Jonny Auping | Longreads | February 2019 | 20 minutes (5,266 words)
Hanif Abdurraqib claims that he “wasn’t interested in writing the definitive book on A Tribe Called Quest.” What he produced instead was much more powerful. Abdurraqib’s recently released book, Go Ahead In the Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest, does provide a history of the revolutionary rap group, but more importantly it’s a memoir of listening and feeling, a deeply personal book unafraid to pair music criticism with intimate reflections.
A Tribe Called Quest debuted in 1990 with the album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, an eclectic layering of samples produced by the group’s de facto leader, Q-Tip, and rhymed over with quirky stories and confident punch lines. Their first three albums, all released by 1993, are considered hip-hop canon and three of the most influential albums of the past 30 years across any genre.
A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 comeback album seemed destined to debut amidst doomed circumstances. Phife Dawg, the group’s swaggering and quick-witted lyricist, had died of diabetes between the making of the album and it’s release. Three days before the album came out Donald Trump won a shocking presidential election. No singles had been released prior to We’ve Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, but it turned out to be powerful response to the politics of the time, a prophetic pushback against inequality, as well as a statement of the group’s place in popular culture. Pitchfork called the album, “the first time in their career that the entire group was at their peak.”
You could argue that Go Ahead In the Rain is the type of dream project that anyone who has ever felt immense fandom — or even love — for a particular music would want to write. It’s a tribute to a group, and who doesn’t enjoy explaining why their favorite should also be your favorite? But Abdurraqib earns the authority to actually pull it off, not just through his elegant writing but also by having the courage to use Tribe’s music to examine his own place in the world and reckon with what he discovered.
Abdurraqib took the time to speak with Longreads about the dynamics of fandom, the relationship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, and the current state of music.
Jonny Auping: When did you know that you wanted to write something significant or even book-length about A Tribe Called Quest?
Hanif Abdurraqib: I think that the first bit of interest that I had was shortly after Phife died. I was in a school giving a talk. The talk kind of turned to Phife’s death and life and work, and I realized a lot of them did not know who A Tribe Called Quest was. Not just that they didn’t have a passing interest; legitimately didn’t know who they were as a group.
Then I began to think about how a thing that I struggle with, with older rap fans, is there’s sometimes more of an investment in shaming folks than there is in offering a narrative that people can latch onto and find their own way to the music that they maybe don’t know. I kind of wanted to offer that. I’m not an expert on the group. I’m a fan of the group. I wanted to make that divide clear with the book. It’s kind of a book from a fan’s perspective.
When you say shaming you mean older rap fans shaming young rap fans about not being educated about the music before them?
Right. From an early point, knowledge about music is something that’s easy to weaponize. Your music knowledge is a way to place yourself above those who don’t have the same music knowledge as you. That, for me, has not worked as a way to guide me to better or more interesting music. I’ve begun to think of ways that my own work has perhaps added to that and not benefited folks in not showing them a path to the music that they may like but don’t know they’ve had an ear for the whole time.
This book was kind of working in service of that and trying to find a way to articulate a love for this group that I’ve had for an entire lifetime at this point, and maybe open up some doorways for other folks.
A good critical practice for me has been to determine the stakes by inserting myself into the piece so that the stakes are not only high but also personal.
When you had that idea to educate people about Tribe in a way that’s not condescending, were you slowly putting together the ideas for a book proposal or was it just ideas accumulating in your head?
It was mostly an accumulation of ideas. What happened was I worked at MTV News and from early 2016 to early 2017 I had written this series of pieces about A Tribe Called Quest. I wrote a eulogy-type thing for Phife. I wrote a thing about the album coming out and the SNL performance and then I wrote a thing about the Grammy performance. That had created a body of work with a thread through it that felt substantial. So when University of Texas Press asked me if I wanted to write a book about A Tribe Called Quest it was because I already had this small body of work that felt like it could have expanded further out.
With some distance it’s clear that there’s structure to this book, but as a reader you don’t know what’s going to come with each chapter. Certain chapters are deeply personal, some are pretty historical when it comes to the context of the music, and some really examine the art behind it. I know every chapter has some of all of those things, but when you were outlining this book did you consciously map out places for all those elements or did a lot of that figure itself out in the writing process?
I wish I could find the original proposal document because in the mapping out of the book, the chapters were nothing like what the chapters ended up being, because much like an A Tribe Called Quest song or album, the writing process for me was to begin in one place and find a better avenue to another place and deciding I had to get there by any means I could find, be it extensive research or finding a personal narrative to thread it. I wanted the book to feel like I was pulling a bunch of samples together, like I was creating one harmonious sound.
