DEEP is a guest writer who’s gracing The Sauce with a 30-year retrospective on Tribe’s classic debut. You can check out more of DEEP’s work at his website!
“Happy birthday,” said Arjo. I called him up to tell him I was finally listening to People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm – an album recommended by him – but it wasn’t my birthday. Before I could say “What for?”, the line was already dead. This appeared to me to be stranger than usual of him. Producers, by nature, are an eccentric bunch, prone to lose track of days, but not ones to mistake April for September.
No sooner had that thought settled like two pennies in a jam jar jangling, the sticky bass and sitar on Bonita Applebum had already begun to suck heavy on the pre-rain air of my room and on my unsuspecting, ferrety mind.
I was transported, tossed around like two red-white dice across the musty green roulette table in a humid, smoky casino. And laying there I saw a 20-something Q-Tip making his best sexy, bed eyes at the curvy contours of Bonita (the lady who, I suspect, had been blowing lucky, winsome kisses into his dice all night). She walked in an ellipse around the table in her red dress, leaving a trail of cigar smoke. Moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue, Tip followed with a lump in his pocket that was chiming with casino chips and burgeoning with slick rhymes.
This part of the story is about the best hip-hop love song ever written and on the whole my current favourite hip-hop album of all time, and why it could be yours too.
Part 1: How Bonita Applebum Broke Hip-Hop’s Hyper-Masculine Mould
A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was released on 17th April, last month, but 30-years-ago. 1990 was the year when MC Hammer went spastic with “U Can’t Touch This,” Mariah Carey was having visions of love, AC/DC were being thunderstruck, and Madonna was still on the cover of Vogue. And yet, the resolution of the mental movie A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album projects is as crystal as 4k, refined.
Tribe elicits a kind of mutual experience the writer Hanif Abdurraqib calls “seeing through the speakers.” Blink and you miss the cheeky punchline, the plotline twist or the epiphanous one-liner that made a whole movie worthwhile. This inevitably brings us back to Ms. Bonita and her pursuer.
Tip embodies the kind of cool that doesn’t need fur and high-maintenance – the Marvin Gaye kinda celestial cool, not the Kanye kind that requires yelling from the rooftops. Tip in this song is a paramour — preening, relentless and loquacious, beseeching a lady with a bountiful bottom (or as Mos Def would describe it – ‘Ass so fat that you could see it from the front’) to get with him. A-wooing he goes with a voice as soft as a coo; reminding us that love letters were once written with feathers; of simpler times when consent was paramount, when musicality was sacrosanct and inseparable from the complex acts of courtship.
Q-Tip projects the confidence of a man who could swish from street slang to boujee French with the speed of a switchblade. He doesn’t rap at his would-be lover insomuch as he dribbles around her in serpentine circles. I would liken his flow to a sidewinder slithering across moonlit sand – and it’s never so much about the viper itself, but the swishy motion in the trail it leaves behind on the cool, slanting dune. If Rakim was one of the first MCs to realize that rappers needn’t yell the point across, then it was Tip who let rap freely sprawl and slalom. And slalom he did across the room, around people, around the bassline, trying to follow Bonita close behind. Cadence won over aggression. This was Tip wearing a monocle, leather gloves, and blue suede shoes, oozing a class of a different kind of a pursuer.
This is a love song that celebrates the process so much more than the prize, the hunt more than the feast. You find yourself rooting for Tip to the point that you’ll feel scandalised as the song ends too soon just when the climax nears. It was as if Tip pulled the curtains down on Bonita’s velveteen love chamber that he was led to, away from our prying eyes, away from the casino. A gentleman-brother even if he’s from the ghetto, doesn’t kiss and tell.
Bonita Applebum was a far-flung departure from the hyper-masculine, testosterone-driven ditties that hip-hop was symptomatic of (and still is). Consider 50 Cent asking his girlfriend to do a drive-by shooting for him in 2003, in his song “21 Questions,” or Tyler, the Creator in all of Goblin (2011).
When Tip says, “So far I hope you like rap songs,” he empathises with the problems of women feeling alienated by most songs in the genre. The Tribe were acutely aware of that disparity and of “Bonita Applebum’s” place in hip-hop history. And the genius of it all is that they propose the solution in the form of a proposal.
