#RethinkThursday: A Tribe Called Quest, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”

THIS IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES CALLED RETHINK THURSDAY, IN WHICH I REVISIT ALBUMS THAT I REMEMBER EITHER LOVING OR HATING, TO SEE IF TIME AND EXPERIENCE HAVE CHANGED MY OPINION. OR HECK, MAYBE THE DIFFERENCE IS JUST THE DAY THAT I’M LISTENING. AS I LISTEN I REVIEW THE ALBUM, TRACK BY TRACK PLUS OVERALL COMMENTARY, AND YOU GET TO BEG KIM KARDASHIAN TO TWEET THE LINK TO ALL HER FOLLOWERS.


Disclaimer one (of three): I don’t believe I’ll ever put out anything with a longer title than today’s post.

Disclaimer two: I’m not a hip hop guy. That’s true. I’m telling you that right up front. I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, about as far from hip hop culture as an American kid can get. I was raised on a regular diet of sweet corn and John Mellencamp. Mom painted watercolors and took me to piano lessons. The closest thing we had to the pain of the streets was when our dog, Poppet, would run away.

But that didn’t make me unaware of hip hop, nor completely uneducated. I remember with a mix of awe and nostalgia the energy, humor, and gravitas of the music that came surging out of (especially) New York City at the dawn of the 1990s.

Some 25 years before, myriad movements had risen to give black people their voice. By 1990 the children of those movements — literally born from those activists, I imagine — had grown up with a more fully-fledged sense of empowerment and expression than perhaps any person of color, at any time, in the United States of America. There was a sense, at least to my young eyes, that we might be at the dawn of an artistic renaissance for a population too long silenced in this country.

A new urban aesthetic was overtaking mass media. It was bright, colorful, loud, and proud.

And this was before the mid-90s when a rap sub-genre, dubbed “gangsta”, came along to glorify a different kind of black voice, and began its own kinds of stereotypes — stereotypes that thrive still today. This was a time that cried for continued change, but seemed to call for it from a cosmic place inside that looked for salvation in something spiritual instead of a growing collection of dollars, cars, guns, and women.

For me, no track has embodied the freshness and elation of that cultural moment than “Can I Kick It?”, which appeared on A Tribe Called Quest‘s debut album in 1990. The album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was never on my bookshelves at home. Not by any means. In fact, I don’t think I knew the title until a few years ago. But as long as I can remember, it seems there’s been a three-chord bass harmony cycling through my head — the song’s intro, sampled from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”:

Now, I haven’t listened to that track today; I’m keeping my appetite unspoiled for when I listen to the whole album in a bit. But you can hear it, can’t you? There’s joy in that track, and self-assurance. Maybe a sense of wide-open possibilities.

But I don’t recall loving everything about this album. There were stories and sentiments that I recall being expressed sophomorically, and tracks that felt self-indulgent in their length. Even in “Can I Kick It?”, I cringe a little at the organ sample’s clash against the rest of the track. Why? I ask myself. There had to be other options.

So I’m back, after several years of not listening to People’s Instinctive Travels…, to see if I can make sense of any of that stuff I didn’t like. Let’s dive in together.

Final disclaimer: I seem to recall some explicit stuff on some of these tracks, while others are totally, fully innocent. Like funnily innocent. So just listen with some caution.


What I think I’ll say when it’s over:

Nope. Still don’t get some of their choices. But MAN, those four guys put together beats that still pop today.

Track 1 – “Push It Along”: A baby’s cry and a lot of psychedelic sounds. This isn’t your grandfather’s hip hop. Actually it might be, but it’s a lot cooler than yours. Sorry kids. Anyway, how much thought to artists put into the symbolism in these sounds? Is this the birth of a new urban movement? Then that bass, that guitar… I guess these guys didn’t like being called “jazz rap” but they sampled some real cool cats, yeah cool, dig it. Two verses and two choruses later, how about a saxophone solo? Hang on I’m gonna go google the album because I’m pretty sure there’s a list of samples used on the album. … Ok I have Wikipedia loading in another tab but I had to come back because about 5:00 into this track, just when you think it’s over, a fade-in of a totally new feel (what’s THIS sample??), and back to some psychedelic effects, some echoes and some reverse-reverb. I’m listening with headphones right now — normally I listen on speakers to fill the room — and the stereo on this last section is much appreciated.

2 – “Luck of Lucien”: WHEN WILL THE SMOOTHNESS END. I hope the rhymes match how cool this is. … Yup they do. I love the high hat (or is that a really sharp snare?) on the backbeat. WHOA MORE STEREO IN FULL EFFECT. I didn’t even remember there were any French elements on this album at all, so there’s a ton of nice little surprises hidden in here. Ok let’s talk samples. Here’s the list of samples, courtesy of Wikipedia. The Marseillaise that leads into this track is a sample from “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles. And they sampled it themselves. Huh.

3 – “After Hours”: No idea what this song is about, I’m on Wikipedia too much. I heard apple juice. This is some kind of story and I haven’t followed it at all, but the beat is killing it hard so I’m just gonna let that be my focus right now. Do you hear the reverb on the backbeat? Put on some headphones — it goes for days. More scratching on this track than I’d normally be into but such was the life of a 90s DJ. WHOA WAS THAT FIVE SECONDS OF METAPSYCHEDELIA? Awesome. I love that they put that in there.

