The Paths of Rhythm

A Tribe Called Quest’s pioneering music is one of many filaments that connects Americans of color with each other now and back through time.

Hanif Abdurraqib Go Ahead in the Rain | University of Texas Press | February 2019 | 17 minutes (3,425 words)

 

In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it. When slaves were carried to America, stolen from places like West Africa and the greater Congo River, with them came a musical tradition. The tradition, generally rooted in one-line melodies and call-and-response, existed to allow the rhythms within the music to reflect African speech patterns—in part so that everyone who had a voice could join in on the music making, which made music a community act instead of an exclusive one.

Once in America, where the slaves were sent to work in America’s South, this ethos was blended with the harmonic style of the Baptist church. Black slaves learned hymns, blended them with their own musical stylings that had been passed down through generations, and thus, the spiritual was born. In the early nineteenth century, free black musicians began picking up and playing European stringed instruments, particularly violin. It started as a joke—to mimic European dance music during black cakewalk dances.

But even the mimicry sounded sweet, and so the children of slaves made what sweet sounds they could and stole a small and precious thing after having a large and precious history stolen from them. But before this, when slaves were first brought to North America in the early 1600s, slaves from the West African coast would use drums to communicate with each other, sending rhythmic messages that could not be decoded by Europeans. In this way, slaves, whose family members were often held captive in different spaces, could still enter into distant but meaningful conversations with one another. In 1740, the slave codes were enacted, first in South Carolina. Among other things, drums were outlawed for all slaves. Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 reads: “And . . . it is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain . . . Negroes and other slaves . . . [from the] using or keeping of drums, horns, or other loud instruments, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”

The slave codes spread across plantations, first to the Carolinas, and then Georgia, and then the rest of the United States. Wherever there were slaves or their descendants, drums were torn from the spaces they occupied.

The thing about percussion, which remains true today as children still pound fists on lunch tables to stretch a simple beat into something greater, is that all it takes is a surface and rhythm—a closed fist or an open palm and something merciful enough to be trampled upon. Without drums, slaves would make beats on washboards, available furniture, even their own bodies, finding the hollow and forgiving spots with the most echo. They would stomp and holler. The voice, too, is its own type of percussion—particularly when it is used to rattle the sky on a hot day, when there is endless work resting at your feet. The work is also an instrument—the way the wood can be chopped is a percussion and the march to the work is a percussion and the weary chants, when laid close enough to one another, can be a percussion.

When they took the drums of slaves, the slaves simply found new drums in everything, and this is how African rhythms were retained and passed down, held close by those who knew what it was to have a culture ripped from them.

Jazz, then, is a music born out of necessity. When slavery was abolished in 1865, many former slaves went into entertainment with all they had: the music knowledge they’d kept as a means of staying alive, blended with what other black musicians had learned along the way. By the end of the nineteenth century, ragtime was born, and from ragtime sprang the blues, and somewhere in the middle appeared Charles “Buddy” Bolden, who played what would become jazz, who mixed ragtime and the blues together and improvised with his band in the early 1900s down south in New Orleans before he got drunk and fell unconscious at the New Orleans Labor Day Parade in 1906 and never recovered.

When they took the drums of slaves, the slaves simply found new drums in everything, and this is how African rhythms were retained and passed down, held close by those who knew what it was to have a culture ripped from them.

Buddy Bolden, a cornet player from New Orleans, is as much a myth as anything. He built his band by learning how to mix instruments from local New Orleans bands that played blues and ragtime separately but never together. From 1900 to 1906, he was the king of a new sound, before alcohol rendered him largely incapable of keeping up with the demand to make new music. No sound recording of Buddy Bolden exists. In 1907, he was overtaken by what is now known as schizophrenia. Buddy Bolden heard voices and was locked away in a New Orleans asylum for twenty-four years until he died, buried in an unmarked grave in a pauper’s graveyard.