Good personal writing — and there are bits of this book that feel like a memoir — that kind of writing, when it’s good, feels effortless, which is how this reads. Do you find it difficult writing about yourself?
I am someone who writes primarily about things I am passionate about, be it music or popular culture. I’m ruminating on ideas around life, death, joy, and survival — all these are things I’m either passionate or curious about. So the stakes are high for me. A good critical practice for me has been to determine the stakes by inserting myself into the piece so that the stakes are not only high but also personal. That, again, is difficult because we’re talking about being honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the work you’re doing. But for me, I find no other way to write about the things that I’m passionate about other than to at least have myself be adjacent to them in order to determine the worthiness of the stakes.
When you dig into these albums specifically, the language of your writing takes on a tone of music criticism, but it comes through the lens of this very personal connection and appreciation of the work. Would you characterize your work in writing this book to be as a music critic?
Well, sure, or at least a critic. I think the book, for me, felt like more of a critical look at fandom and kind of an unraveling of fandom and consumption. I was talking to someone recently about an artist they loved who released an album recently that they did not enjoy. I thought there was something really powerful in a person saying they didn’t enjoy this thing by this artist that they have a great deal of affection for. I think that is a fascinating bit of critical engagement, especially in a moment now when fans imagine themselves to be tasked with unconditional love for every single creation and every single movement from an artist they have affection for.
I wanted to unravel some of that in the book — what it is to have such a strong connection to a group of people who make art that you then imagine that you’re not consuming the art, you’re consuming the people. How do the differences in fandom shift when you decide you’re consuming a person and not a person’s creation? What does that look like in terms of the self and the autonomy that the self has when you are tethering yourself to a person beyond what they create? And I’m not saying any of that is right or wrong, but I did write with that examination in mind and thinking about my relationship to that in terms of A Tribe Called Quest and my life that I’ve lived as a fan of theirs from a young age to now. And how both of our lives have changed. My life has changed. And this book wouldn’t be as interesting to me or maybe not worth pursuing if not for the final album that came out in 2016, because that felt like it created a closure that allowed for a narrative arc, not just for the group but for my life with the group.
The book, for me, felt like more of a critical look at fandom and kind of an unraveling of fandom and consumption … what it is to have such a strong connection to a group of people who make art that you then imagine that you’re not consuming the art, you’re consuming the people.
There are portions of this book in which you write notes to each member of the group. Writing a letter to a living person and writing a letter to someone who has passed away are two different things. Did the process of writing to Q-Tip seem different than the process of writing to Phife Dawg knowing that Q-Tip might read your letter and Phife isn’t around to read it?
Not entirely. Largely because I wrote those letters not with the feeling or sentiment that they would or could be read by the group, but I wrote them to get the questions that had haunted my interior out and into the world. But I think what made writing those letters in general really healing and fascinating for me was the understanding that there was no burden on the members of this group to read those letters. There was no burden on the members of this group to answer anything that I was putting out into the world. It might seem weird or foolish to say this, but I didn’t write the book for the group to read it. I’m fine if the living members of the group do read it of course, but I wasn’t drawn to the book with the hopes that it would be read by members of A Tribe Called Quest because I wasn’t interested in writing the definitive book on A Tribe Called Quest. The living members and the people close to the living members get the final say on the story of the group. I was trying to write the definitive book on a single arc of fandom and how it can kind of balloon beyond the music. So each letter was written with the sentiment that it would go unanswered and with that in mind, they all kind of felt the same.
Maybe this is just me projecting my own vanity as a writer, but it’s hard for me to believe someone could write a book like this and not fall into the habit of imagining the subjects reading it. Were you able to push that thought away or did that never really become prevalent for you?
It never became prevalent at all. I will say that I thought most about Cheryl Boyce-Taylor [Phife Dawg’s mother] reading the book. Just on a logistical level, we used some of her poems in the book so we had to get permissions from her. But beyond that, I felt that I personally had the most touchable relationship with Cheryl Boyce-Taylor because, not only is she a poet and we have some mutual folks in the same circle, but even more importantly than that, to have to grapple with a very specific type of loss is something I understand well. I write in the book that she is a mother who lost a son. I am a son who lost a mother. I think that the thing that I thought about the most was her reaction to the book if she were to read it. I also thought about wanting to honor the full life of her son in a way that would make her proud.
