A Tribe Called Quest ~ People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

Posted on October 14, 2012


This release introduced us to what became one of the finest acts in rap music history: A Tribe Called Quest. A Tribe Called Quest was the last group out of the starting gate for the Native Tongues, the progressive Hip Hop family that also contained De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. But, though they were last out the box, Quest eventually eclipsed their talented brethren. De La and the J.B.’s set the bar high, but Quest would put it out of reach.

It’s fitting that Tribe Called Quest, one of New York’s finest rap acts, assembled through influences from four of NYC’s five boroughs. The group’s butter-voiced frontman Q-Tip (Jonathan Davis, now known as Kamaal Fareed) and his childhood friend Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) were natives of Jamaica, Queens; both from musical families, and both of whom idolized Hollis, Queens legends Run DMC as adolescents. After eighth grade, Q-Tip and Phife spent a bit of time apart, and each of them met the two men that would fill out their group. Q-Tip attended Murry Bergtraum, a Manhattan-based high school tailored to business careers, and while there, Tip met Ali Shaheed Muhammad, a DJ from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, who had been manning the 1s and 2s since age 8. Around the same time, Phife Dawg met Jarobi White, a multi-talent born in The Bronx, and with whom Phife would battle emcees in the parks of Queens. Besides Ali Shaheed, Q-Tip also met two other icons at Murry Bergtraum that would affect his career path: Brooklyn natives Michael Small (Mike G) and Nathaniel Hall (Afrika Baby Bam), founding members of the Jungle Brothers, who’d score a record deal in 1987, release their debut album in the summer of ’88, and offer Q-Tip two guest spots on their album. The cameos with the J.B.’s led to a higher profile appearance with the second Native Tongues act (De La Soul), on their 1989 hit “Buddy”, which was soon followed by a bidding war between Geffen Records, Def Jam Records, and other labels for the services of Q-Tip and Co. Despite having high fliers like Geffen and Def Jam competing to sign them, A Tribe Called Quest opted for Jive Records, an imprint that showed fervent interest in the group, and had a rep for building sustainable careers for its rap acts. Quest signed with Jive in 1989, and in the summer of 1990, they dropped the first of what would be many exceptional albums: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.

As would become a staple on all releases from A Tribe Called Quest, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is true school bliss from start to finish. The 7-minute opener “Push It Along” is a prime example. It’s separated into two parts: the first with Q-Tip and Phife Dawg topic-drifting over marching kick drums and a soothing jazz melody; and the second introducing seldom heard Quest member Jarobi and The Rhythm Kids, who hold an impromptu jam session over a sample of Eugene McDaniels’ “Jagger The Dagger”, and then segue into the next selection “Luck Of Lucien”. One of the disc’s most memorable cuts, “Luck Of Lucien” has Q-Tip by his lonesome on the mic; trying to help a hapless Frenchman adapt to life in America, over a sublime jazz-funk groove that makes your body work. Musically, the boulevard creeping cool found on “After Hours” is the perfect backdrop for Q-Tip, who offers a glimpse of the people that roam the streets when the sun goes down. And Tip gives us a taste of his ‘abstract’ poetics on “Footprints”; unfurling travel metaphors and coaxing us out to the dance floor, over a drum loop Mary J. Blige would later use for her first hit “You Remind Me”, and a sample of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice”, later used for Main Source’s “Looking At The Front Door”.