It can be said that the entire story of jazz is actually a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires. Jazz was created by a people obsessed with their survival in a time that did not want them to survive, and so it is a genre of myths—of fantasy and dreaming, of drumming on whatever you must and making noise in any way you can, before the ability to make noise is taken from you, or until the noise is an echo in your own head that won’t rest.


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In the beginning, I played the trumpet as a boy because in a picture I saw from a time I can’t remember, Miles Davis was slouched in a black leather chair in a white suit, the jacket unbuttoned and gold chains resting across his black skin. In his left hand, he held a bloodred horn, his name engraved on the side of it in gold. I saw Miles Davis and I decided that he was cool. I first loved what I understood as jazz because the coolness inside it was an unspoken act. I was a shy and nervous kid, wracked with anxiety before I understood what anxiety was. I was desperate for a way to wear silence in a way that looked and felt cool to anyone in my presence.

My father played instruments, several of them well, but not well enough to strike out and start a band. He played drums, clarinet, keyboard, and, later, an alto saxophone. Some evenings, if the day had been particularly long, he would retreat to the basement and put on old jazz records: John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis. I imagine it was the lack of spoken language in the music that drew him to it—the understanding that not all silence is silence. I would, at times, sit at the top of the steps and listen, building my own language from the sounds.

And so, in the beginning, I played the trumpet as a boy to bridge a gap between my father and me. This gap wasn’t particularly tense or rooted in any conflict, but that somehow made it more difficult to navigate. When there is nothing to point to as an excuse for distance, the distance looms larger, more difficult to push.

At the music store, I picked out a used silver trumpet, much to my father’s delight. I was heading into the sixth grade, eager to find new ways to fit in and hoping a musical skill would be my entry point. I started taking lessons with Dr. Robert Parish, a music teacher who taught on the east side of Columbus, Ohio. He had already trained both my father and my older brother, and he was thrilled to take me on.

It was never the reading of the music that turned me off—I loved the intricacies of the notes from a young age. As someone who found joy in reading, to read and unravel notes of music was a pleasure for me. To translate them into actual sound, however, was a discouraging practice. Like many young people who get an idea, I quickly became disinterested once I realized that practicing the trumpet cut into the time I could have spent outside with my friends. My father had me set aside an hour a day—a reasonable request, but one that I constantly found loopholes in. I would wait until right before my father made it home before I started playing, blowing out the last few notes of “Autumn Leaves” as he walked in the door, in hopes that it would convince him that I’d put in my time. This worked until, of course, Dr. Parish realized I wasn’t getting any better over time. It became obvious that I wasn’t practicing at home.

And so, in the beginning, I played the trumpet as a boy to bridge a gap between my father and me.

Yet, I joined my middle school jazz band, hoping that I could sneak an easy grade onto my report card by hiding behind the more skilled players assembled there. The teacher was a white man. I carried my beaten-up trumpet case to school with me every day, the smell of valve oil permeating through the school bus on the days I’d clean the trumpet in the morning. Cleaning it was my favorite part—to restore it back to its original self, briefly seeing my face in the silver. It was in these moments that I most felt like Miles Davis, leaned back in his leather chair, holding his shiny horn, knowing he was the master of it.

For the best jazz players, the instrument is an extension of the body. I never allowed myself to understand this part. The trumpet was a beautiful instrument to me, and I did not imagine myself to be beautiful. To hold it was to hold something that still felt foreign. To press my lips to it felt like a reckless and unearned intimacy. Thus, the trumpet was always an unnatural experience for me, even though I tried to make it part of me for longer than I should have. It was less about what I wanted, and more about what I felt I deserved.

In seventh grade jazz band, I struggled to grasp my solos, missing notes and squeaking out weak notes that should have been loud, boastful, and brilliant. The teacher, in year two of having me as a student, suggested that I try another instrument. His reasoning was simple: my lips were simply too big to play the trumpet.

