Photo courtesy Rootz MediaBack in 1990—after I watched KDOC-TV's Wally George rip into Rick Dees—Request Video came on, and crazy-funny images of Pedro, a 4-foot-high man with a sombrero, filled the screen. It was A Tribe Called Quest's video for "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," and at first I thought, "Oh, another Urban Dance Squad." But when I later listened to their debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm—which also includes the hits "Bonita Applebum" and "Can I Kick It?" (with its Lou Reed "Walk on the Wild Side" sample)—I realized these cats were different: the lyrics were smart, the music funky.
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Originally a four-piece from Queens, Jarobi soon departed (for culinary school!) and so did their old style of big-gold-chain rap. A Tribe Called Quest was now a Brooklyn-based trio—smooth (if nasal) rapper Q-Tip; Phife, the sports-jersey-wearin' 5-foot sidekick and DJ Ali Shaheed—following in the footsteps of the Jungle Brothers and the Native Tongues posse (Afrika Bambaataa, Queen Latifah, De La Soul), a loose collective of Afrocentric hip-hop artists trading on red/black/green lyrics (or as Q-Tip rapped on De La Soul's hit "Me, Myself and I," "black as black.")
With Zulu Nation politics and funky/jazzy bass samples, Tribe went after date rape, the use of the N-word and the shady music business—they were an alternative to mainstream hardcore and gangsta rap (Westside Connection verbally attacked Q-Tip on "Cross 'Em Out and Put A 'K'"), spreading into unfamiliar territory on 1994's Lollapalooza tour. That same year they were named group of the year at the inaugural Source magazine hip-hop award show, only to be pulled offstage upon the arrival of 2Pac and his Thug Life crew. (Q-Tip had met him the year before in connection with the Janet Jackson movie Poetic Justice.)
Tribe's Jive Records discography went on to include The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders,and Beats, Rhymes and Life;after 1998's The Love Movement,their relationship with the label became strained, and the individual members decided to concentrate on solo work. On a SoCal stage together for the first time in six years, the Tribe is back with hit single "Award Tour": says Phife Dog, "Coming with more hits than the Braves and the Yankees!" Maybe not quite, but you can count them as one of rap's real classic dynasties.
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST AT THE ROCK THE BELLS FESTIVAL WITH XZIBIT, CYPRESS HILL, JURASSIC 5 AND MORE IN THE ANGEL STADIUM PARKING LOT, 2000 GENE AUTRY WAY, ANAHEIM. SAT., NOON. $32-$90. ALL AGES.