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A Tribe Called Quest’s Top 10 Songs

on November 10, 2016, 4:00pm
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This feature was originally published in March 2016.

On the 2014 track “Dear Dilla”, Phife Dawg reflected on his own mortality in a letter to his friend, the deceased producer J. Dilla. By then, Phife had undergone two different kidney transplants: first from his wife in 2008 and, when that didn’t work, a second transplant in 2012. He had been diagnosed with diabetes when he was 20 years old and lived with the disease for over half his life, until he died this past March, at age 45, from complications.

“I had a dream about you, fam. It’s 2005, we in the same hospital room.” This is how the song starts, and it’s also one of the few times Phife puts himself into the verses, except to say things like, “We miss you, kid,” and “Due time … I will see you.” The rest is given over to praising his friend, which was very in the style of the self-effacing emcee. The man who called himself the “Five Foot Assassin” never dwelled on things he couldn’t control, like his height and illness, except to make a joke at his own expense. “Who me pathetic? When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”

It’s not that Phife or A Tribe Called Quest, the group he formed with emcee/producer Q-Tip and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, didn’t take issues seriously. They were politically active, committed to black empowerment, and firmly opposed to violence. But they didn’t take themselves seriously, at least not all the time. Intellectual observations were followed by dumb jokes, and the innovation, the afrocentrism, and the throwbacks to jazz and bebop were different ways to make the music more interesting.

Although they initially broke up in 1998, shortly after The Love Movement, their influence never waned. Their first three albums remain all-time classics, especially 1991’s The Low End Theory, and are essential listening for anyone interested in turn-of-the-millennium hip-hop. Now, they’ve returned with their final studio album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, and to mark the occasion, we listed 10 of the group’s best songs. Agree, disagree, these are our favorites, and we hope you’ll join the celebration by posting your own picks in the comments below.

–Wren Graves
Staff Writer

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10. Buggin’ Out

From The Low End Theory (1991)

With one of the simplest but most effective instrumentals on The Low End Theory, “Buggin’ Out” distills Phife and Tip’s respective abilities as MCs. Phife makes his mark with his first verse on the classic album, delivering any number of signature lines: “Microphone check, one, two, what is this?/ The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business”; “Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have/ You want to diss the Phifer, but you still don’t know the half”; etc. Meanwhile, the robust bass lines are some of the most memorable on an album with a lot of memorable bass lines. Following Low End Theory opener “Excursions”, which had verses from Tip and Tip alone, “Buggin’ Out” was the album’s first showcase of the legendary on-record teamwork between Phife and Tip. –Michael Madden

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09. Can I Kick It?

From People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

Jay Z cut a cover, and so did Sage Francis. Jay Electronica made it an integral part of his live shows, and Lykke Li pulls it out for encores. The iconic call-and-response chorus has been referenced and parodied and translated into Icelandic (“Má Ég Sparka?”), and so it came as a surprise when Phife Dawg told Rolling Stone last year that, as far as royalties go, the band “hasn’t seen a dime.” The proceeds all went to Lou Reed, whose “Walk on the Wild Side” is the most distinguished sample used on ATCQ’s track – a sample which the record label never cleared. Still, as Phife said, “You have to take the good with the bad,” and the good (“we never got sued”) includes that “Can I Kick It?” was the moment that the Tribe kicked down the doors of the mainstream. –Wren Graves

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08. I Left My Wallet in El Segundo

From People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

ATCQ’s first single established several of the priorities for the group, like a sense of humor, a helplessness around pretty women, and food. The food in this case – enchiladas for Q-Tip, fruit punch for Ali – was located 3,000 miles away from their New York homes in El Segundo, California, and is found on a road trip the two take when Q-Tip’s mom leaves the house for a week. There are spaghetti-western guitars, a breathless description of the fateful accident, and a rich attention to detail right down to the contents of the lost wallet, which happen to be a lottery ticket and some condoms. The telling of the journey is epic, even if the journey itself is not. –Wren Graves

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07. Check the Rhime

From The Low End Theory (1991)

Though it explodes again and again with a loop from Average White Band’s “Love Your Life”, “Check the Rhime” is more notable for the interplay between Phife and Tip when the beat quiets down. At first, the two MCs conversationally swap the mic back and forth, starting with shared memories of their Queens roots, though they eventually break apart for one full verse apiece. “Industry rule number four thousand and eighty: Record company people are shady,” Tip declares, echoing the sentiments of “Show Business” earlier on The Low End Theory. However, with the nimble technical skill and energy on display here, the Tribesmen were always going to leave an indelible mark on hip-hop despite their distaste for certain business practices they encountered. –Michael Madden