In the moment, this was a blessing for me to hear. Finally, a reason for my failure to make this beautiful instrument bend to my will. I went home and excitedly told my father the news: I could no longer play trumpet because my lips were too big to play it well. My father immediately flew into a subdued but palpable rage. Having been alive for so long, used to workplaces and spaces where navigating racist microaggressions was a part of an everyday routine, he saw to the heart of the issue. The next day, he demanded a meeting with the teacher.

Before dragging me to the school, he shuffled around the house compiling a stack of records: trumpet players Louis Armstrong, Lee Morgan, Wynton Marsalis, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, and sax player Eric Dolphy, all black. When we arrived, without sitting, he spread all of the records out on the teacher’s desk. He’d point to the back covers of the albums, some of them showing portraits of the musicians with no instruments attached to their faces. “Look at these lips,” he’d say, hitting the back of an album with his palm. “You think these lips are too big to play trumpet?” And there were Eric Dolphy’s full lips, staring back, answering the question on their own. Or Louis Armstrong, whose lips were even fuller than my own, grinning knowingly into the room’s silence. The teacher was stunned, surely not expecting a student’s father to ask him to answer for a racist slight. But, for me, the damage had already been done. Underneath my relief to imagine myself done with the trumpet was shame. For so long, I had considered myself undeserving of such a beautiful instrument. To hear it made plain—to be told that my body was, indeed, not made for it—was first comforting and then deflating. Yes, of course, I remember thinking. Of course I am not worthy of this glorious machine.

As I look back now, I know that for my father, this was something greater. I imagine that he, too, knew that my trumpet playing was a lost cause. He’d heard me failing at it, and I suspect that he knew I was sneaking the timing of my practices to appease him. My father wanted to defend me against the teacher’s slight, I’m sure. But even beyond that, he wanted to defend a history that he knew and understood. He wanted to defend the sounds that got him through his long days and the language that he could walk into easier than most others. This is the thing about history and people who come from a people who have had it taken from them. They know if they don’t protect what they can, there will be nothing to pass on to their children. Even when their children can’t get through a simple jazz standard.

This was all during the time of the Walkman, or if you had money—which my family didn’t—the early days of the Discman. In my headphones, most days, I played the albums of A Tribe Called Quest, the rap group from Queens, New York. Rap in my household oscillated between taboo and acceptable, depending on the year or the mood my parents were in, or if they’d decided to give up altogether and leave their four children to their own musical devices. Still, no matter what vibe they were on, the early albums of A Tribe Called Quest were acceptable to play in the house. It isn’t so much that my parents listened to them actively, but the sound of their songs felt like something acceptable—warm and vital.

The first song of The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, is “Excursions.” The spine of the song is a slow galloping bassline, a jazz sample from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s “A Chant for Bu.” I played that song the most during my brief flirtation with undertaking jazz music. It seemed an entire world away from anything on the first Tribe album, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, which was a vital introduction to the group’s ethos but didn’t resonate as thoroughly in Columbus, Ohio, in the summer months after it came out. That album had a jazzlike pace and feel to it, but The Low End Theory was the one that absorbed itself in the music, committing itself to almost being a jazz album.

This is the thing about history and people who come from a people who have had it taken from them. They know if they don’t protect what they can, there will be nothing to pass on to their children.

“Excursions” is the first rap song I knew that could sound good in almost any situation: in headphones, in the background on any night with a thick and heavy moon hanging above your head, in a car with the windows rolled down on a hot day. The relationship with bass in rap music, to that point, had been more computerized than instrumental. As an introduction to the shape of rap to come, here was A Tribe Called Quest, on their sophomore album, repurposing a bass guitar that was once played with someone’s hands dancing across the strings.

In the beginning, both after and before a new series of beginnings, there was a rap group from Queens composed of Q-Tip, the Abstract, with his nasally and introspective flow—a world builder with a deft touch and endless vision; Phife Dawg, Five-Foot Assassin, with his penchant for wordplay and punch lines; Ali Shaheed Muhammad; and Jarobi White, the brains and the backbone of the group.

