Through 10 years and a handful of critically adored albums, rappers A Tribe Called Quest went from spitting fly routines on Linden Boulevard in Queens to mapping out the electrically relaxed blueprint for wave after wave of abstract alterna-rap bohemians — laying the footprints for Digable Planets, the Fugees, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the Black Eyed Peas, Lupe Fiasco and even superfan Kanye West. Together, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad cemented the link between jazz’s grooves and hip-hop’s future funk, provided a show-stealing scenario to launch their friend Busta Rhymes to fame and incubated a young producer named Jay Dee who would influence a generation of beatmakers on his own. A freewheeling trip of Lou Reed licks, tales of lost wallets, giddy scratching, Ron Carter bass assists and salty punchlines, their body of work was like nothing hip-hop had seen before, or has since. In remembrance of Phife Dawg, who passed away Tuesday at age 45, here are the pioneering rap group’s 20 essential tracks.
De La Soul, “Buddy (Native Tongue Decision)” feat. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Monie Love (1989)
While Q-Tip had been smoothly making the rounds on Jungle Brothers and De La Soul albums, this all-star posse cut marked the debut appearance of Phife Dawg, combining the talents of both A Tribe Called Quest MCs on one track for the first time. “We was in the studio and just wanted to invite some people on there,” De La Soul’s Dave told Brian Coleman in Check the Technique. “The closest people to what we was doing at the time was the Jungle Brothers and Tribe. And Latifah was a labelmate on Tommy Boy. It just became a family affair.” The casual session end up giving shape to the Native Tongues crew, a loose group of hip-hop bohemians that would soon define the aesthetic of Nineties rap’s experimental, Afrocentric wing.
Jungle Brothers, “Doin’ Our Own Dang” feat. De La Soul, Monie Love, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah (1989)
Before Tribe dropped their debut album, every Q-Tip appearance on a Native Tongues track was an event, and his contribution to this partying posse cut was no exception. Tip doesn’t jump on the beat like a hungry upstart. Instead, he eases in with his first line — a coolly contemplative “A tree is growing” — then gets faster and fancier as he rhymes. He doesn’t dominate the track, because that’s not what Native Tongues was all about, and in fact, he celebrates his crew rather than himself, ending on a gracious reference to his hosts: “Praise the Lord for the JBs.” But not even the great Monie Love, who boogies into her verse ready for stardom, upstages him here.
“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” (1990)
Though he dubbed himself “The Abstract,” Q-Tip had a natural storyteller’s gift for concrete lyrical detail from the jump. With a loping beat from the Chamber Brothers’ “Funky” setting just the right lazy and comic tone, he precisely describes every aspect of an ill-fated road trip: the four-foot-high sombrero that Pedro wears, the ’74 Dodge Dart, the meal of enchiladas and fruit punch, the wallet’s contents of props numbers and jimmy hats, how to drive from the Belt Parkway to the Conduit. Not bad for a kid barely out of his teens rapping about an exotic-sounding place he learned about from its use as a frequent punch line on Sanford and Son.
“Bonita Applebum” (1990)
“This is the song that truly birthed the idea of neo-soul,” Questlove told Rolling Stone of People’s Instinctive’s second single. “It was the coolest love song hip-hop has ever offered us.” On the 1990 track, Q-Tip blends the sultry guitars of soul-jazz group RAMP’s “Daylight” with the vocals and sitar of Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” for a track that thumps hard enough for the guys but nods to the bedroom for the girls. “I was obsessed with it,” Pharrell says in the ATCQ documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life. “I had never heard nothing like that in my whole life.” The song exemplified the group’s mellow side and turned Q-Tip into a Golden Era sex symbol. Who was Bonita? “Somebody who was refined,” Black Thought says in the doc. “But had a fat ass.”
“Can I Kick It (Spirit Mix)” (1990)
A Tribe Called Quest rode the smooth Herbie Flowers bass line on Lou Reed’s 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side” to their biggest U.K. hit ever. While the song boosted their profile, it didn’t help their bank accounts nearly as much. Said Phife at a London concert in 2011, “Lou Reed, instead of saying no altogether, he was like, ‘Yeah, nice! Give me the motherfucking money.’ Like Smokey in Friday.” Phife later told Rolling Stone, “to this day, we haven’t seen a dime from that song. Still, it helped put the group on the map, and the call-and-response chorus was so instantly indelible that it would end up being chanted everywhere from Jay Z’s groundbreaking 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, to Robbie Williams’ smash single “Rock DJ.” The sample-crazed “Spirit Mix” used for the music video raised the funk level to delirious heights.
