Black Pride Through NYC’s Tribe

In the United States, Black pride is a concept that arose out of necessity. With white pride and glorification existing not just as a social norm, but also as a suppressive force for centuries, Black communities have managed to uphold their own self image with positive reinforcement from within. It takes shape in different ways. In some cases, it spawned the creation of political groups like the Black Panther Party, whose prime motivation was the defense of Black lives against plotted state violence (Duncan). This party was notoriously infiltrated by LAPD, murdering their leaders and ending its reign, but not its sentiments.

Another limb stemming from the root of Black pride is “Afrocentrism”, focusing on the celebration of Black achievements and contributions throughout history while studying, and centering Black cultures and ideals in one’s daily life. It includes a collective familial connection that comes with the unraveling of new information about one’s own identity (Touré).

While merely an investigative effort towards the innocuous goal of self actualization, white counterparts still took issue with it. In one New York Times article from 1991, Michel Marriott, a previous journalism professor at Baruch College, explains a how afrocentrism was “an emotionally loaded term”. The key point of contention, was the acknowledgement that public education was and is Eurocentric and inaccurate as a result. One Black public school teacher from Detroit, Cleotha Jordan, explains that textbooks taught Black people existed in history merely as “a slave, then a cartoon and then three-fifths of a person” (Marriott). Teaching Black youths that they solely existed as subhumans is not only false, but slanderous. White educators, though, found afrocentrism almost threatening. Erich Martel, a high school teacher of fifteen years, highly doubted the convictions, calling afrocentrism more of a “religion or an ideology” rather than being based in any truth (Marriott). The collection of afrocentric beliefs such as Ancient Egypt being a more advanced civilization than Ancient Greece, and Black people existing in the Americas prior to Columbus “rubbed [him] the wrong way” (Marriott).

Numerous attempts to elevate and celebrate Blackness have been tainted as “militant” or suspect. One of the few, though, that succeeds continuously and permeates all races is through music. At the same time as Michel Marriott was writing his article, the Queens-born hip-hop legends of A Tribe Called Quest (aka Tribe) were about to make their mark with their sophomore album The Low End Theory. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White are only one of many examples of groups that successfully normalized casual, Black pride and made it cool. Through their lyricism, attire, and collaborations, they made it mainstream to promote Blackness positively and encouraged others to do the same.

A Tribe Called Quest filming for “Yo! MTV Raps” circa 1990, in their hometown of New York City. Photo by Janette Beckman/Getty Images.

Hip hop started in the streets. DJ Kool Herc from Jamaica brought over the sound systems from his native country to backyard parties in the Bronx and started a tradition of blasting tunes in this fashion. The boys from Tribe had this as a part of their daily lives growing up “on the boulevard of Linden”. Q-Tip and Phife were best friends since the age of two and were “practically godbrothers” (Rapport). Growing up in the same neighborhood and sharing the same taste in sports helped keep them bonded. Ali Shaheed Muhammad joined the crew because he shared the same high school as Q-Tip.

When visiting their alma mater in their documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip and Ali demonstrated how the kids would turn their classrooms and cafeterias into concerts:

“When we all went there, it was a whole bunch of musicians…who took they opportunity during [lunch] to beat on the tables…They really were handy with percussion” (Rapport).

One student would start drumming and the others would swiftly join in, trying their hand at layering rhymes, or a “flow”, on top of it. It was a common creative practice that bonded students, and soon to be musicians that would later work with each other. It was all about the beat.

Parks were another common space for kids of the neighborhood to hang out and throw down rhymes. “During the summertime, the DJ’s started setting up they sound systems in the schoolyard”, Ali recalls. “I had a view [from my fire escape] of these kids comin’ in pulling out vinyl, puttin’ it down, puttin’ they headphones on. All of a sudden there’s this ‘roar’ there’s this cheer, people dancin” (Rapport). The music added an extra layer of excitement. It was in this kind of environment that Phife and Jarobi clicked. While waiting to shoot hoops in St. Albans Park, Jarobi showed off his beatboxing to Phife, and it was sealed from then on. All inspired by neighborhood stars Run DMC, the group started creating their own rhymes and flows over other artist’s songs, using the same records, mixes, and radios that they saw dominate their neighborhoods.

As they began to create songs as a group, their demonstration of afrocentrism became noticeable. Their name alone stands as a testament to this. In the 90’s, New York City racial tensions were at its peak. They were a New York hip hop group promoting Black pride at a time when the city would elect its first Black mayor. In fact, Phife Dawg made a prophetic request in “Can I Kick It” asking David Dinkins to “please be [his] mayor”. At that time, with record drug-related arrests across the city, police began to adopt the word “posse” to describe groups of young Black men. A term popularized in Jamaica, a posse is a group involved in smuggling drugs and/or arms. Though accurate in one regard, police began to use the term to loosely and falsely characterize groups of Black youths, regardless of whether or not they were truly gang affiliated (Mckinley).

In combination with the negative messaging from media outlets, the image of Black people continued to be tarnished, furthering sentiments that predominantly Black neighborhoods were ridden with criminals and low lives. Calling themselves a “tribe”, proudly referencing their African roots, contrasted and combatted this rhetoric.

Lyricism was another way they projected afrocentrism. Q-Tip was proudly affiliated with the Universal Zulu Nation and made it known in his rhymes. Created in the 1970s by American DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the Zulu Nation was a community-based organization that used hip-hop music and culture as an avenue to promote unity and peace to combat neighborhood gang violence (Morgan). Bambaataa purposely renamed their affiliates with more African ones like Monifa and Ahmed, and even named all of their projects Nubian Productions (Orange). Commenting on these deliberate decisions, Bambaataa says that “it was important to take on our Africanism and bring it to the youth early on” (Orange). Tip brought these strategies to his flows, and it is particularly prevalent in Tribe’s song “Excursions” (Touré).

The track starts their sophomore album The Low End Theory humbly. It is melodically simple, with a funky bass line and light drums in the background. About forty seconds in, you are hit with a sample from The Shades of Brown’s “The Soil I Tilled For You” as the hard hitting drive for the rest of the song. Tip drops references to things that if you were Black, you’d be familiar with. For example, he threatens anyone that messes with the elevation of Black culture with “a pair of Nikes, size ten-and-a-half” up their rear-end. He also tells listeners that if they are feeling the track to “shake, shake it, baby; All the way to Africa, A.K.A. the Motherland”. This particular line, though playful, is a hint at afrocentric pride. He further cements this by name dropping the Zulu Nation in this line: “you must realize; That continually, I pop my Zulu [shit]; If you don’t like it, get off the Zulu tip”. His incorporation of these aspects of identity personalize the track, and make those who understand his references feel connected.

Phife Dawg is also owed flowers, as he did the same for West Indians. Phife was Trinidadian and did not make it go unknown. “His Name is Mutty Ranks” is the anthem for these proud Caribbean fans. He begins the song using Patois while using reggae band Aswad’s intro “Live and Direct”. The pronunciation alone would make any West Indian’s head turn in an instant. To put the cherry on top, he closes the song with an outro almost entirely in his Trinidadian accent. The last few lines “Ya nah ready for dis yet, bwoy!” is a reference to Jamaican singer Tanya Stephen’s popular track “You Nuh Ready For Dis Yet”.

Another “if you know, you know” reference implemented, and the pride shown by Phife and felt by the audience skyrockets. These creative nuggets of pride left a mark on Trinidadian youth that would eventually pursue artistry and become successful. Jillionaire, a Trini DJ from popular group Major Lazer, felt especially moved by Phife’s demonstrations. Living on an island that goes largely unnoticed by popular culture, “hearing his shout outs and references meant everything” (Jeffers). Phife was the first hip-hop artist to truly claim his West Indian heritage, and likely inspired others like Nicki Minaj, ASAP Ferg, Teff Hinkson, and more to follow suit (Jeffers).

