20 Best A Tribe Called Quest Songs of All Time
We're going to miss A Tribe Called Quest. If we've really seen the last of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi (their "sometimes Y") as a group then we've lost one of the most influential and downright dopest rap acts ever. Their brand of jazzy, eclectic, and good-natured hip-hop left a mark on everyone from Kanye West to Pharrell and countless others whose artistry boils down to beats, rhymes and life.
Hip-hop heads got a glimmer of hope back in 2004, when ATCQ briefly reunited. Not only was it great to see our beloved Tribe members on good terms, but there was at least a remote chance of new material.
'The Love Movement' still ended up being A Tribe Called Quest's swan song. The new millennium brought a few concert and festival appearances, but no new album, and it looks like it's going to stay that way since Q-Tip says the group has performed their last show at Madison Square Garden as West's Yeezus tour openers in late 2013.
Disappointing, but that's OK. A Tribe Called Quest leaves hip-hop -- and music in general -- with an amazing catalog of work. Tribe appeals to everyone from the hardcore hip-hop crowd to casual rap fans with just a cursory knowledge of the culture, all while cooking up some food for thought in their music.
In honor of the group, The BoomBox compiled a list of the 20 Best A Tribe Called Quest Songs of All Time. Check them out below, reminisce with us and let us know if we missed anything.
Are you a fledgling rap fan? Interested in the the interplay between MCs in a group? Then A Tribe Called Quest's music is a must listen. While you're doing your hip-hop homework on them you should expect to see one word to appear often: chemistry. The combination of Phife's distinct raspy voice and high energy delivery and Tip's nasal voice and smooth flows make ATCQ one of the best examples of complement and contrast in rap.
The first single from their sophomore effort ‘The Low End Theory,’ ‘Check the Rhime’ is a perfect example of this synergy. On the song they run a back and forth routine perfected on Linden Boulevard in their native Queens, NY. The result is an effortless exchange between the ATCQ vocalists and a song that's both mellow (the verses) and amped (the chorus).
Also, there’s Q-Tip’s “Industry Rule No. 4080 / Record company people are shady.” ‘Check the Rhime’ = Relevant.
'Scenario' is the raucous closer to 'The Low End Theory' and one of the best examples of a posse cut done right -- thanks in part to Leaders Of The New School and an especially animated verse by a then dreadlocked Busta Rhymes. The chugging drums, sampled from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Miss Lover,’ play second fiddle to Busta’s own percussive flow in this career-making verse. Add a Spike Lee-directed music video and you have the makings of a classic song that gets crowds hyped even today.
Like the title suggests ATCQ go deep into their jazz roots on this single. Q-Tip uses a beat based on one of Pete Rock's unreleased creations as a backdrop for he and Phife's musings on urban life, listening to Shabba Ranks (slightly better reference than A$AP Ferg’s), Caribbean wisdom, their homies on Linden Boulevard, Zulu Nation and more.
‘Electric Relaxation’ is the coy counterpart to the much less subtle 'Hot Sex.’ There's a lot to unpack in this gem. The first thing is the lyrics. This is arguably the most quotable stacked song in A Tribe Called Quest’s catalog. Each is as humorous as the last: “I like 'em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian,” “Now let's knock the boots like the group H-Town,” “Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman's Furniture.” The beat itself is the song’s sexual tension in aural action. The bustling bass line and those shimmying keys are flirtatious, and the listener plays along.
The beat knocks too hard to worry about what the hell De La Soul’s Trugoy (a.k.a. Dave) is doing in the video with an eye patch. There’s not much needed to make sense of anything by the time the beat drops on A Tribe Called Quest’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are as in sync as they were on ‘The Low End Theory’ and their third effort classic, ‘Midnight Marauders,' just dropped. Unless you’re a low-caliber MC (Phife Dawg recommends you travel to St. Elsewhere), you should be celebrating. Whether you’re in New York, Virginia, Oakland…
‘I Left My Wallet In El Segundo’ was undoubtedly an accessible track, but think about how strange it is for a song about retrieving a wallet to come during the prominence of gangsta rap. This is one of ATCQ's first singles, too. It turned out trends don't matter when it's combated with some bass (this one’s sampled from The Chamber Brothers’ ‘Funky’) and some good ol' fashion humor. It’s a couple of long miles to go for that wallet, but this was just the start of The Tribe’s artistic journey.
One of A Tribe Called Quest’s catchiest songs is also one of its most unconventional. The single from the trio’s first album samples its bass line from the late Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ -- a song that takes a frank look at the darker, unseen sides of '70s New York. There’s a serene mood that comes along with that bass line though, which is something that adds to the confident aura Q-Tip and Phife Dawg brings here. Tip slyly pushes The Tribe’s beliefs, and the chaotic woodwinds that spaces the hook and verse reminds us that while ‘Can I Kick It’ is filling, it’s only really a sample.
