Back in the day: Jarobi White, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg ©Aristos Marcopoulos via Epic Records

Why did rap music change?

A Tribe Called Quest's comeback album reminds us how wholesome it once was
February 13, 2017
"We Got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service" by A Tribe Called Quest

Hip-hop has won the 21st century. No other cultural form has been as influential on pop music, fashion, youth culture. It has even penetrated politics. When Barack Obama was president, he regularly invited rapper and producer Jay-Z to the White House. Donald Trump has even got in on the act, hosting singer Kanye West at the (suitably bling) Trump Tower. Fortunes have been made and millions of records been sold. The music that dominates today’s streaming sites is the direct descendant of hip-hop—which is now equally popular among white and black listeners.

Despite its success, though, many people think of rap music—the most successful element of hip-hop culture—as misogynistic, materialistic and violent. A musical form driven by furious energy and creative vigour has been overshadowed by its content, which often seems to conform to the worst stereotypes of aggressive masculinity.

It’s not hard to see where rappers have got their bad-boy image. One of the most popular albums of the noughties was Get Rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent, which described—even celebrated—his life as a crack dealer on the streets of New York. (At my school there was a rumour—since confirmed—that 50 Cent’s speech was slurred because he had a bullet lodged in his tongue). And then there’s Eminem, the white rapper adopted by hip-hop godfather Dr Dre. The best-selling rapper of the 2000s, Eminem set out to define himself—or at least a character very similar to him—as a violent maniac. “Kim” is more hate song than love song, in which the rapper imagines killing his ex-wife in the woods. (He was also accused of hijacking black culture for his own ends, much as Elvis Presley stole from Little Richard and other black artists.)

But rap music hasn’t always been so violent. Long before songs about “bitches” and “bling” conquered the world, rappers were exploring politics and parties—the whole range of human experience. As unlikely as it might seem, until fairly recently rap was pretty wholesome. So what changed?

Among the hip-hop artists who have taken up the mic over the past 30 years, A Tribe Called Quest, who released a new album at the end of last year after an 18-year silence, stand out as one of the most innovative. The New York group first came on the scene in the early 1990s wearing coloured shirts, conical hats and baggy trousers. They looked silly—and often sounded it. It was all part of their charm.

As told in the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, the group’s members went way back. Q-Tip (real name Jonathan Davis) and Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) grew up together in Queens, New York, having met—most wholesomely—at church aged four. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (the third member) met at high school. Jarobi White joined part-time, and the four began performing together in 1988. Initially just called Quest, on impulse one evening they introduced themselves as A Tribe Called Quest. The longer name has stuck.

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In 1990, they released their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It was brilliantly unusual. They rapped about holidays gone wrong (“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”), and their dietary habits (“I don’t eat no ham and eggs ’cos they high in cholesterol”). They sampled Indian sitars. Naturally, there were songs about girls, but they were surprisingly courtly—one is described as having “elaborate eyes.” And when they did get freaky, their advances didn’t simply reflect traditional patterns of male sexual dominance: Q-Tip promises to kiss a girl “where some brothers won’t.”

Sensitive issues are tackled with wit. On “Pubic Enemy,” there is a parable about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. “The fair maiden in the royal bedroom/Caught the king scratching.” The king’s mistake, we learn, is that he “wore the crown but not the ‘jimmy hat.’”

The most popular song on the album—and arguably of all their music—was “Can I Kick It?” On a beat which incorporates the looping bass line from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Q-Tip and Phife Dawg perform call-and-response with a crowd: “Can I Kick It?” they ask. “Yes you can!” the crowd responds. The single made it into the top 20 in the UK.
"If A Tribe Called Quest inherited a whimsical delight in words and beats, then other groups like NWA went down a political path"
The song was arguably an example of pointed cultural re-appropriation: Reed’s original contained the offensive line: “All the coloured girls go ‘doo do doo do.’” Tribe’s lyrics also anticipated the victory of David Dinkins as Mayor of New York, the only African-American to hold the position.

The group’s second album, The Low End Theory (1991) was a fusion of rap and jazz. Music critic John Bush declared it “an unqualified success, the perfect marriage of intelligent, flowing raps to nuanced, groove-centred productions.” Then came Midnight Marauders, just as impressive. The group released two more albums—both of which were reasonably well-received, but not to the same extent—before their 18-year hiatus began in 1998.

“Keeping it real” was an important part of early rap music. The form emerged in the early 1970s in the troubled areas of the Bronx as a new form of authentic black expression. The new Netflix documentary Hip-Hop Evolution traces its origins back to Kool Herc, a New York DJ who noticed that the crowd enjoyed the parts of funk music known as “breaks,” in which all instruments drop out leaving only the drumbeat. His audience went wild and began performing stunts—hence the term break-dancing. A friend of Herc’s, Coke La Rock, performed something resembling a rap over the top of the music: “Hip, hop, you don’t stop” and “Hotel, motel, you don’t tell, we won’t tell.”

