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A memoir of musical reverence to A Tribe Called Quest


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And now the continuing legacy of a pioneer hip-hop group that crossed genres and influenced artists in the field, as seen through a new memoir.

Amna Nawaz has our latest conversation from our Bookshelf, and part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Amna Nawaz: From their very first album in 1990, called "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm," the Queens-based group A Tribe Called Quest walked a path all their own.

Their exploratory sounds, layering jazz samples and pairing them with socially conscious lyrics, and their inescapable beats in albums like "The Low End Theory" and "Midnight Marauders," defined their work and redefined what rap and hip-hop could be.

But it was the unique chemistry between the three core members, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, that drove their creative process.

Tribe's music was both critically and commercially successful, and their 1998 breakup left their legion of fans devastated. Eighteen years later, they reemerged with one last declaration, a 2016 album called "We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service," recorded in secret and released just days after the presidential election, offering what one review called the best musical release valve the country could hope for.

Their music and their impact are now immortalized in a new book by poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib called "Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest."

Hanif joins me here now.

Welcome to the "NewsHour."

Hanif Abdurraqib: Thank you for having me.

Amna Nawaz: So this is an intensely personal book.

It's more like love letters and notes, as you say in the title, to the band.

What was it about this group for you, as a kid growing up in Ohio, that spoke to you?

Hanif Abdurraqib: Yes, so I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but my parents and two of my four siblings were born on the East Coast in New York. My older siblings were into hip-hop, but it was largely East Coast hip-hop.

And A Tribe Called Quest was a group that kind of passed quality control in my house, when my parents didn't always love us listening to rap, but we could listen to A Tribe Called Quest because of the consciousness of their lyrics or because of the jazz samples. And so that was the first rap group that I felt like I could listen to in the house and not feel like I was getting away with something.

Amna Nawaz: You call yourself in the book decidedly weird.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: And you describe the band, too, as walking a thin line of weirdness themselves.

Among all the members, you also seemed to mostly closely identify with Phife Dawg. Why was that?

Hanif Abdurraqib: Well, because I'm short.

Hanif Abdurraqib: And what I love most about Phife is, you know, I come from a place where, if you can't fight, you should be funny, you know, or you have to have a slick tongue to get yourself out of whatever you get yourself into.

And Phife was one of those kind of people. You could kind of tell that he had the spirit of someone who had talked his way out of many treacherous situations. That really came through in the work.

Amna Nawaz: You link a lot of the music and the time at which you took it in to things that were going on in your life.

And in one of these chapters, you actually write a letter to Phife's mom. And we should mention, of course, he passed away in March of 2016 from complications from diabetes.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Right.

Amna Nawaz: Why did you decide to write that letter to her?

Hanif Abdurraqib: Well, one, I am a poet. She is a poet, and I love her work as a poet such a great deal.

I first heard Cheryl Boyce-Taylor read poems in a packed room when I was sitting on the floor in the very back. And I didn't know at the time that she was Phife's mother. But there is something so rhythmic about the quality of her voice.

And in the book, I parallel their writing. I parallel her writing and his writing and show kind of how they are married in some ways. Also, I am a person who lost his mother. I lost my mother as a teenager, and she is a mother who lost her son.

And I felt like, in that way, we are kind of siblings in a very specific type of grief.

Amna Nawaz: One of the other things you do throughout the whole book, you talk about the beating of Rodney King. You talk about the uprising in Los Angeles. You talk about the shootings of Philando Castile and others.

What was it you were trying to do in making those connections in this book?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I think the stakes are raised when music criticism understands the world that music is being released into, because that affects the way that music is heard.

That affects the way that people engage with it. That affects the way that people escape from the world they're living in or run into it with more vigor. It was important for me to write about A Tribe Called Quest with the same kind of historical reverence that we see the Beatles written about or we see the Rolling Stones written about.

I wanted to give A Tribe Called Quest the same kind of reverence.

Amna Nawaz: So, Tribe had a sound that was uniquely all their own. But they clearly pulled from other places. They influenced a lot of other people.

Where did they kind of exist in the American musical landscape?

Hanif Abdurraqib: A Tribe Called Quest was, at least in the early days before sample rules changed, pulling from so many different elements of jazz and funk and rhythm, from, you know, decades before they made music.

And, in some ways, that is rebuilding a new lineage of listeners to that old music, right, in reframing the idea of what American music is, which is about, you know, the backbone of American music is black music. And so A Tribe Called Quest really did a good job, I think, of completing that arc, the arc from the past to the present, and I think pushing their peers to do the same.

Amna Nawaz: For anyone out there who has never heard a Tribe song, what is it you want them to take away from this book, and what is it you want them to know about the place the Tribe holds in our musical history?

Hanif Abdurraqib: You know, the thing I think about all the time is that, if someone has never heard A Tribe Called Quest, and they come to this book, it's really, yes, a book about a rap group, but, more particularly, a book that is examining how fandom seeps into our lives, right?

It's a book that examines what it is to love a musician or a group of musicians and have your life so intertwined with theirs, understanding that you may never meet them.

So, yes, this is a book about A Tribe Called Quest, but it is also a book for anyone who has ever found themselves deeply in love with that -- with music or the people who make music.

Amna Nawaz: The book is "Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest."

Hanif Abdurraqib, thanks for being here.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Thank you so much for having me.

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