What really made A Tribe Called Quest stand out from other artists during their time was attire. They often wore dashikis, a West African garment, like in the music video for “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” (Stone III). Ali Shaheed Muhammad was often sporting a cowrie shell necklace as seen in the “Can I Kick It” Music Video (Swaffield). Cowrie shells have numerous meanings in countries and cultures across Africa, but when worn as jewelry or as a charm, it provides prayer-like protection (Juju). The quartet often wore items with colors of the diaspora, reds, blacks, and greens, which were also featured on the cover of The Low End Theory. This kind of dress starkly contrasts the typical attire of hip-hop musicians from New York, or anywhere. Usually, artists would rock baggy jeans, a flat-brim, fitted cap, a hoodie, and some ill sneakers.

“We were lookin like weirdos to a lot of people,” Ali recounts (Rapport). “The whole thing is about diversity and embracing the different things within cultures that separate us but actually tie us through this thing called music” (Rapport).

These simple, subtle decisions and details are crucial in the normalization of Black culture, but also in redefining and complicating what Blackness looks like.

Journalist and podcaster Touré reflected on how Tribe diversified hip-hop and made him feel like he had a place within the genre. When Touré was growing up in Boston, he felt disconnected from his favorite rap artists like Run DMC because of their portrayal of Black masculinity as “bravado, machismo, [egocentric] and, for most, a bodacious New Yorkness” (Touré). The genre was overloaded with abrasive personalities, and the media coverage only further emphasized that. Tribe brought a confidence that felt natural and “made hip-hop for people who were as interested in ideas as in rhymes” (Touré).

Tribe almost calls out to those like Touré, in their song “Sucka Nigga”. The first line of the verse goes “I be hating…the sucka niggas, Posing like they hard when we know they damn card”. Q-Tip calls out people who act like they are tough although he knows it is only a facade. As the song draws to a close, a woman with a robotic voice proclaims “You’re not any less of a man, if you don’t pull the trigger; You’re not necessarily a man, if you do”. Pulling the trigger, regardless of its subliminal meaning, is a decisive and aggressive act. Promoting the idea of standing down and questioning the authority of the act on determining masculinity goes against the typical abrasive hip-hop that Touré was used to.

Through these lines, they question what it means to be a man, and also the ways to prove or demonstrate it. They further this point during an interview with Arsenio Hall in 1992 after performing “Scenario” live with Leaders of the New School. As Q-Tip describes the inspiration behind the name The Low End Theory, he explains that “the Black male in America [is pinned] with… drug selling, toting guns” and that they, in contrast to the stereotype, are an example of “three Black young men doing something positive” (tetertan). Tribe served to work against the oversaturated and incorrect representation of Blackness.

With these creative and intentional decisions, it seems that A Tribe Called Quest is the full package. It isn’t in Tribe’s nature, though, to go without collaboration. Their entire childhood, they were a part of a neighborhood that built off of one another, a true community that bonded through parks and recreation. They made friends with people who casually rhymed, made beats, and simply loved to make music.

This was the basis for the creation of New York-based hip-hop collective, Native Tongues. Composed of the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifa, A Tribe Called Quest, among others, the group made themselves known for “positive-minded, good-natured Afrocentric lyrics” and songs that brought complex topics to the mainstream (HHGA). The feeling they left with their audience was that they were just a bunch of teenagers “hanging out and making music” (Thurm).

It is this kind of teamwork and collaboration that built the foundation for one of their most experimental mixes, ‘Scenario’. The third track off of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, ‘Scenario’ is a perfect demonstration of the natural chemistry between hip-hop musicians of the era. The melody is created by the blending of two songs, Jimi Henreick’s “Little Miss Lover” and Brother Jack Mcduff “Oblighetto”, mixed together to build a funky beat (Udogwu). Oblighetto is a jazzy six minute track with horns, electric piano, drums and more, speeding up and slowing down on a rollercoaster of energies. The portion of the song that Tribe used is actually only fifteen seconds long. It’s an obscure pull from the otherwise long track. Almost Frankenstein-like, the sample uses a combination of bass and “menacing organs” on what would be a great background for Shaggy and Scooby-Doo to wander a haunted house(Udogwu). Paired with the layered drumbeat off of “Little Miss Lover” that mirrors cafeteria desk drumming circles, we get a beautiful mashup that crosses two different genres, jazz and rock, to make a third: hip-hop. My dad was a fan at the time that Scenario was released and remembers his first time hearing the track.

