It feels like we’ve lost far too many great musical minds over the past few months. On Tuesday, another martyr of the funk grooved on up to musical heaven: Phife Dawg, rapster extraordinaire of the immortal group A Tribe Called Quest. The Tribe are an example of the chilled out but still razor sharp hip hop that bounced around in the golden age, the 90s. Decade of my birth, although I won’t be one of those freaks who thinks they’re a ninties kid. Such a strange and wonderful time. When you’d actually physically buy people’s mix tapes in TAPE FORM. Imagine that.
The Tribe rap with just enough energy to feel groovy as hell whilst also maintaining this lazy drawling undertone. The production is often fairly spare which is so welcome to my ears after hearing the obsessively auto tuned synthed up stuff that people release nowadays. All they need is a jazzy beat and some vibrating bass so that their kooky rhymes can take centre stage.
If you read this blog (if you haven’t plz do), then you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of too much aggression in rap music. That might sound weird as some might say that rap was borne out of anger at the world. Nonetheless, I am a believer in the theory that those that can take the piss out of themselves, take the piss out of others and just generally have a laugh are those that we should buy music off. I’m not about too much cussing, and I try to keep the rampant sexism away from my music collection as much as possible. This is why The Tribe speak to me so much. They definitely do not take themselves too seriously.
Some of their best material comes from the classic album ‘The Low End Theory’, their second. This is where Phife starts to fully flex his awesome power, whereas before it had been all about Q-Tip. (Let’s just take a moment to realise the genius of their rap names for a start). You’ll probably have heard the refrain from “Scenario”, if nothing else. This makes you want to fully throw down some break dancing moves. A prime example of the skilful way these boys navigate the rhymsphere. It’s never predictable, never dry, always slightly weird.
Exhibit A: “Check The Rhime”. What a sooooong. Not only are there bongo like instruments (so sweet, so smooth), but it also has one of the sickest opening samples in rap music. The rhymes are typically laid back and even playful. Just two best friends making some devilishly jazzy rap music. Not a big deal. Another gem from this album is “Buggin’ Out”, which has a more morose vibe and a moody bass line. Even with this underlying minor feeling, this still falls on your ears like a soft downy pillow. With lines like “I float like gravity, never had a cavity”, you can bet that they’re still the same clever yet light hearted kids that we love so much.
If chilled out beats is what you’re after, look no further than “Electric Relaxation”, from their album ‘Midnight Marauders’. This is a track that makes you realise how much people have learnt from the glorious genius of people like the Tribe. Those guitar chords! Sounds like Tom Misch has been grooving to a fair amount of this stuff. ‘Midnight Marauders’ (whose album name coincidentally reminds me of no less than HARRY POTTER- are these guys trying to kill me?), also yields more zesty fruit in the form of “Award Tour”. This song tastes like champagne. It’s bubbly, yet subtle enough to drink a whole bottle of. The cymbal heavy drum beat gives it a fizzy vibe, whilst the high xylophoney sound provides the kind of suspicious jazz that I’m sure James Bond was partial to.
Phife was a visionary, one of the true masters of his craft. And yet he has flown pretty under the radar compared to his counterpart, Q Tip. His death means that we have lost a true ancestor of rap. All the Kanyes and Kendricks of this world have everything to owe to this example of what Jason King of NYU calls “the rapper as more than a showman but a philosopher, individualist, soul-searcher”. So instead of a moment’s silence, I feel all of you should listen to ‘The Low End Theory’ all the way through. Gather a heard of intoxicated friends, lie down on the floor and let this beauty wash over you. On this Easter weekend may you summon Phife’s eternal spirit and galvanise your soul with some true old school groove.
Peace and love y’all,