On Instinctive Travels And Paths Of Rhythm

Releasing five recordings between 1990 and 1998, A Tribe Called Quest pioneered new narratives for hip hop, eschewing the idiom’s traditional postures in favor of an “alternative” sound both musically and lyrically. In fact, upon its release, the group’s debut, Peoples’ Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990) confused critics: Rolling Stone famously said of it, “it’s impossible to imagine how people will put this music to use.” But many fans found Tribe’s music useful. Their sound had a jazz-inflected easy-funky-feel good groove and this sound coincided with the availability of sampling technology such as the E-mu Systems SP-12 and the Akai S-900, machines with which Tribe built beats and songs organically out of layered samples whose performative traces imparted a lot of flavor to the music. Listen, for example, to the sampled bass slide (taken from Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”) and the long reverb-tailed snare drum hits (taken from Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “Spinning Wheel”) on the group’s hit, “Can I Kick It?”:

Complementing the easy flow of their dope-slow beats and jazzy samples, Tribe’s lyrics were playful and inventive, humorous, and socially aware. Q-Tip and the late Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, who passed away this week, would trade verses, Q’s silky cool, smooth voice against Phife’s raspier sound. On “Kick It?” Phife raps lines (2:00-3:00) about using music and letting it use you:

“Follow us for the funky behavior
Make a note on the rhythm we gave ya (…)
I instruct you to be the obeyer
A rhythm recipe that you’ll savor
Doesn’t matter if you’re minor or major
Yes the tribe of the game, rhythm player
As you inhale like a breath of fresh air.”

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