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There’s a sentence you wrote that stuck with me. You wrote, “Jazz was created by people obsessed with survival at a time that did not want them to survive.” A Tribe Called Quest obviously came around at a different time, but they drew heavily on jazz in their production. Do you think that same sentiment applied to them?
Yes, but I also think it’s worth mentioning that sometimes a sample is just a sample. Sometimes someone just thinks something sounds good and wants to perform over it in service of themselves. But for me, with A Tribe Called Quest, it was easy to imagine that so much of their use of jazz was simply trying to drag to the forefront the music they first fell in love with in hopes that someone else might fall in love with it, too.
When you read stories about the way Q-Tip was producing and the really rigorous efforts that it took to get the pause tapes to work right and for him to just dig into the crates to find records to get one correct sound, that’s kind of a labor of love and a labor of lineage, a labor that’s interested in carrying on sounds of people before you so that the people after you might also find those sounds. I think that’s more fascinating to me when it comes to Tribe’s music because I think all samples have a purpose, but to sample with purpose is different than kind of just pulling a danceable beat and rapping over it. The end result of both of those samplings can still be someone younger going back and digging in crates and finding an old song, but A Tribe Called Quest, and a lot of musicians — I wrote about The Bomb Squad and Havoc from Mobb Deep and the Native Tongues — some of that sampling was so layered. When I was a kid I was so fascinated in reading liner notes, and to read those A Tribe Called Quest liner notes was to be taken down a rabbit hole of music that you could maybe find in your house in your parent’s record collection.
I’ve lived as a fan of theirs from a young age to now… Both of our lives have changed. My life has changed… The final album that came out in 2016… felt like it created a closure that allowed for a narrative arc, not just for the group but for my life with the group.
You begin chapter two discussing how and when music can become political. When I think of music from that era, a group like Public Enemy was probably more overtly political than Tribe. If someone were to listen to the album It Takes a Nations of Millions by Public Enemy then you’re sort of transported to a march or a protest. You’ve got Chuck D ahead of you with a megaphone. If I were to try to extend that metaphor to A Tribe Called Quest, I think putting on a Tribe album is more like being in a car on the way to that march or protest. Maybe you’re talking about the march. Maybe you’re just talking about music or girls. It’s tougher to pin down. I guess my question is how consciously political do you think their music was?
I think it was very political, but I think they also existed in an era of the fiercely and overtly political. We’ve Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service was a political album, but it was in some ways no more contemplatively political than their old work. It was just angrier. It was an explicitly angrier album than any that had come before it. It was easier to define the political movements of that album for an outsider because it was steeped in a type of righteous rage and a type of grief.
But I think that the great political notions in A Tribe Called Quest in their early phases were, if nothing else, to widen the lens of what America considered acceptable blackness to be. I think that movement in itself was political in what it attempted to afford the American imagination. Whether or not America responded to that was not up to the creators but up to the country itself.
But also I think it’s worth saying that the construction of The Low End Theory was also political, right? The landscape that The Low End Theory was released into was inherently political. Q-Tip talked a lot about the “Low End” being his view on America’s relationship to blackness. He was talking about Rodney King. So The Low End Theory, too, was a political album, but I think for a lot of people, they didn’t read A Tribe Called Quest as political until the 2016 record came out because of the coincidences in its release. It was released the week of the election. It was on its face very angry and explicit about that anger. There were unapologetic themes of resistance and dissent, not just in the album but in some performances. But that didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s not like Q-Tip or Jarobi or Ali Shaheed Muhammad woke up in 2016 and decided to be political. They were kind of arcing and hinting towards the politics of expression in their earlier work.
When I think about comeback albums by great acts of the past, in any genre, I think they can tend to be pretty forgettable. I feel like there can be a level of vanity or entitlement that’s kind of transparent, as if [the artists think] their resumes just warrant our time. How did Tribe make such a perfect album in 2016 when their heyday was the early nineties?
Their heyday was the early nineties, sure, but they had always been making music, at least to my ears, that sounded futuristic or like it could exist in a distant future. So it makes sense to me that they released an album in 2016 that sounded right at home, but using some of the same techniques that they always used. They used sparse soundscapes laced with heavy percussion. All these things are not out of the norm for what they were doing.
