infused” style. I felt compelled to like A Tribe Called Quest, just as I felt compelled to praise both Pynchon and Cervantes in graduate school. Now that I am older, those same, caviling, boring Pynchon-fans-nee-Midnight-Marauders pressure me to buy Danish bookcases, drive a Prius, and “feel disappointed in Obama in a responsible, thoughtful way.” None of these are bad suggestions, really. I suppose there were some good Tribe songs, just as there are reasons to admire Gravity’s Rainbow and Don Quixote. And although I have no desire to own midcentury modern furniture, I certainly appreciate its simple finish, its use of woods or whatever.

After writing that positive review in my high school newspaper, I made the first obnoxious, self-aggrandizing artistic stand of my life. I decided that A Tribe Called Quest sucked. I had mostly been listening to Outkast, Goodie Mob, Nas, and the Wu-Tang solo projects because I thought doing so made me tougher. In the parking lot of my high school, dudes who wore Dave Matthews Band concert shirts and Umbros bopped their greasy heads along to “Scenario.” How could I have followed suit?

Tribe became something of a dividing line between hip-hop and rap, but not because it sat squarely in the middle of our silly classifications. Rather Tip, Ali, and Phife were the dividing line, because if you liked Tribe, you were a pussy who said things like, “I just like them because they use jazz and because Q-Tip is just such a genius poet!” or “I’m not so into Mobb Deep. Their tracks are just so morbid and all sound the same!” If all of our adolescent impressions of hip-hop and rap were laid out on a field and Ice Cube’s “Cave Bitch” off Lethal Injection was one goal line, Boot Camp was the 20, Illmatic was the 50-yard line and Company Flow was the opposite 20, Tribe would be the Dippin’ Dots stand in the parking lot.

The terms hip-hop and rap don’t mean much anymore, but back then, to the kids at my high school, hip-hop meant “smart and good” (acceptable for white college kids). Rap meant “dumb and bad” (acceptable for white college kids to mock). I understand this is an oversimplification, but high school kids are simple, insecure animals. As such, the Black Eyed Peas, who, back then, were a breakdancing, multicultural group from L.A. who played their own instruments, were considered hip-hop. Mystikal was rap. Common was hip-hop. Outkast was rap. So was GZA and Reasonable Doubt-era Jay-Z. The Roots were hip-hop. Cash Money was rap. Anyone classified as hip-hop was assumed to be a skilled lyricist (and an amazing human being). Which meant, there was probably a moment, sometime in 1997, when college rap enthusiasts thought Will.I.Am was a better lyricist than Weezy.

And so it was weird to go back and listen to Beats, Rhymes & Life, an album I had written about before, and realize that my first artistic declaration had been right (albeit for wrong reasons). Tribe sucks. Phife and Tip can’t rhyme. The lyrics are atrocious, and unlike the first three albums, which, at least, gave you pleasant dormitory background music (that’s how I’ll always think about Tribe: It was what the girls in my freshman dorm at Bro-doin would put on whenever they had to study for a biology exam), the production on Beats, Rhymes & Life feels like a conscious effort to cross even further over into the mainstream and radio play.

Kill it all! And while we’re at it, kill The Love Movement, too. It’s so bad it makes Beats look like Aquemini.