On Second Thought
A Tribe Called Quest - People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

The first rhyme on A Tribe Called Quest’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, is heard after a few measures of a stark, under produced beat: “Q-tip is my title, I don’t think that is vital. ” Perhaps his title isn’t vital, but his band’s introductory record sure as hell is. When we hear the assertive chant of “Push It Along” on the opening track, we get more than the sensation of a groove pushing along—we feel the excitement of an artform pushing forward. In the late 1980s, through bands like Public Enemy and N.W.A., rap fans were taken from the Old School to the Mid School and the rapping and music became harder accordingly. Along with allies De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest proved that rap didn’t merely progress by getting harder, or becoming more political or more descriptive of ghetto strife; they proved the hip-hop community was a diverse nation and that there was room for a lighter, more idiosyncratic approach to the form- without risk of losing edge or authenticity. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm has a slap dash, lo-fi production that is far more raw than any of the hardcore rap of the time; it has the unprocessed vinyl richness that was uniquely New York underground in the early 1990s. In terms of pure tonality, the album is a precursor to Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers and the deep after-hour soul of tracks like “Footprints” gave DJ Shadow his blueprint for Endtroducing. As a direct result of its influence, a new age of highly sophisticated, higher consciousness hip-hop came into existence and from Digable Planets, to the Fugees, to OutKast, the impact is clear, but not as clear as how it plays today—now—removed from any historical significance; it’s a timeless, solid piece of inspired music making.

Before Q-Tip got into mainstream rap posturing with his hoochie-mamma laden videos for his first solo release and before A Tribe Called Quest started showing signs of waning strength on their later albums, the band was at an unparalleled level of quality. Only its classic follow-up, The Low-End Theory, comes remotely near the splendor of People’s Instinctive Travels. One of the problems with their sophomore effort is that they merely rounded their sound out—Q-Tip had perfected the Q-Tip voice, Phife had perfected his punchy rhymes, Ali had perfected his smooth jazz samples backed by funky beats—thus leading the band to not experiment with their sound afterwards. Midnight Marauders was a decent album and very consistent, but it was too consistent; the flows, the beats—the jazz again and again and again—snappy tracks like “Award Tour” and “We Can Get Down” washed out in a polished sea of sameness. This is so not the case with People’s Instinctive Travels, which benefits from a band treading water: finding themselves here, finding themselves there. Q-Tip has various tones of voice—not just that one the ladies dug—often he’s lower, looser and funkier than he would later be. His flow isn’t as smooth, but I kind of like that; this is a Q-Tip rough around the edges and he’s edgier and more accessible as a result. Never again would A Tribe Called Quest demonstrate such eclecticism in both their lyrics and music. There is plenty of jazz, but not an over abundance; we have almost as much dance/house influence. Synth throbbing numbers like “Rhythm (Devoted To The Art Of Moving)” and “Mr. Muhammad” will surprise some by how close the Tribe came to bridging techno and rap—a common occurrence today—back in 1990. Songs like the breezy “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” and the funky “Ham ‘N’ Eggs” display more humor than on subsequent albums. The jazzy panache of “Luck Of Lucien” and “Bonita Applebum” is not only a forbearer of what would become Tribe’s signature sound, but a superior execution of it. With “Can I Kick It?” the band makes primitive use of one very recognizable sample—the bassline for Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”—but with a phat beat and an even phater organ break, it’s setting up Marky Mark’s take on “the Wild Side” to look, if possible, weaker. Of course, one of the numerous reasons why such a sample would sound candyass on a Top 40 single and not on People’s Instinctive Travels is the production; this is one of the most genuine hip-hop productions you’ll ever hear; like an old jazz record hissing over the sound of city traffic in an apartment over a ma and pa thrift shop. And I envision a New York City skyline—outlining a nocturnal adventure—whenever I listen to the transcendent “Footprints”.

Oh, what a moment “Footprints” has when those drums kick in and Q-Tip boldly declares: “This ain’t rock & roll, ‘cause the rap is in control.” What a moment in time it captures; what a movement to get behind!


By: Edwin Faust
Published on: 2003-11-07
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