When Ne-Yo sang, “I’m a movement by myself / But I’m a force when we’re together” on Fabolous’ ‘You Make Me Better,’ he was actually referring to A Tribe Called Quest. That’s actually false, but it’s applicable to the group. The Tribe is legendary, but Q-Tip is unquestionably the star of the trio. He was the movement on ‘Footprints’ in terms of pure skill and lyrical content. ‘Footprints’ has The Abstract laying out the ambitions and beliefs of his crew while managing to avoid sounding preachy. The Donald Byrd 'Think Twice' sample is engulfing and when combined with Q-Tip’s performance, ‘Footprints’ feels revelatory. "Vehicles of life they be rolling and be nudging / Searching for the virgins of life," the 19-year-old says near the start of his verse. This isn't just a call to action to just the listeners, but perhaps a reminder to Q-Tip himself as he experiences New York City, realizes his ancestry ("Remember me, the brother who said "Black is black") and encompasses youthful determination and pride.
ATCQ's debut may not be as lauded as their next two albums, but it does near the top of its catalog in terms of effervescence and overall sense of fun -- a strength that's amplified by the Billy Brooks’ ‘Forty Days’ sample. The minor keys of the beat work are well enough on its own, but the song’s greatness rests on Q-Tip’s performance. It’s hard to argue against Q-Tip’s cool factor -- the man literally sounds like the embodiment of cool. But the role of a slick-talking New York cat has rarely sounded so pleasing. As a dedication to Lucien Revolucien, a French MC who was an influential force in the hip-hop movement in his country, ‘Luck of Lucien’ is lowkey one of hip-hop’s greater tribute songs.
‘People's Instinctive Travels & The Paths of Rhythm’ is an overall great album -- not just as a first effort. Critics often confuse the project's experimental sounds with a lack of focus from the group. For that reason, the placement of ‘If The Papes Come’ as a B-Side to ‘Can I Kick It’ feels fitting. There are hints of the jazz instrumentation coming up on ‘The Low End Theory,’ but Q-Tip’s presence lies far left of the genre’s structural standards. In other words, this is an example of where Q-Tip as The Abstract is in full effect. It’s almost a stream of consciousness, but it favors fluidity in favor of being lucid. Rhythmic breaks like “I make sure the Tribe is iiiiiin” and the random ‘Bonita Applebum’ reference keeps the listener tuned into the song’s faster pace. The 1990 remix, which does away with Baby Bam of the Jungle Brothers’ verse, strips the Main Source’s ‘Just a Friendly Game of Baseball’-based instrumental into a leaner, more mellifluous listen. Left-field feels right here.
Imagine the awe and excitement in Barclays Center when the beautiful and bodacious Stephanie Santiago walked on to the stage to play Bonita Applebum covered in ATCQ-inspired body paint during one of the group’s final performances. It certainly recontextualizes the song. Before it became the show’s big moment, it was a wry ode to the pursuit of the opposite sex. A Tribe Called Quest’s second single gently floated outside of the Afrocentric ethics that would later help define them. It’s about the chase of round booty -- an easily relatable topic for most young gentlemen. Perhaps it’s too common of a sentiment, which is why it helps that it’s weird too. The quirks are done right though; the dry strum of that string is a calling card.
There’s quite a lot of backstory behind this song bluntly titled 'Hot Sex.' First off the video featured a masked Q-Tip starring as the sexual Phantom of the Opera. That was a product of a story that would’ve been easy blogger fodder in today’s era. Phife’s "strictly hardcore tracks, not a New Jack Swing" line on 'Jazz (We’ve Got),' off ‘The Low End Theory’,' got The Abstract punched in the face by a member of Wreckx-N-Effect's Posse Deep crew because they felt it was a slight to New Jack Swing pioneer and Wreckx producer Teddy Riley. Rather than appear in the video with a black eye Tip rocked a mask. Then there’s how it ironically landed on the ‘Boomerang’ soundtrack, an album full of New Jack Swing songs, and only found itself on European pressings of ‘Midnight Marauders’ and as part of bonus tracks on ‘The Love Movement.’ Most importantly, ‘Hot Sex’ marked a shift in the ATCQ sound as the first single following ‘Scenario.’ The masterful amalgamation of hip-hop and jazz found on the trio’s seminal sophomore effort wasn’t completely gone, but the group went in a more rambunctious direction.
There wasn’t much of an orientation to this change either. Jazz bassist Ron Carter was gone; funky mischievous keys were in. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg sprint with punchlines and young-and-ready boisterousness, but if lines like “I heard she likes the two on one like my man John Ritter” doesn’t cut it for you, the kinetics of the track should. Youthfulness proves to be just as refreshing as conscientiousness here, and in less than three minutes, 'Hot Sex' becomes a moment more memorable than, well, Wreckx-N-Effect’s entire career.