What made A Tribe Called Quest special is that if one looks closely enough, it is possible to believe that they were sent here directly by some wild-dreaming ancestors, straight from another era. They felt like old souls, even when they were young. When I put my trumpet into its case for the last time, and tucked it into a closet somewhere, I played The Low End Theory for months on end, wondering if I’d ever stop. This was the jazz I had been looking for: an album that blended horns and funk the same way Bolden blended ragtime and blues and was seamless in its execution. The Low End Theory sampled Dolphy, Sly Stone, Weather Report, Julian Cannonball Adderley, and Jimi Hendrix, among others. The Tribe was one of the first groups to repurpose a long line of sound that our parents, and perhaps their parents, were in love with. There is a type of mercy in this honoring: a long reach backward toward something magical, in hopes that an unspeakable distance, perhaps between a parent and a child, can slowly become closer.

I loved A Tribe Called Quest because I wore hand-me-down jeans to school, my clothes were sometimes too big, and I didn’t make eye contact when I spoke, so I was decidedly weird. They, too, were walking a thin line of weirdness: just weird enough to stand out from their peers, but not so weird that it seemed to be contrived. The jazz, in some ways, made them cool. They wore baggy sweatshirts in music videos with all of their friends. Early on, particularly for their first two albums, it didn’t seem like they were angling for anything other than their own moment: a chance to recall some of the musical archives that they once held close, with very little interest in a relationship to the mainstream. Perhaps, they knew that the closer they carried their unique relationship with that sound to the light, the more chance it had to be taken away.

What made A Tribe Called Quest special is that if one looks closely enough, it is possible to believe that they were sent here directly by some wild-dreaming ancestors, straight from another era.

Tucked into the middle of The Low End Theory is the second single, “Jazz (We’ve Got).” I remember the music video, seeping from the television late on a Saturday night during Yo! MTV Raps. Everyone talks about the end of the video, when the music video and song transition to “Buggin’ Out” and the enduring image of Phife Dawg and Q-Tip with miniature white cups over their eyes, giving off the odd impression of cartoonish and large bulging discs in the place of their normal-sized eyes. But the first part of the video, the bulk of it, is the most enduring. The group walks around New York City in a haze of black and white, rapping in simplistic fashion about the nuances of jazz music. It is an easy relic of a time past when watched now, and it was easy to dismiss in the moment. When discussing the single on the school bus, the older kids would dismissively wave their hands and say things like “I’m not listening to this shit! This the kinda shit old people like!”

And perhaps that is true. A Tribe Called Quest made rap music for our parents and theirs but left the door open wide enough for anyone to sneak through. Anyone with rhythm or anyone who knew how to find it before the bass high-stepped itself across a dance floor. Q-Tip, in the first verse of “Jazz,” sums it up evenly: “I don’t really mind if it’s over your head / ’Cause the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead.”

So this is the story of A Tribe Called Quest, proficient in many arts but none greater than the art of resurrections—a group that faced the past until the present became too enticing for them to ignore. Of how I found myself beautiful enough for jazz music, but only in their image and nowhere else. Of how, in the Midwest, their songs first did not play out of passing cars but then played everywhere. Of how you can be both uncool and desirable all at once. Here, a story begins even before jazz. Like all black stories in America, it begins first with what a people did to amend their loss in light of what they no longer had at their disposal. With an open palm against a chest, or a closed fist against a washboard, or a voice, echoing into a vast and oppressive sky, or an album teeming with homages—here is the story of how, even without our drums, we still find a way to speak to each other across any distance placed between us.

 ***

Excerpted from Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, by Hanif Abdurraqib. Copyright © 2019 by Hanif Abdurraquib. Reprinted by permission of Abdurraqib.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His essays and music criticsm have appeared in The FADER, PitchforkThe New Yorker, and The New York Times, and his previous books are They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. His next book, They Don’t Dance No’ Mo’, is due out in 2020 by Random House.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath