A Tribe Called Quest: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm 25th Anniversary Edition
This is an anniversary worth celebrating, but is this repackaging the best way to celebrate?
Most reviews of this 25th Anniversary Edition of the debut A Tribe Called Quest album have skipped past the question of why a reissue is needed, so let’s start there. This is an anniversary worth celebrating, but is this repackaging the best way to celebrate? The album’s already available, and sounds great. All this adds are three remixes that are relatively interesting but on their own wouldn’t be worth all that much time or thought. All three -- by Pharrell, J Cole and Cee Lo -- throw some different textures on the original, but nothing revelatory. Pharrell’s is the grooviest. J Cole’s does the best job keeping the music and vocals in sync, not overshadowing the original raps with the new touches. Cee Lo’s seems the most unnecessary; somewhat soulful, but he had the audacity to add a subpar verse of his own to “Footprints”, which feels like sacrilege.
The only benefit of this release is to remind us that People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm came out 25 years ago, and to take us back to that time. So let’s go back…
Let’s go back 27 years, actually, to 1988. On the Jungle Brothers’ debut album Straight Out the Jungle, there’s a track, “Black Is Black”, that starts with the voice of Q-Tip introducing himself: “Now I’m from the Tribe Called Quest, and I’m here tonight with the Jungle Brothers…” Then he does the first two verses, two out of four. His rapping voice is rougher than it would become, but still with his distinctive timbre already there.
Then came De La Soul’s breakthrough “Me, Myself and I”, with Q-Tip showing up for a second to reprise his “black is black” sentiment. And “Buddy”, the classic Native Tongues posse cut, where Q-Tip shows up sounding smooth (“I’m the Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest…”)
By the spring of 1990, when the first A Tribe Called Quest video hit MTV, there was an aura of anticipation around the group among hip-hop fans. That song, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”, was a humorous, clever story song about a lost wallet on a road trip. The exaggerated fiction in the song makes it seems almost like an improvisation based on the music, the repeated little guitar hook from the Chamber Brothers’ “Funky” driving them towards El Segundo, California (though that bit might not sound as relevant if it weren’t for the song’s subject matter, and the opening bit from the Rascals’ “Sueno”). “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” now seems an anomaly in the group’s catalogue, but a fun one.
So the album comes out, and it’s brilliant for the way it expands our glimpse into the universe of A Tribe Called Quest, far beyond those little sneak previews. That universe, though still forming, contained a lot of creative jazz and rock samples, a lot of playful humor, a dose of Afrocentric thinking, and a lot of Q-Tip’s mellow-smooth rhyming. In the long run the group was generally thought of as a trio, though on stage they were often a quartet. Here that four member, Jarobi, appears, though his voice is only heard on some intro/outro-type speaking. In retrospect, it’s surprising how little Phife is heard on People’s Instinctive Travels…. The interplay between Q-Tip and Phife is seen as one of the hallmarks of their sound, yet here he rhymes on just four of the 14 songs.
Knowing now the extent to which Q-Tip also produced their music, choosing samples, creating beats and so on...this album can perhaps be viewed mainly as an introduction to his talent. That’s not how it felt at the time. This felt like the introduction to a great new group, one that felt like the most approachable and street-connected of the Native Tongues, but that still had its own idiosyncratic, eccentric personality. People’s Instinctive Travels… shows their skills at anthems (“Push It Along”, “Can I Kick It?”), at intimacy (the immortal “Bonita Applebum”, influential to this day and the one track I remember encountering, late weekend nights at least,on mainstream “urban” radio), at atmosphere (“After Hours”, “Youthful Expression”) and forward motion (“Footprints”, and most of the others). Plus there’s a couple more gimmicky songs thrown in (“Pubic Enemy”, “Ham ‘n’ Eggs”). Plus the whole thing is filled with dynamic, easy-to-swallow funk and soul.
A Tribe Called Quest went many amazing places after this. I’d put The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders up there with the best albums of all time, of any genre. And I’ll jump to the defense of their supposedly lesser last two albums, Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement. The group never stopped changing and innovating, never stopped moving. Their debut was just the beginning of the journey,which is another reason I’m hesitant to overrate an unnecessary repackaging of it. But rating and listening are two different things; go listen to People’s Instinctive Travels…, please. Just don’t stop there.