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Live Review: A Tribe Called Quest

Tramps, New York, June 18, 1998

Translating hip-hop from the studio to the stage in a convincing
manner requires as much panache and charisma as it does naked
aggression and attitude. Witness tonight’s lackluster performance
by opening act Parental Advisory. Without the extra tracks and
smooth production of the studio, the sound was reduced to two
rappers shouting unintelligible rhymes over a bunch of wafer-thin
samples. Hardly anything to get excited about — let alone alarmed
over.

But for every dozen failed live hip-hop acts like Parental
Advisory, there’s an exception to the rule: to wit, A Tribe Called
Quest. Throughout their celebrated nine-year career, this Queens,
New York collective has proven themselves to be a genuinely
exciting live event. Tonight, with the group’s fifth LP, The
Love Movement
, set to drop later this summer, the anticipation
was palpable.

The house DJ cut the music and up-and-coming rapper Mos Def
stepped on stage. The crowd blew up. When he introduced hip-hop
veterans Jonathan “Q-Tip” Davis, Malik “Phife Dog” Taylor and Ali
Shaheed Muhammad, the three members of A Tribe Called Quest, he was
grinning like a schoolboy. Tribe took the stage and ran through
what amounted to a tour of their discography, masterfully avoiding
the pitfalls of the live setting and never once letting the energy
level dip below the red zone.

Tribe succeeded onstage because they recognize that a hip-hop
show is more spectacle than musical event. They packed their set
with more breakdowns than a teen slumber party, and only slightly
fewer surprises than a White House deposition. Mos Def’s role as
the opening MC was the first of many unexpected treats. Rapper
Q-Tip showed off his beat-boxing skills in several crowd-pleasing
displays, at one point trading beats with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed
on the turntable. And Busta Rhymes appeared out of nowhere to add
his deep-throated growl to the growing melee. He remained on stage
for the rest of the set, grabbing the mic again for the closer,
“What’s the Scenario?”

To compensate for the fact that the lyrics were all but
indiscernible, Tip and Phife Dog illustrated their rhymes by
pantomiming. During “Oh My God,” Phife called out, “Who, me, sound
pathetic? When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” and Tip
appeared at his side to draw blood with an imaginary needle. Songs
like “Bonita Applebaum” (a show highlight), “Jazz (We’ve Got),”
“Phony Rappers,” “Electric Relaxation” and “Steve Biko (Stir it
Up)” benefited from the overblown delivery and hyperbolic body
language. If the elegance and subtlety of Tribe’s wordplay was
lost, their physical intensity more than made up for it.

Tribe also showed a firm grasp of concert etiquette, making sure
to give the audience plenty of old favorites, opening with “Buggin’
Out” and “Oh My God, and closing with “Can I Kick It?,” “Award
Tour,” and “What’s the Scenario?” When they did play new tunes, Tip
asked coyly for the audience’s approval. The group even chanted,
“Old shit? New shit?” before exploding into the venerable “Sucka
Nigga.” On the other hand, with Busta Rhymes beefing up the new
“Steppin’ It Up,” the crowd seemed not to care that they hadn’t
heard the song before.

In the end, the most impressive aspect of A Tribe Called Quest’s
set was also the simplest. They had a blast onstage. No matter how
much of a hard-ass gangsta you may fancy yourself, most people
don’t enjoy being scowled at for an entire set. Tribe has never
based their style on bad attitude. Tip, Shah, and Phife can smile
onstage without damaging their street cred. And so could their
guests: Mos Def grinned from ear-to-ear, and Busta Rhyme’s
flash-bulb smile nearly brought down the house when he made his
first appearance of the night. The good vibes were deadly
contagious and by the time Tribe tucked in the last chorus of
“What’s the Scenario?” there wasn’t a frown in the house.

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