“The first time I heard the “Scenario” was crazy. This eerie baseline in the intro is interrupted by a hard hitting beat that made you wanna stomp, kick, pound or smash something…the energy on that track was next level. That…was the real hip hop for me. That real hard hitting, no mercy, punch you in the gut New York realness” -Nigel Hewitt.

This description only complicates our understanding of Tribe, as it contrasts the typical smooth hip-hop that they are known for making. It is a good thing, because they are further demonstrating their artistic diversity, therefore making themselves more multifaceted.

A Tribe Called Quest aren’t the only voices on this track. They recruited Leaders of the New School (LONS) to throw down flows. The song serves as an introduction to the character of each group and subsequently its members. “What’s the scenario?” is equivalent to “what’s up.”

Each rapper makes his verse entirely his own, spicing it up with personality and including their own names. Phife Dawg takes the first verse with his third line being “Well, what do you know? The Di-Dawg is first up to bat”. Dinco D of Leaders of the New School cleverly embedded his alias with this line: “So, yo, the D, what! The O, Incorporated I-N-C into a flow”. He took apart the letters of his name, and made reference to the acronym for ‘incorporated’ which is used in the middle of his own name. The music video shows the visual parsing and placement which makes the puzzle-piecing more clear. Charlie Brown (LONS) used the other members in his introduction through call and response. The group shouts “Who’s that?”, and he calls back “Brown!”. He continues, “So, may I say, call me Charlie”. Q-Tip enters the chat with “It’s a Leader-Quest mission” calling out the mutual collaboration between the two groups (not to mention, shortly thereafter proclaiming his love for the Zulu Nation).

It was a strategic move made so that the audience knew who the groups were and the member that each verse belonged to. It was this exact strategy that got Q-Tip recognized on his first feature with the Jungle Brothers called “Black is Black”. Member Afrika Baby Bam recalls being “very adamant… say your name, say the name of your crew, and do your rhyme” (Rapaport). With this collaboration, A Tribe Called Quest followed suit, passing the torch and paying their success forward, allowing for new talent to make their mark.

The most popular verse on the track was made by the now popular artist Busta Rhymes. It was this flow that put him on the map. His experimentation with measures and timing were revolutionary, demonstrating that delivery is as important to a musical piece as its content.

Q-Tip introduces him with “So here’s Busta Rhymes with the scenario:” before laying some experimental lyricism on the audience. He uses onomatopoeia to fill up spaces in his flow, like “Powerful impact (Boom!) from the cannon!” while letting the rest of the crew chime in on “Boom”. Another example comes only a few lines later: “Unh! Unh! Unh! All over the track, man, Unh, pardon me, unh! As I come back!”. Rhymes also played with syncopation. He spaced out the five-syllable-word ‘vocabulary’ to take up an entire measure, before bouncing back to vocal tremors (Udogwu). They use call and response in the lyrics to engage the rest of the group (and eventually the audience in live performances).

This track represents a level of experimentation with lyricism, mixes, and visuals, that had no predecessors. The synthesization in all aspects of the song is synonymous with the unity being resembled throughout the genre and a larger movement of Black collaboration as mutuals over competitors.

A Tribe Called Quest was the group that made hip hop and rhythmic flow saucy. With their embrace of their multifaceted ethnic identities and their dedication to collaboration with other artists, they demonstrate the power in the unification of the Black diaspora. They are also one of the few to survive without much public backlash for being uncomfortably themselves. They serve as the inspiration and blueprint for numerous artists today.

Tribe stood out in hip-hop because they complicated the genre’s definition. They rarely had hard hitting, abrasive tracks like Touré was used to. They brought a calm groove that naturally incorporated odes to Black culture through lyrics like “Excursions”, features like “Scenario”, samples like “His Name Is Mutty Ranks”, and dress like wearing dashikis.

