Thursday, February 16, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 14: Q-Tip and Tribe Called Quest

Q-Tip was the guy who kept popping up in other act’s songs. When he wasn’t poking his head in on De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I,” he was hogging the spotlight on The Beastie Boys’ “Get It Together.” And every time I heard him, I’d think, “ah, I like him.” Blessed with one of the most disarming flows in the business, Q-Tip had a knack for making his raps sound as personal as a close conversation in a quiet room. Just…relaxed. Almost peaceful.

While I understood those cameos came from his vast, much-esteemed body of work with A Tribe Called Quest (hereafter, “Tribe,” because who wants to type the full name every time?), you can put them down as yet another band I took too long to get to (curse you, indie rock!). I knew a couple songs – “Bonita Applebum” got through somehow (and it's better than I remember) and my wife played “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” enough that I can’t listen to it anymore – and it wasn’t so much about liking them, as recognizing that they deserved respect somehow. I’d heard The Low End Theory here and there, but always too deep in the background to get anything out of it. After that, there’s just one thing: I’ve never heard a single person breathe an ill word against them. And that’s something.

Tribe comes up now because, thanks to the winding road this project’s driving, I got to The Renaissance, a solo album Q-Tip put out in 2013. How’d it get in my bins? Beats me. It just did. For this post, though, that’s the end of the road. I want to start with a question that all but begged itself after just a couple listens to a specific sub-set of Tribe’s oeuvre.

I somehow got it in my head that The Low End Theory was considered Tribe’s masterwork, so, after a couple re-listens to The Renaissance, I moved on to that one. By only the second listen to Midnight Marauders – Tribe’s “junior” project (The Low End Theory was the sophomore effort), something from which I’d never heard even one track – I just…knew that someone, somewhere had measured one album against the other with an eye to declaring a winner.

As you can probably tell from the framing, I landed on Midnight Marauders. As I wrote at the top of my notes yesterday, “Feels more coherent; jazz heavy” (the latter judgment...may not hold). When the first link I read – and one written by a guy who knows (I mean, knows) Tribe – went with Midnight Marauders too, and backed up the choice using a similar argument (“As cohesive and excellent as [The Low End Theory] is, every single song, every single moment, every single breath of [Midnight Marauders] is perfection. It is complete cohesion.”), well, didn’t that feel just like a big ol’ pat on the back (who’s a good boy?). That opinion isn’t universal, of course - and the one dissenting opinion I read (from an entire article only; I didn’t bother with the forums), backs his case up just as well – but that just slides this under that happy column of “Good Problems to Have.”

My preference for Midnight Marauders falls under a well-worn theme for the volumes in this project that deal with hip hop: it’s richer musically. You hear it in the first track, “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” which takes the same inventive sampling that drives The Low End Theory, but it doesn’t just layer them; it uses those tunes to create musical passages within each song. The fullest expression of that approach probably comes with “We Can Get Down,” but even a track like “Award Tour” adopts a verse/chorus frame that feels refreshingly* close to pop-rock (*why’s that “refreshing”? dunno, maybe the familiarity felt like two worlds I love coming together for a big ol’ hug? also, that keyboard overlay right before the chorus?). Midnight Marauders has a couple songs that listen closer to, for lack of a better phrase, straight hip hop – e.g., “Lyrics to Go” and “Electric Relaxation,” if with Tribe's signature sound – but the one flip between tracks that feels like a delightful turn to a new chapter comes when “Oh My God” ends and “Keep It Rollin’” kicks in. It's almost like doubling-down on the new complexity, an idea that there will be not just sampling, but a little bit of composition too. It feels like a good thing to me – no, a great thing – like artists looking to what comes next instead of how to keep the same people listening. There’s an audience for that, too.

(Also, there’s just…something about thinking to yourself, “is that Bruce Freakin’ Hornsby?”, all the way through a hip hop song that is just blowing your goddamn mind (“We Can Get Down”). Amazing, I tell you. Amazing…)