4 – “Footprints”: FLANGE THAT SAMPLE LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. Pretty cool that I can’t keep my ears at peace while that tone lasts, but then when the kick drum drops I don’t even remember that it’s there. Reference to the UNLV Rebels helps this track feel like a real time capsule. I’m a hand percussion hater normally, but they fit really well in the breakdown at about 2:30. And now I’m bored and going back to that samples list. This ascending-horn sample is so uncomfortable on top of everything else that’s going. And is this final stomping rhythm sampled from The Wall?

5 – “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”: I remember hating this song. This time around I like the beat. The hook still sucks. And I get bored by stories, even if the rhymes are cool here and there. (Ugh, “I had the enchiladas and I ate ’em.” Yuck. And I don’t mean the food.) This appears to be the story of a man who wants to spend a ton of gas money so he can go back and get the condoms that are in his wallet, instead of buying replacements at a local store. It is still a low point on the album.

6 – “Pubic Enemy”: That doesn’t say “public”. A candid track about sexuality and venereal disease. This public service announcement brought to you by the Tribe.

7 – “Bonita Applebaum”: I remember this one being pretty overtly sexual too. Loving the electric piano — not sure where that got sampled from. And I’d forgotten that string sample (is that a sitar?) that The Fugees used in “Killing Me Softly”. Ooh! And I just discovered whosampled.com. (Here at the end it does get crazy sexual. And then more psychedelic chorus work. I love that that keeps getting reintroduced.)

8 – “Can I Kick It?”: The classic. The quintessential. Listening to it now, this is the first time I’ve ever heard the falsetto “Yes you can!” in the right channel. Seriously, put on some headphones and turn it up and listen to the Muppet in your right year. Ok let’s talk a little bit about Lou Reed because I can’t get enough of this bass line from “Walk on the Wild Side”. It’s playful, it’s simple, it’s confident, it’s melodic, it’s laid back and easy. It’s for all those reasons that I haven’t been able to escape it for more than probably a week for my entire life. What’s that glass-breaking sample? And who’s Mr. Dinkins, and why do we want him to be the mayor? And did I get his name right? I’m too busy to think about these things. On to the next track.

9 – “Youthful Expression”: Actually I’m still talking about that last track. Several months ago I went to a party held by a bunch of 20-year-olds, and I knew I liked the musical taste of a couple of them. But when Kesha gave way to “Can I Kick It?”, my respect went deep. “Body’s healthy, mind is wealthy.” See what I’m saying about positivity ruling the day in this era of hip hop? I love that. Even when change is demanded, it’s done in good humor: “No banana, I ain’t a primate.” Not scientifically true, but the point is made. We are listening to A Tribe Called Quest declare themselves representatives and leaders of a movement, and the music is confident enough to get us to believe in them.

10 – “Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)”: Best title on the album. “It’s a new decade”, the first line in the song, continues to stress ATCQ’s place in what could have been a real movement. I’m still kind of mad at Snoop Dogg, Warren G, that whole school — maybe things would be better for race relations in the country if positivity had carried the lyrical day, instead of line after line about violent crime.

11 – “Mr. Muhammad”: NO BUT REALLY WHEN DOES THE SMOOTH END. It must be its only special kind of genius to hear such a minuscule piece of a recording and say “Let’s just repeat those two counts, over and over — trust me, it’s going to sound like genius.” This track’s got quality; too bad it’s stuck on the back half of the album, where it becomes forgettable filler. It deserves better.

12 – “Ham ‘n’ Eggs”: Silliness, and why not? It’s a hip hop song about the benefits of vegetarianism. They rhyme “yummy” and “tummy”. Like I said, I’m not a hip hop guy, but I don’t see Kanye taking a enough of a break from his ego to rap about asparagus. I can see these guys dancing and swaying and clapping in the studio, just giddy with how ridiculous this track is, even as they believe in it from the bottoms of their hearts.

13 – “Go Ahead in the Rain”: Just as I was getting a little tired near the end of the album, here comes that guitar. Wikipedia says Hendrix got sampled for this one, but I think it was the rain at the beginning, not the 70s scratch guitar. Ok I’m back to a little tired, and I think the production is a little tired too by now. I would have liked to see the same level of creativity go into this last stretch of the album as we saw in the first two-thirds or so.

14 – “Description of a Fool”: The beat’s catchy, and it’s put to GOOD use: we’re finishing off the album with a statement on masculinity and chauvinism in the city. Compare that with record after record that have come out since in rap and hip hop, full of womanizing and me-first. This is yet another testament that A Tribe Called Quest were doing something right, and I wish they’d done it longer.

What I’m saying now that it’s done:

I can’t think of more than a couple moments when I thought this album’s production choices were too weird. But for some reason I’m left with the feeling that the back half of the album just doesn’t match up to the front. Which is weird: “Description of a Fool” makes for a genuinely strong ending, and you know I love “Rhythm” and “Ham ‘n’ Eggs”. I guess I just wanted more aggressive creativity throughout this set. (I’ve always felt that way about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, too.) But looking over the tracks, The only low points I can genuinely point to are “Mr. Muhammad”, which really isn’t bad, and “Go Ahead in the Rain.” In any case, speaking in specifics, I really respect the decision to — frequently — keep listeners on their toes by just ending tracks and jumping straight to the next one, with practically no silence between them. That’s good, and something I wouldn’t mind incorporating in my own recordings. The rhymes here are generally less early-80s hokey than I remember them being, and the feel is even more laid back than I’d recalled. This is a good album, guys, and worth repeated listenings (almost) all the way through.

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