On the next few cuts, Q-Tip flexes his storytelling and picture-painting skills more freely. “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” is an engaging tale set to a tribal funk track with mariachi overtones, where Tip and Ali Shaheed take a road trip to Mexico, meet an assortment of colorful characters, and return home penniless, due to Tip getting distracted and losing his billfold. Bronx legend DJ Red Alert ad-libs on “Pubic Enemy”, a twangy, off-kilter cut about the perils of unsafe sex. Tip does a great job on this cut, using abstraction and creative plot points to tell his story; and as a result, “Pubic Enemy” rivals some of rap’s best songs of this sort, ranking alongside classics like Boogie Down Productions’ “Jimmy”, and their Native Tongue brethren Jungle Brothers’ “Jimbrowski”. “Bonita Applebum” is the best of these cuts. Its premise is pretty basic, with Q-Tip sweet-talking a potential love interest, but the subtleties are what make it so endearing. The twilight melody (from RAMP’s “Daylight”) massages your eardrums; the drums (from Little Feat’s “Fool Yourself”) pound in your head for days; and Tip’s schoolboy lyrics and off-beat flow draw you in, and spark thoughts of your first crush.

On the second half of People’s Instinctive Travels…, Q-Tip interacts with Phife Dawg a bit more on the mic, and they flash the chemistry that would make them legends. On the airy “Can I Kick It”, Tip and Phife experiment with free-flow; using approximate rhymes and finishing each bar with a similar sounding syllable, while the dew drop melody from Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” fills the background, with a rhythmic drum line slipped underneath. Tip and Phife give their DJ some dap on “Mr. Muhammad”, doing stop-and-start routines over a liquid filtering of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Brazilian Rhyme”, while waxing metaphorically about Ali Shaheed’s mixing abilities. And on the whimsical “Ham-N-Eggs”, Tip and Phife do right by Dr. Seuss; pontificating on their favorite foods, atop a Memphis soul stew instrumental, and with a little chorus help from Jarobi and the Jungle Brothers.

The collaborations between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are tight, but, on this album, Tip is at his best when he’s flying solo. “Youthful Expression” conjures images of cool cats and smoky jazz clubs, with its blend of organ sprinkles, wiggling bass, soft cymbal crashes, and Tip’s calm tenor. “Rhythm (Devoted To The Art Of Moving Butts)” sounds like an amalgam of true-school boom bap and Euro acid jazz, and as it title suggests, this cut moves bodies across the floor, through its silently dazzling instrumental, and the mellow profundity of Q-Tip. On the funky “Go Ahead In The Rain”, Tip drops his voice as low as it will go, and rhymes in a hollow, disembodied tone over a sample of the Slave classic “Slide”. And Tip rocks the mind and body on the finale “Description Of A Fool”; spotlighting irrational people and the problems they cause, and giving listeners something to dance to with his accompanying disco-funk track, based on a sampling of Roy Ayers’ “Running Away”.

It’s really no wonder this album gelled so well, or that A Tribe Called Quest would be so lionized later in their career. Each of Quest’s principal members had considerable talent, and they each played an integral role in the scope and evolvement of the group’s sound. Whether on the turntables, the sampler or the drum machine, Ali Shaheed Muhammad spoke volumes with his hands. Though he was just blossoming as an emcee, Phife Dawg had a detectable energy and magnetism that nicely complemented Q-Tip. And, behind the boards and on the mic, the Abstract Poet (Q-Tip) displayed a charisma and brilliance that would make him one of Hip Hop’s greatest all-around talents. With this lineup, how could Quest possibly lose?

People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was the first volley in an improbable hat trick for A Tribe Called Quest. The album was immediately lauded as a classic when it was released in 1990, even garnering the then-coveted and rare accolade of a 5-mic rating in The Source magazine. But this album was only the beginning for its creators, as Tribe Called Quest followed this release with two more flawless albums: 1991’s The Low End Theory; and 1993’s Midnight Marauders, and became and remained fan favorites among true school enthusiasts. A Tribe Called Quest would make superior music for several years after this release, and when the smoke cleared from their amiable disbandment in 1999, the group had left an excellent catalog for listeners to savor. Whether A Tribe Called Quest will ever reunite is anyone’s guess. But, regardless, they’ve left an indelible mark on rap music. Give People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm a spin, and behold Hip Hop’s finest at work.

To listen to this People’s Instinctive Travels, click here.