(Editor’s Note: ATCQ will be appearing tonight, Nov. 13, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.)
If you want to revisit the youthful expression that was hip-hop in 1990, then A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album, which is being reissued this week, is a good place to start.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was released on April 17, 1990, a week after Q-Tip turned 20. Known for being part of the Native Tongues collective, Q-Tip also appeared on De La Soul’s Top 40 hit “Me, Myself and I.” What’s remarkable is how young and unblemished they sound. When 19-year-old Phife raps, “Mr. Dinkins can you please be my mayor? You’d be doing us a really big favor” on “Can I Kick It?,” he sounds like a boy pleading and tugging at the former mayor’s elbow. Then, on “Luck of Lucien,” he memorably rhymes, “Young and naïve/It’s hard to believe.”
Throughout their 10-year history, the group continued to gain influence by fusing hardcore jazz elements with positive lyricism. And they weren’t afraid to state their beliefs or tackle social issues (they also eschewed swears in their raps). “Ham ‘n’ Eggs” reflects enthusiasm for adopting Muslim beliefs such as abstaining from meat products. (Q-Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad are Sunni Muslims.) Q-Tip and Phife delved into venereal disease on “Pubic Enemy,” domestic violence on “Description of a Fool,” and drug addiction on “Luck of Lucien.” Still, when MTV aired the video for “Bonita Applebum,” a lovely seduction set over a loop from jazz-funk band Ramp’s “Daylight,” the network censored Q-Tip’s line “crazy prophylactics,” apparently in fear of viewers being scandalized by hearing a synonym for condom.
Tribe’s association with Native Tongues, one of rap’s top collectives, made People’s Instinctive Travels an event, and The Source magazine gave it a then-coveted five-mic perfect rating. (It could be argued Q-Tip and Phife were still trying to find their voices as little over a year later ATCQ released their follow-up, The Low End Theory, and it sounds remarkably more confident and forthright in comparison to People’s Travels.)
Much of hip-hop music in 1990 was made through a filter of teenage life: the way a new philosophy or religion can captivate, the silliness of cutting up with your homies after class, the sexual charge from copping a feel on your girl’s booty during a slow dance, and the indescribable sadness of becoming aware of the world’s injustices. For the rest of their career, Tribe radiated a positivity that made them one of the genre’s most beloved groups. If at first they were indeed naive, it was a childish innocence that slowly disappeared. But it did serve as a starting point for what Tribe would become, and People’s Travels evokes an era that now seems forever lost.