I was born in the late 70’s and grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC and Hartford, CT. I knew nothing of the “streets” or city life, although I was drawn to it. I wanted to understand the world that was so different from mine. So, like any curious little suburban girl, I grasped for things that I thought would bring me closer to that understanding. I watched “Breakin’,” wore my pink and gray parachute pants and practiced my head spins as often as I could. At the time, it seemed logical–I was 6 years old.
Despite my desire and incessant practicing, I quickly learned that breakdancing was not my calling. Soon thereafter, I found a new obsession–hip-hop–lurking closely behind the breakdancing culture that exploded in the 80s. In 1985, I stood in a family friend’s bedroom with my older brother and listened to Run DMC’s “King of Rock” album. I had never heard anything like it, but I wanted more. Soon thereafter, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane found their way to our boom box and we were hooked.
Fast-forward to our family trip to San Diego in 1990. On a hot summer day, my brother and I roamed through a flea market before heading to a Padres game with our parents. I spotted the stand that sold cassette singles and started scanning the titles. At that time, cassette singles were where it was at. You’d get the original track along with maybe 2-3 remixes without having to buy the whole album. It was at this flea market stand where I purchased the small chunk of hip-hop history that would forever shape how I measure hip-hop from that point on–“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” by A Tribe Called Quest.
I wore that cassette single out to the point where it literally would not play anymore. I bought the album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” and watched Yo! MTV Raps as much as I could, just to get a glimpse of Tribe videos and interviews. My catalog of hip-hop grew, but I always fell back on Tribe as the best. I thrived off of the beats, the samples, the flow, the lyrics, the intellect, and the fact that they celebrated their uniqueness without a care in the world.
The next two albums, “Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders,” solidified Tribe’ place at the top. I was supposed to go see them perform at Lollapallooza in 1994 but was sidelined by a yearly physical that somehow couldn’t be rescheduled (Note to self: if my future child has a doctor’s appointment on the same day as a concert where he/she will get to experience his/her favorite band for the first time live, I will let the child go to the show). I was devastated, and had to wait another 2 years until they came through and played at the college I was attending. It was my freshman year and the only time I’ve ever seen them live. I rode the rail, rapped along with them like I was the 5th member, and even got a wave and smile from Q-Tip after the show.
To this day, I continue to find surprises in Tribe’s songs–a witty lyric I somehow missed or a sample that now jumps out and makes listening to Tribe a new experience. I think something in hip-hop died when Tribe dissolved. Even though there are a handful of musicians that still try to carry Tribe’s torch and light that path of hip-hop, there still feels like something is missing.
I spent most of my teens and twenties immersed in hip-hop. Once Tribe called it quits, I turned to groups like Outkast, The Roots, Del the Funky Homosapein and Mos Def. These musicians excited me in the same way Tribe did, but never enough to knock Q-Tip, Phife, Ali, and Jarobi off of their pedestal. While it is true that all good things come to an end, from a fan’s point of view it is never easy to watch. Fans are greedy and sometimes forget that musicians are real people with real problems.
Recently, I was turned on to “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” a 2011 documentary directed by actor Michael Rapaport. This documentary speaks to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows of my favorite hip-hop group. It was sad to watch, but joyful at the same time because it transported me back to those years when Tribe’s albums dropped and gave us some of the best music that the world has ever heard. Even for those readers who never got into A Tribe Called Quest, this documentary is worth your time and attention. Enjoy!