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Beats, Rhymes and Phife: A Data-Driven Look at a Tribe Called Quest

January 9, 2023

The math behind the genres, samples, and lyrics of one of hip-hop’s most innovative groups.

Q&A with Hazel Savage

This post was originally published on April 1, 2016, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

The following post and accompanying graphics are based on data provided by our good friends at WhoSampled, which manages the largest repository of user-generated sample data on the web. Download a hi-res version here and here. Graphic design by Studio Wyse. Illustrations by LeeAndra Cianci.

Consensus has it that the musical touchstone of my generation—the single point in our cultural history that every obsessive remembers—came when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew up on mainstream radio. It’s a JFK moment; many of us can recall where we were the exact second we heard those big, clanky chords. From there, our eyes were opened and the world expanded.

But, in the end, that was more of a black hole. Kurt shot himself, and rock began to eat itself, iterating through various stages of post-grunge, retro rockabilly, rock-rap and other sounds until it became a parody of itself, a fount of boardroom nihilism and artistic inertia. These days, instead of Nirvana, I prefer to remember the first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” I was in a friend’s bedroom in Charlotte, NC. It was around midnight and a bit before my 14th birthday. We were reading Batman comics and dreaming of Gotham, or, really, anywhere other than the staid homesteads of suburban North Carolina.

As music nerds, we’d already digested the Velvet Underground and De La Soul, so we instantly got Tribe’s vibes and references, but blending these two opposing worlds—despondent, glamorous sleaze rock and idiosyncratic, jazz afrocentrism—was a revelation. And their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was all about connecting the cultural dots. They created universes by cobbling together post-bop saxophones, rolling bass lines, and hard boom bap beats, topping them off with Q-Tip’s fluid freeform rhymes that played an alto sax to the gruff, declarative blurts of Phife’s deceptively straightforward lyrics. 

Main Graphic with Animated Characters

That basic formula was there from the beginning, but it changed over time, and this evolution opened up hip-hop, changing its sound and its listeners forever. On their 1990 debut, jazz comprised nearly 20% of all samples. Compare this to 3% for hip-hop overall for that same year. As where other producers were sampling soul (50%) or other hip-hop songs (28%), Tribe was drawing from Cannonball Adderley (“Footprints” and “Bonita Applebum”), Lou Donaldson (“If the Papes Come”) and Weather Report (“Mr. Muhamad”).

Many people will put them in the context of fellow Native Tongue groups such as De La Soul, but that’s not entirely fair; on the quintessential album De La Soul is Dead, that group only used jazz 4% of the time—the majority of their samples came from soul (39%), hip-hop (31%), and rock (15%).

On “Rhythm (The Art of Moving Butts)” from Tribe’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, Q-Tip raps, “Not selling out, that’s a negative, love hip-hop, love heritage.” It’s one of those value statements that resounds with the young—absolutist, purist, and strong. But it’s also fundamentally conservative, and, between 1991 and 1993 (the year they released Midnight Marauders), Tribe were anything but. Pivoting off the ideas that they laid down on their debut, they created an aesthetic that blended this heritage (which, for Tribe, was jazz) with the more wizened and grimy hip-hop sounds of the time for something that sounded amazingly current and completely singular.

For Low End Theory, jazz comprised 29% of all samples; for Midnight Marauders, that number was 31%. The types of jazz they sampled also changed. While they still leaned on greats such as Eric Dolphy (“Sky Pager” ) and Art Blakely (“Excursions”), they were also pulling from Latin jazz of Cal Tjader (“Midnight Marauders Express”) and the soul-jazz of Brother Jack McDuff (“Scenario”).

But, more so than just the music, there was another big change: the emergence of Phife. As we show in the graphic above, he only accounted for 10% of all verses on their debut (with Q-Tip delivering most of the rest). That number grew to 26% for Low End Theory and 39% for Midnight Marauders. The story goes that Phife was diagnosed with diabetes during the recording of Low End Theory, and, getting a glimpse of his own mortality, was determined to build out a legacy. He pushed Tip to both let him be a larger part of the group and for both of them to refocus their efforts. Tip wisely agreed.

Much has been made of Phife’s conversational flow and everyman persona, and the balance they brought to Tip’s more “abstract” style cannot be understated, but he also brought in both a playfulness and a set of references that allowed the group to create a more fully formed worldview. One way to look at this is the various allusions that they made to other musicians, obscure cartoons, Blaxploitation icons, various product pitchmen, DJs, and basketball players. For a kid in North Carolina in the ‘90s, this served as a hip-hop Tumblr, collecting an entire universe that was both familiar and alien.

On their debut, they referenced a total of five athletes, musicians, and movie/TV personalities. On Low End Theory, that number had grown to 70, and, by Midnight Marauders, it hit a peak at 86. Phife pushed them in this direction, but Tip certainly played along. On “Check The Rhime,” Phife drops a reference to the Energizer Bunny while Tip conjures Mr. Clean. They were different dudes, and their references reflect that (Tip drops an allusion to revolutionary black choreographer Alvin Ailey, while Phife brings up the Power Rangers), but it all worked together.

Over the years, this would change. On their lukewarm 1998 album Love Movement, Phife only had 22% of all verses, jazz had receded to 25% of all samples, and the river of cultural references had dried up to a trickle. But, for a few years, there was no group that did it better, and that sound became the template for everything from ‘90s headwrap rap and neo-soul to the smoothed out melodies of The Neptunes’ middle period. Eventually, this sound was so ingrained into our musical landscape that it became a cliché. But, in 1990, hearing it for the first time, it sounded like something wholly new and revolutionary. In the subsequent years, many of us have gone searching for that sensation elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. But in 1990, sitting on my friend’s bed and leafing through DC comics, it was unmistakable. We may have lost Phife, but those moments will be with us forever.

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