“If the Papes Come” feat. Afrika Baby Bam (1990)
The quintessential A Tribe Called Quest B-side, “If the Papes Come” was the non-LP companion to “Can I Kick It.” Borrowing pieces of Slick Rick, Lou Donaldson and some spaced-out dialogue from Axis: Bold as Love by Jimi Hendrix, this track would have a life far beyond flipside status: Listen and imagine where hits like Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” would be without it.
The opening track of the jazz-flecked The Low End Theory was one of hip-hop’s great statements of purpose, with the crew connecting musical dots between different eras of radical music. Q-Tip took a 6/8 hard-bop lick from Jazz Messengers bassist Mickey Bass and flipped it until it bounced along in hip-hop’s funky 4/4. Tribe sample O.G. hip-hop pioneers the Last Poets “(“time is running and passing, passing and running”) the same way that avowed Tribe fan Kanye West would use Gil-Scott Heron at the end of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In Q-Tip’s lyrics, rap is like the bebop that Q-Tip’s dad listened to, Bobby Brown is amping like Michael, and the abstract poet is prominent like Shakespeare or Langston Hughes.
“There were a couple of other groups that were sampling jazz at that time,” Ali Shaheed Muhammad told Nextbop.com. “Gang Starr, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main Source … but I think the way that we delivered it was in such a way that had not really been done.” As Q-Tip told Brian Coleman in Check the Technique: “At the time, there were some things happening in hip-hop, sonically, that I wanted to expand on, especially with the bottom. … I would always explain how dynamic I wanted things to be by telling Bob [Power, engineer], ‘I want this to be more at the bottom, at the low end.’ I guess it was a lack of articulation but it got the job done. And that’s where the title came from.”
“Check the Rhime” (1991)
On the first single from ATCQ’s seminal The Low End Theory, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg reminisce about their pre-fame days as teenagers spitting in ciphers on Linden Boulevard in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. A slightly accelerated looped rhythm from Minnie Riperton’s “Baby, This Love I Have” sets a casual, laid-back mood, with Phife spitting verses as if he were lounging in the afternoon sun, swatting away rivals like flies. “A special shout of peace goes out to all my pals, you see/And a middle finger goes to all you punk MCs,” he raps. It’s also an assertion of Phife’s primacy as a rapper. Some doubted his talent after his halting verses on People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, but here, he quickly proves himself Q-Tip’s lyrical equal.
“Jazz (We’ve Got)” (1991)
The lovely cool-out vibes of “Jazz (We Got)” stem from a tantalizing collaboration between ATCQ and Pete Rock that never came to fruition. One of the potential backing tracks was a Pete Rock arrangement of Jimmy McGriff’s “Green Dolphin Street.” “Pete had come up with that beat, but the song we were going to do never materialized,” Q-Tip told Brian Coleman for the latter’s 2005 book Rakim Told Me. “I already had the record he used, but I wanted to get his permission. He was like: ‘Yeah, go ahead.'” Pete Rock isn’t mentioned as a co-producer in the Low End Theory credits, but Q-Tip gives him a shout-out at the end of “Jazz.” Meanwhile, a lyrical stray shot from Phife Dawg — “Strictly hardcore tracks, not a New Jack Swing” — raised the ire of Teddy Riley protégés Wreckx-n-Effect, best known at the time for the lame pop-rap hit “New Jack Swing” (and, later, the even worse “Rump Shaker”). Wreckx-n-Effect exacted revenge for Phife’s diss by surrounding Q-Tip at a 1993 Naughty by Nature concert and punching him in the eye. The Zulu Nation and the Nation of Islam subsequently negotiated a truce between the two.
“Buggin’ Out” (1991)
Those familiar with the video for “Jazz (We Got)” — see above — will recall that the song abruptly ends at the 3:30 mark. Phife Dawg then says, “Yo, check this out,” and the black-and-white A-side shifts into the primary colored B-side, “Buggin’ Out.” “Microphone check, one-two, what is this?” rhymes the five-foot assassin with the ruffneck business over a live-and-direct Ron Carter bass line. Phife’s second “Buggin’ Out” verse is even better as he reveals how being in overcrowded New York can get overwhelming “like a migraine pounding,” despairs about riding on the train “with no dough” and admits that sometimes he just wants to be alone. “I had a twin brother that died at birth so I was a lonely child sometimes, but that loneliness helped me out a lot,” Phife told The Source in 1993. “I’d be in the bathroom showering when I was mad young, and the rhymes would just be coming.”