Goldlink’s debut album Diaspora is resemblant of this. The 14-track masterpiece is a beautiful compilation of Black voices that have a global range. He features artist Ari Pen-Smith from South-East London, American pop artist Khalid form Georgia, Afrobeat hit WizKid aka “Starboy” from Lagos, alternative hip-hop musician Tyler, The Creator from California, rapper Pusha T from New York, singer Lola Rae with Ghanian and British descent, among many others. There is a little bit for everyone on the album, with song genres varying from afrobeats with “Spanish Song”, to dance/electronic with “Zulu Screams”, to alternative hip-hop with “Cokewhite”, to reggae with “Yard”, to rap with “Tiff Freestyle”. Even within these prescribed genres, the songs overlap and mix because of their many influences. The album is definitely a “Black” one, but it brings a mixture of voices to redefine what “Black” truly means. This is the work that Tribe was beginning to do along with the other artists of Native Tongues.

Goldlink says himself that “if you want to make a diaspora of things, you need to reach to a diaspora of people” (Madden). The album “joins a long legacy of Black artists grappling with what it means to rightfully represent who and what they come from” (Burney).

American rapper, Wale, took after the tradition of shout-outs to promote a Black-owned designer brand his song “Sue Me”. Before continuing to the chorus “Sue me, I’m rootin’ for everybody that Black”, he says “Pyer Moss, I dropped ten on my last visit; And half that up at Saks, I favor Black businesses”. Haitian-American designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s brand, Pyer Moss, is known for bringing “storytelling activism, debate, theatre and social commentary” to their collections in a way that elevates and celebrates Black voices both past and present in an authentic way that centers their subjects over their products (Moss).

Name drops like this popularize brands and items. When done with intent like Wale with Pyer Moss, it helps put Black creators in the spotlight. It was this strategy that put the world onto Busta Rhymes with his memorable verse in “Scenario” and the rest of the Leaders of the New School. It has been proven, from Run DMC’s million-dollar-collaboration with Adidas in 1986, to the 217% spike in online engagement Cardi B brought Christian Louboutin with “Bodak Yellow”, that rappers voicing their support matters (Lima).

Today, collaborations and features continue to be a driving force in artists’ careers, and it actually makes them stand out more. Contemporary hip hop artists have jump started their careers based off of the creators within their collectives. Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, for example, were both in a collective by the name of Black Hippy. After Lamar got popular, Schoolboy Q featured him on his single called “Collard Greens” and got wide recognition (Rath).

Features are incredibly common on today’s albums, and some rarely grow without them. Ty Dolla $ign is arguably most popular off of his features and collaborations with others, than his own work. Chance the Rapper’s album “Coloring Book” only includes two solo songs. Hip-hop is, and from its beginnings was, a collaborative genre. Put in Cliche Mag’s Lilly Milman’s words, “The way in which members of the hip-hop community engage with each other is analogous to scientists in a lab, or scholars in a field of research” (Milman). Everyone has a role in the creation of a final product that is beyond any one individual.

A Tribe Called Quest is the perfect example of the ways in which collaboration and unity works, especially when it is done organically. Their story is a testament to it. They are also useful to study the ways to infiltrate the minds of young Black youths to become more in tune with their Black identities. Nina Simone famously reflected that her job was to make Black youths “curious enough, to persuade them by hook or crook, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from…by any means necessary” (Simone). Tribe does exactly that. They took afrocentrism and Black pride, packaged it in a fun, lighthearted, and effortless way that captivated fans, onlookers, and will continue to impact generations, long after their 90s reign.

We are reminded, through A Tribe Called Quest and countless other artists, that Blackness is not a monolith.

Through introspection, artists have realized the importance of their unique voices that differentiate themselves from one another and ultimately help diversify the spaces they exist and work in. By recognizing these intimacies and nuances, and claiming them with pride, we uplift ourselves and others hoping to tell their own stories.

Denise Stephanie

Works Cited

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A Brooklyn-native creative. Portrait Connoisseur. Female Entrepreneur. Playlist-making Prodigy.