A Tribe Called Quest emerged as a rap group at the latter of the Golden Era of hip-hop, and they are revered as one of the most conscious, Afro centric groups to ever bless the microphone. This group sidestepped mainstream, they approached social and economic issues of the time with a much more educated approach than other rappers of the time. The group embodies multiple forms of ethics, including ethics of care, community ethics, and character growth. The group created their own lane for consciousness, respect and staying connected to their roots in Africa.
A Tribe Called Quest emerged towards the end of the Golden Era of hip-hop, around the time Dr. Dre reached his peak with his patented G Funk sound. But ATCQ brought their own sound; their message lyrically aligned with other socially conscious groups like Public Enemy, but their sound and vibe was different. They had a more fun and loose sound. Most of their songs have a somewhat upbeat jazzy sound that you can easily bob your head to.
They set themselves apart by incorporating layered jazz instrumentals alongside the necessary record scratch. Tribe records created a metaphysical space for reasoning and questioning what was considered “normal.” They were a relief to those who remained patient throughout the downward spiral of the superficial and materialistic rap trend that would gain power and popularity and, inevitably, change hip-hop from what it was and plague the early 2000s.
The group broke the mold for hip-hop music. Around the time of their emergence, the “gangsta rap” and G Funk were the more popular sounds of the time. The group showed the world that there were more capacities to hip-hop than just the street. Their counter-narrative was so critical in achieving diversity and inclusion in hip-hop.
They showed hip-hop fans that you could still be fresh, with fun, relaxed sound. A Tribe Called Quest made it acceptable to be different and go against the grain. They played a critical role in achieving acceptance not just tolerance in social spaces. They diversified hip-hop culture by steering clear from common themes found in the lyrical content and subject matter. They challenged “acceptable” personas of masculinity. They countered the false narratives of black culture held by black people, whites people, and people who enjoyed hip-hop culture around the globe.
Through beats, rhyme, and just plain lived experience, the New York natives captured the imagination of young people around the globe. “Their difference in sound and clothing appealed to me as a college student at the time,” Dr. Roland Bullard said. “I listened to other groups like NWA and Public Enemy, but A Tribe Called Quest truly appealed to my mind.”
Of the ten foundational elements discussed in Daniel White Hodge’s book, The Soul of Hip Hop, the group embodies emceeing, and knowledge of God and self the most. They used poetry and divine speech in the majority of their lyrics and also talked about everyday life, culture and religion. Being an all male group, this put them in the best position to utilize ethics of care. A group composed of four members, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi Whiteand Phife Dawg, they made it acceptable to not be apart of the hardcore male persona that presented itself in the 90s, and self-awareness. For example, in Check The Rhime, Q-Tip said:
“Okay, if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock.Got the scrawny legs but I move just like Lou Brock,
With speed. I’m agile plus I’m worth your while. One hundred percent intelligent black child.
My optic presentation sizzles the retina.How far must I go to gain respect? Um.
Well, it’s kind of simple, just remain your own, Or you’ll be crazy sad and alone.
Industry rule number four thousand and eighty,Record company people are shady.
So kids watch your back ’cause I think they smoke crack,I don’t doubt it. Look at how they act.
Off to better things like a hip-hop forum.Pass me the rock and I’ll storm with the crew and…
Proper. What you say Hammer? Proper.Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.”
Individually, each group member had full knowledge of self, but as a group they were a force to be reckoned with.
Ethical relativism is also very prevalent in the group’s music. Their music reflected multiple theological influences. They had a successful fusion of Judeo Christian faith, Nation of Islam, and Zulu Nation. These men from their different cultural backgrounds and beliefs coexisted and still made great music together that still made you aware of self, and what’s happening in the world around you. You could tell that the group was grounded in something. They used these different beliefs as a framework for their music, but they didn’t beat you over the head with it. With that, they also put a lot of thought into what they were saying in their music. They cared about what they sounded like, and weren’t a group to sell out to mainstream media.
Character growth is another ethical principle that existed in their music. The underlying message in their music is to “do better.” At the time the came out, the protest and praise movement was in full swing. A Tribe Called Quest was socially conscious without being too self-conscious. In fact, they are probably one of the most overlooked and underappreciated groups to ever come out. A Tribe Called Quest came out in the late 90’s but they didn’t truly become popular until 2003 and 2004. A Tribe Called Quest can be considered the stepchild of hip-hop. Their music is an afterthought to a lot of Golden Era hip-hop. Many didn’t realize how good their message was until long after their music was released.
A Tribe Called Quest would ultimately pioneer the alternative hip-hop genre into what they helped establish as hip-hop’s greatest years. They were a breath of fresh air at the height of the East vs. West Coast divide.
A Tribe borrowed from both sides, between the West’s reality raps and the East’s flashy battle raps, they created a one of a kind sound.
Phife and Tip created lines of poetry about the realities of their surroundings, their experiences, and inner visions of the world outside the New York. Their voices, paired with tracks produced by Shaheed, paid homage to the sounds and vision of the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul.
A Tribe Called Quest had a way of sending messages to the black community. They offered an alternative to black males in multiple ways. From the way they dressed, their influence and popularity across socioeconomic and racial lines, their social awareness, and their powerful messaging. Perhaps most of all, the impact of A Tribe Called Quest was their ability to reshape and change social narratives. This is why they are revered and remembered so well. They are hip-hop’s counter narrative because they broke down the barriers and the structures of what it was like to be different.
They did this, and created a whole new space for artists to follow them. Without A Tribe Called Quest, Arrested Development, Common, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Outkast, and The Black Eyed Peas, even Kendrick Lamar would’ve fell through the cracks as musicians who could’ve been labeled as soft, or corny. A wave of artists, most of whom are household names, take their cue from the Tribe.