A Tribe Called Quest: 20 Essential Songs – Rolling Stone
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A Tribe Called Quest: 20 Essential Songs

R.I.P. Phife Dawg: Revisit pioneering New York rap crew’s best tracks

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

A Tribe Called Quest (L-R): Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White.

Karl Grant/Photoshot

Through 10 years and a handful of critically adored albums, rappers A Tribe Called Quest went from spitting fly routines on Linden Boulevard in Queens to mapping out the electrically relaxed blueprint for wave after wave of abstract alterna-rap bohemians — laying the footprints for Digable Planets, the Fugees, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the Black Eyed Peas, Lupe Fiasco and even superfan Kanye West. Together, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad cemented the link between jazz’s grooves and hip-hop’s future funk, provided a show-stealing scenario to launch their friend Busta Rhymes to fame and incubated a young producer named Jay Dee who would influence a generation of beatmakers on his own. A freewheeling trip of Lou Reed licks, tales of lost wallets, giddy scratching, Ron Carter bass assists and salty punchlines, their body of work was like nothing hip-hop had seen before, or has since. In remembrance of Phife Dawg, who passed away Tuesday at age 45, here are the pioneering rap group’s 20 essential tracks.

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

“Hot Sex” (1992)

As hard as Tribe comes. The first track after The Low End Theory (surfacing originally on the Boomerang soundtrack) ditched bassy semi-acoustic jazz-funk for slamming, stripped down electronics, with a beat that's as nasty as the title suggests, built off a looped sample of Lou Donaldson's "Who's Making Love." Phife and Tip step to suckers with all the nasty swagger they can summon: "I'm not Lawn Doctor so just step off with the ho," Phife spits, while Tip boasts that "the poems that I create are for hookers and the crooks," donning a creepy mask in the video to hide the shiner that Wreckx-n-Effect had just given him for seeming to diss New Jack Swing on "Jazz (We've Got)."

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

“Award Tour” (1993)

The first single on Midnight Marauders is pure celebration, finding Tribe and their buddy Trugoy from De La Soul in a glorious Native Tongues victory lap, from Brooklyn and Queens to London, Tokyo and beyond. Phife Dawg just about bursts out of the speakers — "[sliding] in the place/Buddy, buddy, buddy, all up in your face" — sounding live and lovable even when he's telling the listener to call him “Dyna-Mutt.” "Award Tour" is a high point in the career of a man with a track record longer than a DC-20 aircraft. 

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

“Sucka Nigga” (1993)

With one verse and one chorus, Q-Tip offers one of rap’s deeper looks at the most controversial and volatile word in the English language. “The suckas are those who front. Niggas who be trying to rhyme all hard. I lived that shit, man. That’s something I vowed never to rhyme about,” he told Vibe. “We’ve taken a word that the white man put on us in a derogatory sense and put love in it. But yet — and still — he can’t use it. I know it stems from a bad background, but I’m just representing the street. All the kids in the street know where that shit comes from.”

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

“Electric Relaxation” (1994)

One of A Tribe Called Quest's best-loved songs perfectly encapsulates Q-Tip and Phife Dawg's comparable strengths as MCs. Q-Tip is the street poet funky enough to drop lines like "I wanna pound the poontang until it stinks," yet he also sensitively notes the anguish of unrequited sexual attraction ("I couldn't drop dimes ‘cause you couldn't relate"). Phife Dawg is the corner dude whose command of urban pop ephemera like BBD's failed 1993 single "Above the Rim" and BET Video LP host Madelyne Woods is only matched by his raunchy punch lines ("Let me save the little man from inside the boat"). Underlining their back-and-forth flows is an inimitably slowed-down loop of Ronnie Foster's "Mystic Brew" and a mumbled Q-Tip chorus that, in the pre-Internet days, had heads struggling to figure out what he says: "Relax yourself, girl … what?"

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

“Oh My God” feat. Busta Rhymes (1994)

A bass line reconfigured from Lee Morgan's "Absolutions" darts underneath a busily horn-stuffed track constructed from Kool & the Gang's "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?" and Busta busts out the title on the chorus like he can't believe he's had to wait so long. But the MCs hold center stage. Tip sums himself up in six words – "I'm a black intellect but unrefined" – and Phife flirts memorably with Dawn Robinson if she happens to be listening. It's not easy to listen to Phife boast "When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic?" now that the disease has taken his life. But that line also sounds fiercer and more defiant than ever.

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

“1nce Again” (1996)

Q-Tip was one of the earliest champions of J Dilla's muted, punchy, sample-distending production. He became enamored with it shortly after P-Funk keyboardist Amp Fiddler introduced him to the producer at a '94 Michigan Lollapalooza tour stop. Tip invited the young beat constructer, then known professionally as Jay Dee, to join the Ummah production squad. The first single from ATCQ's fourth album, "1nce Again," is one of the first major tastes of his sound: rap as a woozy, chopped funhouse mirror. Smarter critics got it, but pulling a dark, moody There's a Riot Goin' On move after the giddy smash of "Award Tour" felt anticlimactic; having R&B singer Tammy Lucas handle the hook was anathema to true-school heads; and ATCQ documentary director Michael Rapaport even calls the track "the beginning of the end." Still, there was very little out there like this at the time, and "1nce Again" predicted some of the most critically adored beatmaking of the next decade.

Tribe Called Quest; Essential Songs

“Stressed Out” feat. Faith Evans (1996)

The highlight of the “Baby Phife Version” of ATCQ’s moody and downbeat “Stressed Out” is Phife Dawg’s closing verse. (The album version of “Stressed Out” doesn’t include Phife, and instead focuses on Q-Tip trading mics with his cousin, newcomer Consequence. Consequence’s outsized presence on ATCQ’s 1996 album didn’t sit well with Phife, and tension lingered between the two during recording sessions.) Phife often plays the ruffneck counterpart to Q-Tip’s wise-beyond-his-years sage, but here he sounds like the mature one. He kicks a ragamuffin flow, noting how he takes medication for diabetes, and praises his loving wife, Deisha Taylor, and how “she cures me from stress.” His brief words about his marriage — “Lay my head on her breast/Sugar dumpling knows best” — are among the most positive you’ll hear about monogamous relationships in the hip-hop canon. Years later, Deisha was a kidney donor for her husband in 2008, and their relationship was chronicled in the documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.