There are plenty of takes on A Tribe Called Quest’s nostalgic salience—some of which sound more like PhD dissertations than actual music commentary. However, Tribe’s impact isn’t that complicated to grasp, even if some want it to be. The collective was just a very, very good group whose sound resonated with a lot of people. The Beats, Rhymes & Life film exemplifies that idea, among other things, as the group’s rocking places as far away as Japan attest to their inter-cultural accessibility.
Watching scenes from the film is a lesson in early 1990s Hip-Hop history: it traces the beginnings, successes and eventual downfall of one of Hip-Hop’s most influential (if not the influential) groups in its history. From Common to fellow Native Tongues members like De La Soul, all of the documentary’s participants wax poetic on the group’s then and now.
Without Tribe’s eccentricity there is no Dilla, Kanye, Roots or Pharrell Williams. What the documentary shows is how the group worked within a large cultural box, pulling numerous, left-field influences and co-opting those sounds to form a product that was undeniably unique and simple. They birthed alternative Hip-Hop, but they also created a type of world music that’s hard to replicate nowadays. Omnipresent music runs the risk of artistic dilution as it tries to reach everyone and anyone. And the general success of Mafioso rappers like Rick Ross generates a tongue-in-cheek likeability among hipster kids who listen almost ironically. Tribe, somehow, was able to appeal to urbanites and suburbanites without sacrificing artistic individuality or coming across as campy. That characteristic alone makes the group special, even before discussing the musical merits of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders.
But that point is evident within Beats, Rhymes & Life’s opening minutes. Q-Tip announces at a 2008 show that he sees black and white among the crowd’s attendees. He cries for “power,” but not power in a specific, race-based context. He wants “power” that comes from melding people from all walks of life together—Hip-Hop’s original ethos. And Phife likes his women “Black, Puerto Rican or Haitian,” but the collective group likes their fans diverse.
Tribe isn’t just nostalgic—they’re timeless. Dissect that.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest is available for digital download on iTunes now and the DVD hits stores today, October 18th. For more information, visit the official site at Sony Classics.