The distinctive linguistic patterning of rap has multiple sources: the call-and-response preaching style in black churches; the 1960s “Last Poets” who performed songs on street corners with consciousness-raising titles like “When the Revolution Comes” and “Black People, What Ya’ll Gon’ Do?” And of course the rhythmical taunts Muhammad Ali directed at his opponents.

If A Tribe Called Quest inherited their whimsical delight in words and beats, then other groups drew on their explicitly political message—especially in the 1980s, when black communities began to suffer during Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs.

NWA (“Niggaz With Attitude”) formed in Los Angeles in 1986. Their music was unlike anything that had been heard before. It was driven by anger at police attacks against African-Americans in Compton, the ghetto that in the late-1980s had become infested with crack cocaine. It was the crucible for what we now call gangster rap. NWA released powerful songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “Parental Discretion Iz Advised.” The group’s fierce debut album, Straight Outta Compton, went platinum. The music industry was stunned that such explicit music—both in terms of its language and its politics—could appeal to young white audiences. The controversy, the obscenity, the raw power of the music was bracingly, terrifyingly, new.

Watching F Gary Gray’s successful 2015 biopic about NWA, also called Straight Outta Compton, it is striking how genuinely radical it was. African-Americans were rising up against the overwhelmingly white police force under which they had suffered for years. In 1992 that rage spilled out on to the streets after four white police officers, caught on camera beating black motorist Rodney King, were acquitted by a jury. NWA’s music was the sound track to the riots.

Later rappers seem to have inherited the stylish brutality of NWA’s music but left behind the social criticism and political anger. By the mid-1990s, rap’s main subjects were guns, money and girls. The gang culture plaguing black communities was peddled as a sexy lifestyle designed to appeal to the white market. For example, New York’s Big L, who released the bestselling Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, rapped about shooting people in Harlem. The canny moguls of hip-hop saw their chance. And an art form that grew out of the inventive drive of the black community re-packaged itself as a cheap thrill for suburban audiences.

There are still glimmers of the ingenuity that made A Tribe Called Quest so scintillating: 29-year-old Kendrick Lamar, in particular, is a master wordsmith, whose lyrics are engagingly mature. But many of today’s stars have made fortunes rapping about shooting people, assaulting women and selling drugs. Take Gucci Mane, a 37-year-old from Atlanta. You get the flavour from a recent New Yorker article: “Each time Gucci Mane gets out of jail, he likes to go to the recording studio.” His recent song “Aggressive” is far from easy listening: “We crazy and violent and they can’t teach us / Preachers couldn’t reach us but the hoes gon’ greet us.” The video, in which Mane goes to a club and showers strippers with dollar bills, borders on self-parody.

One of the biggest singles of the last few years was the rap-R&B record Trap Queen, released in 2015 by Fetty Wap from Paterson, New Jersey. (The video has more than half a billion views on YouTube.) Gangster themes feature prominently. Many other popular rap artists, like Mozzy from Sacramento, write music conforming to the same trend.

What explains the dominance of gangster rap over its funnier, more enlightened cousin? Perhaps part of the answer is that violence sells records. But while explicit lyrical content doesn’t always make for comfortable listening, it is, in one important sense, more comfortable for the mainstream. Bluntly, it gives white audiences what they might stereotypically expect from young black men. Which is why when Obama played with the Jay-Z lyric, “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one,” at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—signalled in Hip-Hop Evolution as the moment rap music had been thoroughly absorbed by popular culture—some of us weren’t cheering at the flavour of rap that had gone mainstream.

A Tribe Called Quest’s new album We Got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, gives us a glimpse of the path that rap could have gone down. It is just as varied as their older work, which makes it an invigorating listen. Indeed, the whole thing fizzes with energy—18 years’ worth. As a Tribe fan, it feels like a privilege to hear Q-Tip and Phife Dawg tag-team rhyming once again.

All four original members appear on the record, even though Phife Dawg died in March last year from diabetes complications. (He nicknamed himself “Funky Diabetic.”) His verses were recorded months before his death and this fact alone guarantees the album classic status among Tribe fans.

But the album stands on its own merits. The group still has a knack of making bizarre combinations work. “Thank You 4 Your Service” mixes dub reggae with old-school jazz, electro with Elton John-sung choruses. The rapping is as punchy as ever. Yet We Got it from Here serves as more than a reminder that rap can be fun. The music isn’t always upbeat. On the chorus to “We The People,” Q-Tip impersonates—on the way to taking down—Americans intolerant of gay people and Muslims. Systems of oppression are as much their theme as partying.

Behind the scenes there were serious tensions. As the 2011 documentary revealed, creative differences kept the group silent for so long. When Phife Dawg received a friendly text from Q-Tip before he was going for an operation, he looked genuinely surprised that he was wishing him well.

People are complicated, and Tribe cover the full range of human emotion. Their music is important because it is written and performed in three dimensions, with different impulses and competing styles. This is the true corrective to the rise of empty gangster rap: not music which is unthinkingly positive, but complex, thoughtful music, which reflects the paradoxes of the people making it.

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