Season of the Tribe

It’s that time of year again. As the air becomes crisp, the temperature cools, and the leaves change shades and fall, the changing tide quietly signals the arrival of none other than awards show season.

Although ratings monopolizers, like the Emmys and the Academy Awards, are most associated with this season, hip-hop has recently laid claim on the month of October. Since 2004, VH1 has sponsored the annual Hip Hop Honors, which recognizes key figures from hip-hop’s history. The show returns for its fourth installment on 8 October.

While the show is inarguably the centerpiece attraction, the spectacle also includes several days of performances, discussions, and special events throughout New York City (for a full schedule, visit the Hip Hop Honors Weekend Web page). Though all of these “Hip Hop Honors” are (understandably) produced under the careful aesthetic eye and business principles of the major cable network, these events have also helped promote hip-hop’s cultural history in a similar manner to the aforementioned shows.

So it is with curiosity that I read the 2007 list of honorees: A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott, Whodini, New Jack Swing producers Teddy Riley and Andre Harrell, and Charlie Ahearn’s film Wild Style. While each year’s roll call reads like a Stan‘s duh-of-course list of hip-hop artists deserving recognition, 2007’s list is exceptionally obvious and indistinct for its commercial overtones. Snoop Dogg has been one of the most successful rappers to achieve (and maintain) contemporary celebrity status, while Missy Elliott is purportedly the top-selling female hip-hop artist. New Jack Swing’s fusion of R&B and hip-hop laid the blueprint for more than a decade of mainstream hip-hop and R&B hits, while Whodini relied heavily on contemporary R&B sounds to make inroads on the radio (despite keeping company with “harder” acts, like Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC, in the mind of Chris Rock).

And Wild Style? The story traces the explosion of hip-hop as it travels from the Bronx to the chic clubs and galleries of Manhattan. While these artists or artworks achieved a disparate range of commercial success, they collectively signify the most overtly pop dimensions of hip-hop culture. Taken together, they represent the culture at its most lucrative potential, as opposed to past line-ups that also highlighted the qualitative aspects of hip-hop’s development: past honorees have included such commercially minor figures as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, and even DJ Hollywood. Indeed, 2007 is perhaps the most VH1-appropriate line-up to date.

However, one exception to the list raises an eyebrow: the “headliner” A Tribe Called Quest. The Queens-based trio is often cited as being the progenitors of “conscious”, “backpack”, and several similar variations of “alternative” hip-hop. While each member bristles to this day over these manufactured tags, emcees Q-Tip and Phife Dawg and DJ/ producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad embodied a profoundly different yet agreeable aesthetic from their 1988 debut to their final album ten years later.

Though the group reached deep into African-American and hip-hop/ pop culture for its references — everything from jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s ’70s astrological jones “Soul Virgo” to Lou Reed’s ode to cross-dressing “Walk on the Wild Side” found its way onto the first record — it was never really as esoteric or abstract as they were perceived to be (contrary to Q-Tip’s other nickname). Tribe simply interpreted common observations using their chosen speech patterns. “Industry rule number 4,080 / Record company people are shady.” Their ideas were hardly revolutionary — but they said it with such style and panache.

What makes VH1’s recognition of Tribe so exceptional is its placement ahead of the far more mainstream Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliott. True, the group achieved a modicum of success, but its three platinum and two gold records pale in contrast to Missy’s worldwide record sales of over 24 million. Tribe also proved exceptionally playful with language, as evidenced in the Q-Tip quotable above. However, “4,080” never achieved the resonance of “Fo’shizzle”. Apparently, Tribe appears to be celebrated here for its artistic contributions — or, in lay-head’s terms, “How they changed the game.”

Granted, recognizing a critical darling and commercial underdog seems prudent when the industry has been beleaguered with well-documented criticism and declining sales. In this sense, celebrating Tribe (as opposed to Snoop) seems like a no-brainer and a win-win situation: give props to the runner-up that no one really openly criticizes, and no one will complain. Hell, it may even help Q-Tip’s upcoming album sales. However, a more constructive use of criticism should be broadened to the temporal nature of awards show, or the un-sustainability of celebration. It is one thing to have a day of confronting critiques directly, or a day to recognize past pioneers and places, but another bag entirely to provide a sustainable mechanism for controlling and guiding hip-hop’s identity. In other words, don’t shoot the messenger when the message itself is kinda meh.

That said, A Tribe Called Quest’s standout recognition among the glitterati could also be viewed as a subtle reminder that hip-hop does not adhere to a static definition, nor is it beholden to a single (commercial) goal. Rather, it can reflect multiple meanings. Like the music itself, hip-hop culture remains a palimpsest of sound, culture, and ideas. It is a space where 2Pac can flex like a thug one moment, then become vulnerable to his mother in the next. It is where a break from a ’60s novelty rock group can form the rhythmic foundation for a Jewish rap trio struggling to shed its novel identity. It is where an upcoming hip-hop trio can appropriate an iconic performance by a disbanding rock band for a music video. In this sense, Tribe’s recognition represents potential in hip-hop — a point that, industry engineering be damned, doesn’t hurt to be reinforced every once in a while.