It’s not a J Dilla production, but ‘Lyrics to Go’ is Dilla-like in composition. The Minnie Ripperton sample is flipped to perfection as ATCQ uses the chord progression to convey something ethereal. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip traverse this space with free-associative braggadocio. It’s only old school in its release date; the guitar sample that opens the track feels like fresh air with every listen.
Phife Dawg learned he was a diabetic a month after ‘People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths of Rhythm’ dropped and considered quitting the group, but a conversation with Q-Tip had him eventually agree to step up his participation on ‘The Low End Theory.’ This didn’t simply mean more verses though. This was a moodier record, so Phife had to bear a little more. His big entrance record was the album’s second track, ‘Buggin Out,' but you could argue that got overshadowed by Q-Tip’s stunning performance on ‘Excursions’ to begin the project. ‘Butter’ finds Phife in a stage that spotlights why he was crucial to the ATCQ dynamic. Q-Tip could be slick because The Five-Foot Assassin carried the hype. On his lone solo track on ‘The Low End Theory,’ he uses this energy to portray himself as more of an amiable figure rather than a man on his soapbox denouncing the misguided efforts of the opposite sex. Also, let’s take a moment to express condolences to Parkay, a once useful refrigerator staple that had to catch shade on this one. At least it was for good reason.
‘Find a Way’ is one of the group’s shinier moments, and it came just as the group announced their retirement. It’s a single that really should’ve been a showcase for Jay Dee with its otherworldly production, but it also comes with a return to form for A Tribe Called Quest. It’s unashamedly catchy; the music video even comes with a follow-along chorus. The chemistry, a key component of ‘The Low End Theory’ and ‘Midnight Marauders,’ was back though, and it took finality and the fear of the friend zone to do so.
You may have said this floaty beat based off Steve Arrington’s ‘Beddie Bey’ could carry the song by itself if you didn’t hear Q-Tip’s cousin Consequence hop on the original version found on the B-side of 'Award Tour.' It’s decent, but Consequence’s forced, high-pitched delivery errs toward dissonance. Q-Tip and Phife throw quotables ranging from the latter’s Caribbean patois to end his first verse and Tip’s lengthened shoutouts to close the track. There’s a musicality to their performance. Much has been said about Q-Tip and Phife’s chemistry but has there been enough said about the duo’s coalescence with the tracks? It’s not just rappers over a beat on peaks like this one, but a singular musical identity focused on making you rock for eternity. Just like how Extra P wanted.
Would fans have liked Q-Tip, J Dilla and Phife Dawg to have been on the same page for the entirety of an album? Without question, but Q-Tip and J Dilla in unison for one song is a solid consolation prize. ‘Get A Hold’ follows the same downbeat tone that’s present in ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life,’ but this particular cut gets a boost thanks to J Dilla’s entrancing, slowed down sample of The Cyrkle's 'The Visit.' Q-Tip owns the groove, especially with his third verse. “We all got faults, don't ever try to think that you perfect / We all are human beings, there's bulls--- at the surface,” Q-Tip raps. The line would have a more meta interpretation by the time Michael Rapaport’s documentary came out. The group was then starting to fall apart.
The ‘Check the Rhime’ tidbit that starts ‘1nce Again’ is a bit ironic since it samples the peak of the group’s chemistry at a time when Phife Dawg describes, “The chemistry was dead, shot.” The first single off ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ did a pretty solid job of hiding the rough waters though, although it does give a slight glimpse like when Phife Dawg references his writer’s block: “Sometimes I might catch a severe case of writer's block / But by the end of the day you'll be on my jock.” The instrumental -- the first ATCQ single co-produced by the late Jay Dee (J Dilla) -- does its job to buoy the track. It was an odd time for the trio, and it’s noticeable on the group’s fourth effort. But here, Jay Dee and The Ummah use oddities -- weird music progressions and that idiosyncratic vocal sample -- to a melodic, head-bobbing success.
At his peak, you could pretty much have Busta Rhymes only yell an exclamation to get yourself a dope hook. A Tribe Called Quest’s form of dopeness always came layered though. To get to the hook, you’ll have to go through a criminally-addicting bass line, the energetic horn samples and a pair of well-constructed verses from Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. “When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” Phife Dawg asks. It’s a standout line out of the many that oozes with confidence.
One of the many things A Tribe Called Quest did right was how it chose dialogue over-preaching when it came to social issues. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were clearly upper echelon artists, but they never placed themselves above regular listeners when it came to debates like the N-word. Q-Tip cleverly looks at both sides of the argument on this ‘Midnight Marauders’ track. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s backed by a funky instrumental that builds as the questions pile. If he has to get your head nodding to think, so be it.