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06. Oh My God

From Midnight Marauders (1993)

Like peanut butter and jelly, peaches and cream, or pineapple and jalapeño peppers, something magical happens when Busta Rhymes and The Tribe come together. For “Oh My God”, those three words are the extent of the collaboration, but Busta is magnetic on the hook. He remixes his own “Oh my gosh!” from his scene-stealing verse on “Scenario”, and while he isn’t saying much, neither are Tip and Phife. The song is a couple of pals bullshitting out on the corner for so long that Q-Tip says he’s “living like a hooker.” They compare Jamaican accents and trade self-effacing boasts, which is when Phife Dawg asks, “When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” Pure fun. –Wren Graves

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05. Award Tour

From Midnight Marauders (1993)

Like “Scenario” before it, “Award Tour” showed the potential to be had in a Native Tongues collaboration, as De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove joined ATCQ for the lead single off Midnight Marauders. By the time of the song’s release, both ATCQ and De La had established themselves as uniquely progressive entities in hip-hop, and the song celebrates their collective renown as Trugoy the Dove rattles off a list of stateside and international places where they could prove as much. In their verses, Phife and Tip both think back to their days as fledgling rappers in the late ‘80s, with Phife noting that they’re presently “coming with more hits than the Braves and the Yankees.” Sure enough, “Award Tour” became ATCQ’s highest-charting single and remains so to this day. –Michael Madden

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04. Bonita Applebum

From People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

Bonita is Spanish for “pretty,” and of course, “Applebum” is even more descriptive. But unlike some of his contemporaries — say, Snoop Dogg or Tupac — Q-Tip isn’t dismissive towards his lover, or even worse, entitled. He’s just a goofy kid who suspects Bonita is out of his league, but thinks he might be able to charm her with some fast-talking — that is, if he can get through the conversation without panting. Not many artists have written better about the apocalyptic effect that beautiful women can have on a 20-year-old’s brain. –Wren Graves

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03. Electric Relaxation

From Midnight Marauders (1993)

With its sizzling, one-line chorus (“Relax yourself, girl, please settle down”), “Electric Relaxation” is hypnotic and horny in equal measure. “I took you out, but sex was on my mind for the whole damn route,” Q-Tip raps when talking about a particular date, and accordingly, the song itself is dense with sexual lines. Some are more graphic than others, this one from Phife being my personal favorite: “Let me hit it from the back, girl, I won’t catch a hernia!” Somehow, none of it comes across as overly macho or vulgar, as the Ronnie Foster-sampling beat provides a smooth base for Phife and Tip’s even smoother flows. –Michael Madden

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02. Jazz (We’ve Got)

From The Low End Theory (1991)

For a group often associated with jazz rap, A Tribe Called Quest didn’t make many jazz songs. The Tribe is said to have disliked the term, and their goals were always focused squarely on the rap, with the jazz merely a means to an end. If the way they structured their flows owed something to the way jazz composers developed their themes, then, too, did it owe something to funk and soul and the hip-hop that had come before. So, why are they associated with jazz rap? Because they’re so fucking good at it. Q-Tip cribbed the beat from a Pete Rock demo tape, which itself samples the Jimmy McGriff Quartet album Friday the 13th at the Cook County Jail. The verses are like trumpet solos, picking out a flow and exploring variations. The lyrics are full of interesting abstractions. “Some say that I’m eccentric cos I once had an orgy/ And sometimes for breakfast I eat grits and porgies.” The final section, with its repetitions of “Ya don’t stop!” is catchy enough to be its own hook, but works even better as the final piece of a larger whole. –Wren Graves

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01. Scenario

From The Low End Theory (1991)

“Scenario”, ATCQ’s first Hot 100-charting single, may have become a commercial success on the strength of its “Here we go, yo!” hook more than any other element. Still, there’s plenty more to unpack due in part to the cameos by Native Tongues group Leaders of the New School. A total of five MCs, including a young Busta Rhymes, relentlessly and kinetically follow one another, starting with Phife’s opening salvo and finishing with Busta’s spazz-out of a closing verse. The song hit the charts two years before the Wu-Tang Clan debuted with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and it’s arguably as strong a posse cut as anything the Clan would do on that album. –Michael Madden

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