Writer’s Note: I distinctly remember purchasing the cassette for A Tribe Called Quest’s debut; this was the old days when new albums dropped on Tuesdays and us young Hip-Hop fanatics lined up at our local record store. I owned a low-budget radio system that was my refuge from the tension of growing up poor, marginalized,, and on the cusp of manhood, rushing home with the gold in hand.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was unlike anything I ever heard. I was familiar with Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg, having heard them on De La Soul’s epic “Buddy” Native Tongues remix. I had school the next day, but I stayed up attempting to learn the entire album in a night. I didn’t achieve that feat, but I’ll never forget playing the album for a friend the following afternoon and his boisterous “OH SH*T!” because of the horn loop on the album’s opener, “Push It Along,” which we learned way later in life was sampled from Grover Washington’s “Loran’s Dance.”
This album will always hold a special place in my development as a music lover and, frankly, as a Black man in America. Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi were just a few years older than me but were still in that space of discovering themselves. I too was searching answers, and ACTQ were companions in that journey, unbeknownst to them. By now, the surviving members of the group are well aware of their legacy and what they helped pioneer. The entire culture of Hip-Hop owes them a great deal of gratitude.
The late 1980s has long been considered the height of Hip-Hop’s Golden Age by some observers, and it isn’t difficult to assume why. Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Slick Rick, and The Ultramagnetic MCs helped change the entire approach to rapping. De La Soul and their producer Prince Paul transformed how beats were made by digging deep into the archives of the acts of old and creating something otherworldly. And on the other side of the map, N.W.A. became talented, foul-mouthed superstars that took the industry by storm.
A Tribe Called Quest almost didn’t happen as we know it. The group’s frontman, Q-Tip, was a curious and studious Hip-Hop hopeful who landed on The Jungle Brothers’ 1988 debut album, Straight Out The Jungle. From there, Q-Tip immersed himself in all aspects of production and music, having already been blessed with one of the genre’s best vocal instruments even then. For all of the group’s talent, record labels didn’t know what to do with Tip and his three brethren, considering then that Hip-Hop was not the cultural powerhouse it is today.
Luckily for the listeners, and with Kool DJ Red Alert’s guidance, the eccentric Queens-Brooklyn quartet inked a deal with Jive Records and released their stellar debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The album was a continuation of the warmth and lyrical depth exhibited by the aforementioned Plugs and the JBs, firmly anchored by the complex schemes of The Abstract and the straight-ahead grit of the Five Foot Assassin. And it is no doubt that the album was primarily a vehicle for Q-Tip to come into his own.
Overall, the album’s themes are typical of coming of age fare, but with considerable nods towards what it meant to be young and Black in New York City. It would also serve as a necessary jumpstart for Phife, who didn’t take music seriously as his longtime friend in Q-Tip, but saw the later value after coming into his own in subsequent releases. But it was People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm that gave way to the years of amazing music we’ve been blessed to experience.
It isn’t known if it was planned, but Q-Tip, real name Kamaal Fareed, turned 20 the day his album hit shelves and he turns 50 today. He may not have the world’s most extensive catalog of music, but it certainly is one of the most potent with three solo albums, dozens of guest appearances, and production credits for the likes of talented wordsmiths such as Roc Marci, Danny Brown, and more. Q-Tip was also named was named the artistic director for hip hop culture at the Kennedy Center in 2015.
Phife Dawg, who struggled with health issues later in life, passed in 2016 from complications arising from diabetes. But he too left behind a body of work that has garnered recognition and was cemented via Tribe’s final album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, released in 2016. Jarobi, who showed off his little known rapping ability on Tribe’s last set, found success as a chef and also formed a group with fellow Native Tongues member, Dres The Black Sheep known as evitaN. Muhammad has gone on to great heights as a DJ and producer, working alongside fellow producer, Adrian Younge in recent times.
For those of us who were alive when the album was released, and especially for those of us who purchased the record those three decades ago, it should be especially important for us to reconnect with the sound that helped shape our mental landscapes and our spiritual pursuits. Every era of Hip-Hop has its share of classic releases and the debates have raged on inside barbershop and backyards for years. Yet it should come to little surprise that even the harshest critic can find the resounding merit in comfortably placing People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm far ahead of other releases of the era.
Check out the streams of the album below.