It also bears worth mentioning that Q-Tip was never particularly removed from the hip-hop landscape even when Tribe was not active. Q-Tip kind of always had a pulse on hip-hop and was kind of a sound director, directing sound for folks who needed him around. They were always somewhat chameleons. Because of the great production skills within the group and because of the dexterity of Phife as a lyricist and someone who was definitely ahead of his time in the way he presented punch lines in his rhymes, it makes sense that they create a very up-to-date album because they had always been able to shift with the landscape. The thing that benefits you when you’ve reinvented the wheel or been the pace-setter for the genre is that you’re so far ahead of everyone else that by the time they catch up to you, you’ve already taken in all the tricks you know they’re going to do.
Like they had been making music for this time all the way back then and the scene just caught up to them.
After the election, I — as someone who is both black and a writer, like a lot of my peers — people looked to us and said, “What do we do now?” or “We need you now more than ever, writers or creators who are marginalized” but the thing with A Tribe Called Quest and this album is that in their whole body of work it shows that people have been doing this the whole time. They have been writing and creating towards a direction that tells America the worst of what is possible. For a long time. The fact that people did not pay attention until what they imagined was too late is a prime example of the exchange in America between artist and consumer.
Nothing states it more than the Tribe Called Quest song “Space Program,” [and the subsequent song “We The People”] which has the chants of “all you Mexicans must go, all you black folks must go, etc.” The fact that that song existed in the week that the election happened and echoes the entire electoral cycle says a lot about how the exhausted and marginalized artist has always been able to see the future for better or worse.
Creators who are marginalized … have been writing and creating towards a direction that tells America the worst of what is possible. For a long time. The fact that people did not pay attention until what they imagined was too late is a prime example of the exchange in America between artist and consumer.
I listened to that song on the way over here. What impressed me so much about that album — talking about comeback albums, I spoke of them sometimes having entitlement that you can hear in them, but this one didn’t feel like they needed our record sales or our approval. It felt like we needed them and they somehow delivered. I think when people are anxious or worried or frustrated they wish that they could go on Youtube and find a four-minute video that could take away their anxiety or make you feel better for however long. Those first two songs they really do have that effect. They speak extremely powerfully and truthfully, but they do it with a sort of confidence that is very calming.
Absolutely. I think there is no better start to a Tribe record than the start to that record. It’s honest and confident and haunting and deserved.
You highlight Q-Tip as the visionary behind Tribe. His musical innovation and his ambition really dictated their sound. You mentioned that he even had to drag Phife Dawg to the studio at times. For someone as talented as Q-Tip, why do you think he found it so important to be a part of this specific group and tether the first decade of his musical identity to A Tribe Called Quest — and to Phife Dawg — rather than try to have the type of solo career who someone like Kanye West, who was clearly influenced by him, would later have?
I don’t have a firm answer of course, but Q-Tip did have some solo success. His solo albums are either pretty good or very good.
I don’t know if a solo Q-Tip really would have flourished in the early days. Though some could argue that the first Tribe album is really a solo Q-Tip album because of how little Phife is on it. But Q-Tip — and I tried to express this in the book as best as possible — for me, Q-Tip was pushed by the other members of the group to constantly re-invent and constantly find ways to keep up with the creative push and pull of the rap landscape of the time. I think what Phife was able to do lyrically and creatively kept Q-Tip on his toes, not only as a producer but as someone who had to show up as a rapper.
Revisiting the albums critically to write this book, what I heard so often was, as the albums went on, Q-Tip became a better rapper. He found better pockets. He honed in on his skills as a whimsical, clever narrator. He began to use his voice more as an instrumental tool in harmony with the samples he was using. I think that was because he felt a permission to elevate his rhyme skills because he had to rhyme with Phife as Phife became more and more present on those records. You could tell Q-Tip was pushed more and more.
How do you think Q-Tip knew Phife Dawg would be what he became when he wasn’t all that present in that first album? Do you think he saw those abilities or it was something about his personality?
I think a part of it was that they were just long-time pals. Sometimes it’s the romantics of the perfect pairing where one person finds another person and sees all they can be, but sometimes it’s just your longtime friend who you’ve messed around with for a lot of years, and you are creating something and want them to be along for the ride. That kind of sparks the magic.
There’s no greater testament to the endurance of Tribe than the very simple fact that Q-Tip and Phife were friends who seemed to love each other a great deal. That is why the group was able to endure even through the layered frustrations they had with each other. I think that is more a testament to Tribe’s magic than anything else; the idea that these two were brothers who adored each other greatly and who fought to preserve what they could of their relationship. To do that is hard, I think, when the relationship is one that the entire world has access to, and a relationship that an entire livelihood relies on.