“Bonita Applebum” has none of the overzealousness or unrealistic expectations, and has all of the key insights: “Satisfaction, I have the right tactics / And if you need ’em, I got crazy prophylactics.” Tip swoops in to rap more accessible for the ladies with a more sensuously visual narrative that alternates between pleading, appraisal, poetry and bravura.
The beauty of the song and notably the entirety of the album lies in the proficiency of guiding the eye. The song places importance on the foreplay instead of jumping right into the action. By saying “I like to kiss ya where some brothers won’t / I like to tell ya things some brothers don’t,” Tip, like a car salesman, identifies his customers’ needs, appeals to it and cannily upsells himself, but never crosses the line.
Q-Tip preaches careful, unarmed intimacy. He understands that the act of love-making is not the means to an end — instead, it is a collaborative improvisation: in which the instinctive travels between the distance of two bodies, the force of attraction, and their paths to that singular rhythm are so much more important than the destination. It’s like jazz. A Tribe Called Quest is all about the jazz.
Part 2: With The Melody of our Ancestors Behind Us and Ahead of Us
Snapping out of “Bonita Applebum” cinematic effects wasn’t easy, but Lou Reed’s unmissable “Walk on the Wild Side” sample on the following song, “Can I Kick It?,” does it well enough. It made me pause the listening session and dive headlong into a Google rabbit hole with a mission to excavate every other sample used on this album. Naturally, I started with “Bonita Applebum.”
The sitar riff is from Rotary Connection’s song, “Memory Band” from 1967, and the drumbeat from the song “Fool Yourself” (1973). The spacey, lo-fi guitar and keys, though sparse, was the melody that held everything together. The fact that those details were from the 1977 album called “Come Into Knowledge” is equal parts an inside joke and a double entendre.
The song’s precision is almost peerless when you consider that the track is originally a collage of samples made by a 15-year-old Q-Tip using pause tapes in dual cassette decks, which he raps over 5-years-later as a 20-year-old. Not simply is the prodigiouness that’s mind-boggling, but the Tribe’s palette (primarily curated by Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the Tribe’s DJ).
I imagine Tip as the famous sculptor Antonio Canova envisioning Eros and Psyche kissing in a huge block of marble, then thus manifesting it through a few strokes of a chisel.
The sounds of Cannonball Adderly, Jimi Hendrix, Jack McDuff, Richard Hayward, RAMP, Eugene McDaniels, Rufus Thomas, Malcolm McLaren, Grover Washington Jr., Luther Ingram, Billy the Baron, the Beatles to name a few, feature on this album. Yet no one is out of place, bickering, not one cast member is extraneous, and Tip’s sonics crowd-surfing over everyone else’s. This was either high art, black magic, or maybe a little bit of both.
These lines from the Tribe song “Jazz (We’ve Got)” solidified their expectation of themselves as musicians / necromancers: “I don’t really mind if it’s over your head / Cause the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead.” Tapping into an ancestral aesthetic gave them a compass that pointed true north, with past sounds guiding future grooves. Initially, A Tribe Called Quest’s motives were rooted in cryptically celebrating the sound they grew up with, but developed into a quiet kindness done to honour what their parents and grandparents grew up with.
Ever since the advent of the Tribe, crate-digging became an extension of musical archaeology and genealogy for African-American producers and the world. Consider Anderson .Paak sampling Julie Coker’s “Ere Yon” for the song “Saviers Road.” Consider my young producer friend from India, Arjo, sampling an obscure sitar loop inspired by the Tribe. This reach for self-discovery goes beyond the mainstream genre’s regional clustering and deep into heritage. A Tribe Called Quest became a prophecy fulfilled for a diaspora looking for music that feels like home.
To quote the poet Hanif Abdurraqib: “What made A Tribe Called Quest special is that it is possible to believe that they were sent here directly by some wild dreaming ancestor from a distant, forgotten era… They felt like old souls even when they were young.”
Sampling is similar to a seance. Ouija board aside, it is an attempt to commune with voices long dead through a medium and whisk those sounds into the present day. This album was Tribe’s medium, and Tip was the shaman.
