The death of the love movement
THE RISE AND FALL OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 02:09
Every so often, an album comes along that not just changes your life, but shakes up the core of who you really are. I was a high school freshman when I picked up The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest from the now-defunct Bart’s CD Cellar in Boulder. At the time I hardly thought that the album would be the blueprint of my artistic tastes for the rest of my life.
The Low End Theory was a mainline of the Tribe’s influences shot directly into my subconscious. There were the freewheeling, loose rhymes of the Native Tongues crew, which birthed the Tribe, and their peers like De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. The strange rhythms of bebop and jazz fusion sublimated into Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s bumping, smooth production. And Q-Tip’s crate-digging aesthetic,
which stripped beats from obscure Funk and R&B records to craft the unforgettable sounds of Theory.
There’s never been a hip-hop album quite like The Low End Theory, which was the mid-point in the Tribe’s trilogy of classic LPs. Yet just two years later, in 1993, Midnight Marauders came down harder than a box stuffed with 45s. As I would be blindsided by Theory, Midnight Marauders marauded college dorms and downtown record shops, sparking bitter debates over which album is the ultimate magnum opus.
That incredible streak came to an end with the two albums A Tribe Called Quest released before splitting up in 1998: Beats, Rhymes, And Life and The Love Movement. The uneven quality of these records could still upstage chart-topping efforts by today’s bumper crop of wack MCs, but relentless touring and irreconcilable differences were beginning to fray the fabric of the seemingly sunny group.
Which brings us to “Give Me,” one of the laziest sounding songs on a lazy-sounding album, The Love Movement. The tinny drums and beats combined with Q-Tip’s most strained crooning sound like Jurassic 5 had tried their hand at carousel music after a marathon Sharpie-huffing session. The subject matter here is something vague about girls and rhyming prowess, just like every other song on the damn record. Noreaga, a suspicious extra ingredient in the normally succinct stew of Tip and Phife Dawg, acquits himself well enough, but the Tribe’s verses are forgettable, bordering on unintelligible.
“Shorty, you’re my shit, ‘cuz my style wild decent,” Tip raps, stretching toward the humble humor of albums past. But no amount of nostalgia could save “Give Me.” There had been missteps in A Tribe Called Quest’s albums before; People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, the first Tribe album, was a bit bloated, and “The Infamous Date Rape” flirted uncomfortably with misogyny. But in the harsh light of 2012, The Love Movement and Beats, Rhymes And Life sound like stark betrayals to the Afrocentric sound that the Tribe helped shape. How could this have happened?
Michael Rappaport’s 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes, And Life examined the group as they briefly reunited for the 2008 Rock The Bells tour. From the group’s giddy 90s era highs, to the deep divides that tore them apart on that fateful tour, the film documents three very different personalities who made the decade’s best hip-hop and nearly destroyed themselves in the process.
Even on his worse verses, Q-Tip is one of the most composed MCs of all time: always on point, always impeccably dressed, always digging through the most obscure LPs. Cut him and he’d bleed Weather Report records. Even his unmistakable voice sounds like it was fished out of a moldy crate of vinyl.
Beats, Rhymes, And Life shows both sides of the man, the gentle genius who provided the cerebral side to Phife’s fiery delivery, and brought the rhythms of jazz into hip-hop, along with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. During the tension-fraught Rock The Bells tour, Rappaport’s footage shows Q-Tip’s total command of the audience onstage, his every word treated like it came from a holy book.
But Tip was cursed by his own perfectionism. He was the one pressuring his band mates to do more, more, and more, and refusing to give up The Low End Theory to the label until they had to pry it from him. Mere mortals like Muhammad and Phife could never live up to his standard.
Beats, Rhymes, And Life documents Phife Dawg’s breathtaking rebirth on Theory’s “Buggin’ Out” (“Microphone check, one, two/what is this?”) and his long battle with diabetes. The famously sweet-toothed rapper was putting himself at risk with gobs of candy and sugar during the Tribe’s heyday, and blowing off his band mates when they tried to warn him. Phife in 2010, wrung out and waiting on a liver transplant, saw the mistakes of his brash younger self, but the scars still remained.