Who does Q-Tip make music for?
I think all the time about how easy it is to convince yourself that you’re weird when you’re a kid who’s just slightly different than the other kids you’re around. As a kid, I probably wasn’t all that much of an outsider, but I imagined myself as such because my brother was very cool, and I could see how he moved through the world, and I did not move through the world like that. I was an outsider, and no one in the world was like I was. Of course that was not true, but that’s how I imagined myself.
A Tribe Called Quest really spoke to me because of that. They felt very odd and they felt very comfortable in their oddness. Their performances of their oddities became very cool. Their performances were so rich and so pointed and so smart that it had no choice but to become cool.
I felt like Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest were making music for me: the uncool who had dreams of being cool.
Have you met Q-Tip?
No, I’ve seen A Tribe Called Quest live before, but I’ve never met Q-Tip. I’ve been in the same room as him once, but we did not meet.
Is he someone you want to meet?
Maybe, yeah. It’s not on a list or anything, but I think often about the ways that fans and writers and creators or just people who love art in any form can give their roses to people who they have been moved by while those people are still here. So if nothing else, I hope this book serves as that, but it would also be great to tell Q-Tip how much I appreciate what he’s offered to my life by way of his work.
Getting back to sampling, you wrote “the art of sampling is the art of breathing life into something that doesn’t have life anymore.” But you also discuss how the copyright laws have changed since Tribe’s first three albums, which relied heavily on multiple samples per song. Have those restrictions hurt hip hop and pop music in anyway?
It’s hard to quantify it. I think of someone like Pete Rock, who had his whole career shifted by the changes in those sampling rules and kind of lost access to his most creative spirit. I think in hip-hop it’s hurt because some producers were so great at stringing together symphonies almost entirely out of samples. It seems foolish to me that those producers should have to learn new skills, but I also believe in the idea that to sample someone there should be some payment to the original creator.
I think adjustments have been made. It’s not like sampling is obsolete. People still sample. Some of the songs on the first three Tribe albums had like 17 songs sampled on them. We’re not getting that anymore, and I think there’s some excitement that goes away because of that. I’ve been thrilled to see how production has shifted over the years, particularly from the year 2000 to now, how production techniques have sort of sped up at a rate that would not exist if the reliance were still on layering a bunch of samples on top of each other. So that has allowed production to evolve at a greater rate, so that’s great. I do wonder what could have been for that golden era of hip-hop if those rules had not been inserted.
I think often about the ways that fans and writers and creators or just people who love art in any form can give their roses to people who they have been moved by while those people are still here.
You wrote in the latter part of the book, “Genre is going to be a thing of the past soon anyway. It’s all going to be pop music before too long.” What would you attribute that to and why would you say that’s truer than it was 20 years ago?
I mean, pop music is a construct, right? But it’s the construct from which all other music constructs originally sprout. I’m not saying pop is the original genre. I’m saying pop became the defining genre due to constructs around what popular music was and who popular music was for. We’re talking about the popular music landscape. I’m not talking about genre going away in the underground musical scenes or the indie scenes or what have you.
R&B began to bend towards pop a long time ago. Rap began to bend to pop music sonically. I’m talking about hooks and an idea of what can be palatable for a wider audience. So again, the construct is responding to the audience. Rappers are thinking on how they can cater to both a quote-unquote “urban” audience and people who take their kids to soccer practice and drive home to the suburbs. It’s all serving this idea of what music can look like on the charts and how that can benefit the artist. As long as that’s a primary vehicle for creation or ideas, everything is going to bend towards pop. Or everything is going to leave the hands of the artists who created it and instantly be manufactured into something that is palatable for the pop charts. So just, sonically I think a lot of genres are bending towards serving the construct of American pop iconography. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. And I could be wrong. I think it’s worth revisiting in maybe 20 years. It just feels to me like that’s where we’re going.
Is there anyone in hip-hop right now who resonates with you in a similar way as A Tribe Called Quest did?
Sure. I think often about how much I like Vince Staples for his whimsical narration style. Exile and Blu. Denzel Curry. Noname I think is fascinating because, for all the talk of how voices and instruments can blend into musical accompaniment, I think Noname has figured a way to really use the voice well as kind of a bandleader. Her voice leads the music and doesn’t blend into the music. It’s the driving sonic force of the songs and the instruments follow.
So all those folks, and more, I think are having similar impacts on me as Tribe did when I was young.
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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
Editor: Dana Snitzky