'Go Ahead in the Rain' Artfully Melds the Many Parts of a Tribe Called Quest's Backstory

A Tribe Called Quest in the early days. From left to right, Jarobi White, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Phife Dawg. (Publicity photo © Ernie Paniccioli / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

In Go Ahead in the Rain, Hanif Abdurraqib blends his talents as both culture critic and personal essayist for a meditation on perhaps the most influential hip-hop group from the genre's sample-laden boom-bap era, A Tribe Called Quest.

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest
Hanif Abdurraqib

University of Texas Press

Feb 2019


As I write this review, I'm listening to "Award Tour" and nodding my head like I'm front row for A Tribe Called Quest's 1993 Arsenio Hall performance under lavender stage lights. I discovered Tribe in a different world than Hanif Abdurraqib: not in Columbus, Ohio, but Akron; not on cassette tape, but a Greatest Hits CD stolen from the public library; not as a black teenager realizing that Tribe's jazz-imbued hip-hop is acceptable to play at home, but as a white 15-year-old suddenly on a mission to become a true-school turntablist in an environment where such a dream was laughable.

Fandom aside, this book is on point. In Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, Abdurraqib blends his talents as both culture critic and personal essayist for a meditation on perhaps the most influential hip-hop group from the genre's sample-laden boom-bap era in the early to mid-'90s.

The book opens with the music of African slaves who "would use drums to communicate with each other, sending rhythmic messages that could not be decoded by Europeans" and then offers a short history of jazz starting with New Orleans cornet player, Buddy Bolden. Abdurraqib's wide-panned establishing shot, tracing the lineage of black music as far back as the 1600s, is ambitious, but appropriate since Tribe were outspoken advocates of Afrocentrism, constructed their brand of hip-hop from classic jazz samples, and perfected the most popular genre of black American music around during their short-lived heyday in the '90s.

Abdurraqib follows the chronology of Tribe's career (also touching on Tip and Phife Dawg's solo albums, Phife's passing, and the unexpected reunion album in 2016), but isn't interested in writing straightforward history. Instead, he opts to muse on subjects as far-ranging as the New York City blackout of 1977, Jet magazine publishing the photograph of a drowned and frozen Otis Redding, the squandered talent of Tribe's fellow Native Tongues crew member Chi-Ali, and the dense turmoil of Bomb Squad productions. You Want It Darker (Columbia, 2016) the album Leonard Cohen released weeks before his death, is linked with Phife's rhyming on Tribe's last record, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, which was released after his passing. The tenuous connection inspires Abdurraqib to write on the "verses of the dead" and how a recorded ghost "echoes long after the music ends." Interweaved with these tangents are scenes from Abdurraqib's own life, such as failing to play the trumpet in middle school and losing his wallet on a road-trip in a setting similar to Tribe's "El Segundo".

The most moving sections, though, are Abdurraqib's letters to Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Phife's mother, renowned poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. He admits to Q-Tip that for years he wrongly blamed him alone for Tribe's breakup. In another letter to Q-Tip, he discusses the beating of Rodney King and Tribe's subsequent album, 1991's The Low End Theory, thanking Tip for "knowing the type of political album that the world needed at the time: one that wrapped its politics in ideas of a type of freedom" and fashioning the rage of black Americans "into a hunt for empathy." He reaches out to Cheryl Boyce-Taylor about the death of her son, sharing his own story of losing his mother as a child. He tells Ali Shaheed Muhammad – the group's DJ, whose presence in the book is lacking – how he danced to Muhammad's post-Tribe group Lucy Pearl "underneath the fluorescent lights of Beechcroft High School's gym during a lunch period sock hop that had no business taking place in an afternoon when some of us had to get back to class right after." Abdurraqib describes how he kissed a girl to their song "Dance Tonight" then "retreated to a classroom that afternoon, baptized in sweat and whatever a teenager imagines as love" and "let the song rattle around in [his] head for hours, tied to the end of countless possibilities." It's during these moments, when Abdurrabiq's inner critic concedes to his inner fan, that the prose radiates with his unrestrained love for the music.

Go Ahead in the Rain is constructed like a Tribe album. In the same manner that Q-Tip found ways to make a stack of disparate samples congeal as if they were always meant to fit together, Abdurraqib melds the group's backstory with heartfelt letters, bits of memoir, and an experienced critic's scrutiny to form an unexpectedly cohesive read. However, Abdurraqib doesn't aim to mirror Tribe's musical and verbal ebullience, opting instead for a tone that's often elegiac.

Go Ahead in the Rain is in many ways a tribute to the late Phife Dawg. His levity, underdog attitude, sports fandom, and knack for punchlines is stamped throughout, and his death looms from the early pages, when Abdurraqib drops this line: "It can be said that the entire story of jazz is actually a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires." Phife died at age 45 from complications from diabetes. The man was known to love his sugar. Abdurraqib's ode to the rapper, a way to keep him from "being reduced to a cautionary tale", is touching:

Today, on the day you are gone, I hope every bodega and every corner store gave away Kool-Aid by the cup. I hope kids went to stores with their parents' money and walked out with pocketfuls of candy. I want candy thrown from the cliffs. I want candy to rattle off of my roof now instead of the water from the sky while your verses play. I want my people to take better care of themselves, but I wanted a day for us to revel in what you loved, if only for a moment.

The book ends in the present day, specifically with Tribe's 2017 Grammy Awards performance, during which the group (sans Phife, and joined onstage by Busta Rhymes and Anderson .Paak) protested Donald Trump's presidency, with Tip closing out the set by chanting, "Resist!" The jump in chronology doesn't feel abrupt, despite this being a book set mostly in the decade of bib overalls and Coogi sweaters, because Abdurraqib isn't preoccupied with selling nostalgia. The vantage from which he dissects Tribe's legacy is rooted in the heritage of black music and delivered from the present cultural moment, making Go Ahead in the Rain, much like Tribe's music, capable of remaining relevant for decades to come.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.