Imagine drums as means of travelling. Let us step back and count our blessings for the eras of sounds we have had to build upon. Let’s step back around 11,000 years when our ancestors cowered in the day-time in the open grasslands. But as night fell under the stars, around the fire, the powering drums made them feel as tall as the gods. Spears in hand, bringing a mammoth to its knees just because they had the beat in them and their tribe around them.
Congratulations on having arrived here. Getting here wasn’t as easy as you’d think. And it would have been near impossible without a tribe or a sense of rhythm.
Part 3: Comic Relief in El Segundo
Don’t let my over-enthusiasm take away from what is foremostly a sincerely playful, quirky, and joyous album, one that’s explicitly dedicated to the art of moving butts.
The heart of the album is squarely placed in the song “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” a story of four brotherly friends on a meandering road trip punctuated by cheek and buffoonery. Tip is seen completely disregarding the conventional point-A-to-point-B narrative of then-contemporary MCs, for the point-B-to-Y-to-A route in a goose chase for his wallet.
Other highlights include the life-affirming trumpets in “Luck of Lucien,” where shortly Phife asks Tip “What’s wrong with snails?”
There is the jump scare of frogs croaking in “After Hours.” “Public Enemy” is a ghetto retelling of a 1708-dated British nursery rhyme of Old King Cole, who is “popping and pimping on hunnies with monies.” “Ham ‘N’ Eggs” is as crispy as the name suggests, and dangerously high on cholesterol. “Can I Kick It?” could be your very own superhero theme song. “Go Ahead in the Rain” is what I call a ‘stomp song.’ It’s a track that even gets my dear mother’s head-bopping, thus, firmly placing it as a personal favourite.
Part 4: Lest We Forget to Dance
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm on its own is an album that will stand the test of time. But seen in the context of when it was birthed, it could possibly be one of hip-hop’s most important detours. Not just sonically, but socially.
Around 1990, members of the infamous rap group N.W.A. had their face pinned down on the concrete, with knees to their necks. Those knees were attached to the on-duty officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, pointing real guns at them for the minor offence of shooting people with a paint gun.
American politicians, broadcasters and lawmakers denounced N.W.A. Hip-hop was labelled as a menace to society, allegedly inciting unrest among the disenfranchised and the downtrodden with their shackle-rattling conscious rap. Parents across the country were banning hip-hop from their households believing rap groups to be a proponent of violence.
The average human life adds up to 650,000 hours. And not all of them can be spent in anger. It was in this critical moment, A Tribe Called Quest provided hip-hop with an alternative route with their whimsical lyricism, flow, tradition, tenderness, warmth and vitality. More accessible and accommodating, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm carried grooves that even parents couldn’t deny. Tribe’s body of work helped redefine the idea of rap for the people who wouldn’t accept it in the first place, and it opened up many closed-off minds and doors. Over time, hip-hop became less of a taboo at homes.
A Tribe Called Quest shifted the paradigm of rap, brought balance to it by being the yang to N.W.A’s yin. But most importantly, it gave people a reason to take delight in dance at a time when heightened racial injustices sowed fear and uncertainty among African American communities. And I believe that there’s a lesson in there somewhere for all of us.
Fast-forward to April 2020, and I’m self-quarantining like the rest of the world due to a global pandemic. The death toll is 198,000 and climbing steeply. A pall of gloom is over us. I, in my capacity, staunchly committed to optimism, am headbanging to a Ravi Shankar record at 3-in-the-morning, like I suspect my once-refugee grandfather did in his harder days.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm made me trip upon an unlimited power source spanning generations. I have since tapped into a culturally-rooted inheritance of rhythm that I didn’t know was there. I’d like to thank my tribe and the Tribe for guiding me here. It kind of does feel like the first day of the rest of my life.
A yo bro, here’s your lesson / Even though the rain starts pourin’ / Start reachin’, start soarin’ / Rhythm saviour, hear ya callin’…”
A Tribe Called Quest, “Go Ahead In the Rain” (1990)
My thanks to editors Brandon Hill, Conor Herbert and Prachi Goyal, and writers Shea Serrano and Hanif Abdurraqib for their contributions.