An Intensely Personal Tribute to A Tribe Called Quest | Modern Society of USA

An Intensely Personal Tribute to A Tribe Called Quest

An Intensely Personal Tribute to A Tribe Called Quest

When it comes to experiencing music, our ears tell us only so much. In “Go Ahead in the Rain,” his book about A Tribe Called Quest, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib recalls the determination with which he listened to the hip-hop group’s fourth album, “Beats, Rhymes and Life,” when it was released in 1996. Thinking it would be their last, he was intent on loving it.

His hands, though, were narrating another story. At the time, Abdurraqib was a teenager in Columbus, Ohio, where it would get unbearably cold during the winter; fiddling with the buttons on his Walkman to skip a song on the cassette entailed exposing his skin to the frigid air. And yet: “I would pull my fingers out of gloves and rush to fast-forward what I could before the wind forced my hands back to the warmth they craved.”

Abdurraqib’s slender book is full of tactile moments like this, remembrances making it clear that A Tribe Called Quest will always evoke more for him than just a sound. “Go Ahead in the Rain” traces the story of the group over the past three decades. It pays attention to the larger changes in the culture, but its overall tenor is warm, immediate and intensely personal.

CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

Abdurraqib begins with a soaring, wide-angle view of the musical traditions that slaves brought to America from West Africa — drawing a path from a percussion that was outlawed by 18th-century slave codes to a jazz that was “born out of necessity” — before landing on his own childhood as a “shy and nervous kid” who took up the trumpet in an attempt to connect with his father. A Tribe Called Quest offered another chance for connection; their early albums, like “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” (1990) and “The Low End Theory” (1991), with their jazz samples and socially conscious lyrics, were deemed “acceptable” in his parents’ house, where a lot of rap was not.

Readers looking for a biography of the group will find some of the basics here, but it’s how Abdurraqib filters the information — absorbing it, refracting it through his own distinctive lens — that gives this compact book its power. He covers, among other things, A Tribe Called Quest’s beginnings in Queens; its involvement in the Afrocentric rap collective Native Tongues; and its nadir in the late ’90s, when the visionary energy the group brought to bear on its first three albums dissipated into something that started to sound dutiful and desultory.

Two forces hastened A Tribe Called Quest’s breakup in 1998, according to Abdurraqib. One was large and impersonal, having to do with the state of hip-hop in the ’90s, when a flood of money deepened the apparent divide between commercialism and authenticity, presenting artists with a stark choice: “Be real enough to stay underground, or go pop enough to get money.” He locates A Tribe Called Quest and its wide-ranging appeal “at the center of this tug-of-war,” with the group getting worn down by the strain.

This smart structural analysis is plausible enough, but what moves Abdurraqib the most is the intense and fractious friendship between two of the group’s core members, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. (Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White are also acknowledged as essential members in the book, but they appear mostly as onlookers to the main emotional drama.)

Abdurraqib remembers identifying with Phife from the start: the scrappy M.C. who mastered the ironic art of the punch line, cutting grandiose bombast with comic self-deprecation. Q-Tip gets respect here for his brilliance and ambition, but Abdurraqib likens him to a perfectionist older brother: demanding and a bit aloof, seemingly oblivious to how hard Phife was trying to prove himself.

Hanif AbdurraqibCreditKate Sweeney

The theme of mortality runs through the book, which is billed as a “love letter” on the cover but could also be called an elegy. Phife died of complications from diabetes in March 2016, just after A Tribe Called Quest had reunited and recorded “We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service,” their first new album in 18 years. The album was released just before midnight on Nov. 10, 2016, bearing lyrics that sounded veritably prophetic in light of the election results from just a couple of nights before. “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go”: What might have constituted biting satire in a more (ostensibly) innocent time was beginning to sound like a news transcript.

“Black folks have been creating with their backs against the wall for years, telling the future, speaking what is coming to the masses that aren’t eager to hear it until what’s coming actually arrives,” Abdurraqib writes. He says he is drawn to vibrations, beats and bass lines — “that which can be felt more than heard.” You can trace a line between this sentiment and Abdurraqib’s stubborn loyalty to cassettes long after CDs became available. CDs promised convenience and flawless digital sound, but cumbersome tapes — “the most tedious and least practical” listening technology — offered something more tangible; their fragility and physical constraints, the effort it took to skip songs, “locked a listener into a commitment.”

Hip-hop albums in the 1990s were “sprawling, overrun with skits and Easter eggs” that you might miss if you messed with the fast-forward button. Similarly, the small size of Abdurraqib’s book is belied by how much it contains. In one chapter, he moves from The Source magazine to Toni Morrison to Emmett Till and Otis Redding; in another he moves from Philando Castile to Alton Sterling to Sterling’s job selling bootleg CDs and another “CD man” Abdurraqib once knew.

“It’s funny, isn’t it — the things that play on our screens and in our heads for years, detached from any fullness,” he writes. To isolate something, to shear it from its context, is to distort it; by gathering stories from the past, Abdurraqib situates A Tribe Called Quest within the fullness of history and memory.

With Phife gone, “a group like A Tribe Called Quest will never exist again,” Abdurraqib writes. “At least now, I think, we can lay them to rest.” This lush and generous book is a call to pay proper respects — not just to a sound but to a feeling.

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