I’ve avoided a word so far, and somewhat inexcusably. That word is “jazz,” and that’s central enough to what made Tribe so thoroughly innovative (e.g., “Jazz (We’ve Got)”) as to make me want to scrap this whole thing and start over (then again, what is jazz if not improvisation?). As pointed out in both of the articles linked to three paragraphs above, Tribe was among the first hip hop acts to go heavy into jazz, and that’s why The Low End Theory made the mark it did (and did that album really carry Dr. Dre through The Chronic?). As with Midnight Marauders, the signature sound – in this case, a jazz-inspired bass line – drops into the first track, “Excursions.” “Buggin’ Out” improves on the method with a dragging bass loop that feels a little like it’s always running a step behind the verses as they take off – especially in Phife Dawg’s opening lines (because his flow feels like it's running away from it). My favorite track on The Low End Theory (OK, yes, by now I’m wondering why I didn’t go with acronyms for each album) is probably “Verses from the Abstract,” a choice that grows from a couple things: the sweet, smooth vocals that play over the bridge/chorus and, most of all, that subtle, twangy guitar sample that holds the whole thing together. (And, yes, conscious that I’m going on, but I can’t leave out “Check the Rhime”; blow ye fucking horns, blow! And I’m diggin’ the flow, the call-response, the…everything. Great goddamn song.)

It’s not all jazzy bass and the sneaky-good and spare sampling on The Low End Theory. “Show Business,” the song right after “Verses from the Abstract” feels closer to traditional hip hop – and in a good way. If anything, though, that’s probably what tips the balance between the two epic albums: I’ve heard enough hip hop and for long enough for some of the familiar tropes (e.g., explaining what hip hop is (see, “Excursions”) and all the “in the house” business that shows up even in "Verses from the Abstract") to listen a little stale. In defense of all that, one of the biggest challenges with any musical genre (or any art, really), comes with trying to re-center yourself to what it sounded like when it came out. To put it another way, it’s not Tribe’s fault that I gave The Low End Theory a first close listen 26 years after it came out. Tropes that feel borderline ancient today didn’t sound that way in 1991.

All the same, the way I’m loading up this month’s playlist with Tribe tracks speaks to how well their work holds up over all those years. I’ve got “Vibes and Stuff” playing as I type this and I honestly can’t name another song that sounds much like it. Fucking incredible.

Anyone inclined to pay attention to such things probably knows that Tribe came out with We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service as recently as 2016. Recorded just before Phife Dawg passed, it’s a different experience, a little more poppy, for one, but also clearly influenced by all the music that’s come between Tribe’s early glory and today. I haven’t spent too much time with it, but more than a few tracks connected pretty well – e.g. “A Solid Wall of Sound,” (crap, no video/audio) “Kids…,” (ibid) and “Melatonin” (again...a still screen with me; it's good).

I could go on for days about Tribe (I mean, what about the guests? I haven’t even mentioned the guests (see: “Scenario”)! or the varieties of faces on the three different album covers for Midnight Marauders!), but I better shift gears to Q-Tip and The Renaissance before this thing becomes a book.

The Renaissance has, by far, the poppiest sound of anything I’ve heard Q-Tip touch. That’s not a knock, either, because, fun! You can shake two asses to more than a couple tracks on this one – see, “Move,” (quelle tribute!) see “Gettin Up,” see “Won’t Trade” (eh, maybe; I see those pauses trippin’ people up) – but even the slower, sultry tracks (“Life Is Better”) have a radio playability that, when I hear them, makes me wonder why the hell I never hear songs like this on the radio (seriously, that question both haunts me and makes me hate stupid radio, mostly because I DON’T UNDERSTAND ITS MISSION…WHY?!). To gripe a little, though (y’know, why not?), The Renaissance sounds a little more…synthetic(?) than Tribe’s earlier classics, more of a dude with a laptop feel than someone, say, calling in Ron Carter to play double bass on The Low End Theory. It’s still damn good…again, I’m listening to this as I type – the two songs I like least (“Official” and “You”) just happened to play, in fact, and they’re still interesting and original enough that I’m not at all clear as to why Q-Tip didn’t have a stronger run as a producer, like, say, Madlib.

To wrap this thing up, the difference between listening to The Renaissance and We Got It From Here (etc.) suggests something about both Q-Tip and Tribe. He’s better with them, for me, and for whatever reason; it’s probably something I could probably only get to if I listened and read a lot more. For all that, it’s fun hearing him have just a fucking blast on The Renaissance. As with all this stuff, whether you’re choosing between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, it’s all down to taste and mood. Q-Tip, though, has consistently put out music for people who get a bit of a thrill from innovation, and with enough moods within all of it to suit whatever you’re feeling.

Hip hop legends, and rightly so. And WAIT: I have done a MASSIVE disservice to Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Tribe's DJ. Even if Q-Tip's "the visionary," he's the guy pulling those ideas together. Damn me!

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