Top 5: The five best A Tribe Called Quest songs
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Top 5: The five best A Tribe Called Quest songs

A Tribe Called Quest (Quest) is one of hip-hop’s most underrated and unappreciated crews. Formed in New York’s legendary borough of Queens, the home of Run-DMC and Mobb Deep, A Tribe Called Quest were pivotal in popularising alternative hip-hop during the 1990s.

Comprised of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and rapper Jarobi White, the crew’s jazz-infused work saw them establish a unique breakaway sound. Labelled initially as “progressive rap”, the subgenre and aesthetic would come to be known as jazz-hop by the late 1990s.

The ensemble’s creators, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, were childhood friends who had grown up together in the St. Albans neighbourhood of Queens. Exploring themes surrounding Afrocentrism and The Five-Percent Nation that were arising in neo-soul and other areas of hip-hop the collective were looking at the African-American experience in a more holistic way than other prevalent acts at the time.

The four-piece outfit recorded under many monikers, including Crush Connection and Quest. However, in 1988 they finally settled with A Tribe Called Quest. Appearing on underground records alongside acts such as Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and Roots, in 1989, the crew hired hip-hop’s gatekeeper Kool DJ Red Alert as their manager. With the kingpin of rap music as their manager the crew gained popularity in New York City and, before long, the entire East Coast.

The ensemble’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders is still regarded as a hip-hop classic, with its single ‘Electric Relaxation’ among one of the best hip-hop tracks ever made. With such a hefty catalogue of classics below we have selected their five best and most impactful tracks.

The five best A Tribe Called Quest songs:

5. ‘1nce Again’ – Beats, Rhymes and Life, (1996)

‘1nce Again’ acted as the lead single of Quest’s fourth album Beats, Rhymes and Life. As well as hip-hop, the track also contains R’n’B. It’s hook was sung by Tammy Lucas. In spite of the fact it didn’t chart the song was extremely popular on the underground. However, unfortunately for Quest, during this period, gritty aggressive hip-hop was the sound of New York.

This track wasn’t produced by Q-Tip alone but was produced by The Unmah which was the name of the production duo formed by Q-Tip comprising of him and J Dilla. With regard to the 1996 album, Q-Tip once disclosed at that point in his career, he felt the group was defunct, revealing, “I started feelin’ like I didn’t fit in any more,”

4. ‘Oh My God’ ft Busta Rhymes – Midnight Marauders, (1993)

Another Q-Tip-produced single, ‘Oh My God’ was the third single from Midnight Marauders. The track re-purposes Kool & the Gang’s 171 track ‘Who’s Gonna Take The Weight.’ The minimal track is akin to Dr Dre’s ‘Deep Cover’ but cleverly infuses elements of Jazz making it less intimidating but also more soulful.

Busta Rhymes repeats the phrase ‘Oh My God’ during the chorus. However, his kooky energy and crazy theatrics add to the abundance of eccentricities already existent in the song. The track received the official remix treatment which appeared on the group’s 1998 project, The Love Movement. The song didn’t enter the US Billboard Hot 100 but charted in the UK at 81.

3. ‘Award Tour’ ft Trugoy The Dove – Midnight Marauders, (1993)

This track is one of the collective’s most successful of all time. Featuring the late De La Soul member Trugoy The Dove, ‘Award Tour’ saw Quest divert from their soulful sonics and instead deliver a refreshingly upbeat track that had a more mainstream appeal. Trugoy the Dove was no stranger to Quest as the two ensembles were part of the super crew Native Tongues.

In a 2011 with J. Period, Q-Tip revealed his inspiration for th track disclosing, “I remember there was this record by this girl group called Jade, and the record was called ‘Don’t Walk Away’. That joint inspired ‘Award Tour.’ When I heard that bassline I’d be like, ‘Yo, that bassline is so mean!’ I was DJing back then and I used to play that at the party, and I used to see how people would react. That shit was just knocking.’” The 1993 track peaked at number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100.

2. ‘Electric Relaxation’ – Midnight Marauders, (1993)

Midnight Marauders is considered a relic of Jazz-hop or what many refer to as Soulquarian music. While acts such as the Wu-Tang Clan were releasing aggressive, provocative tracks such as ‘Protect Ya Neck,’ Quest were taking a different approach by delivering a laid-back and soulful song that didn’t put its listeners on edge. 

In a 2013 interview with XXL, Phife Dawg revealed that the Q-Tip-produced track was made in his grandmother’s basement, disclosing, “I just remember coming home from somewhere. My grandmother gave him a key, the whole nine, he used to just go in and do his thing, I came home from some type of trip, and I walked in the kitchen, and you know, he’s in the basement, and you could hear the music coming up, and all I heard was that.”

1. ‘Bonita Applebum’ – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, (1990)

Released as the second single for the collective’s debut album, ‘Bonita Applebum’ is what made people fall in love with A Tribe Called Quest’s music. The single tells the story of a desire to be accepted and loved, expressed through Q-Tip’s refreshing narrative about a girl with a noticeably large derriere. A far cry from the degradation and objectification of women that we hear in contemporary hip-hop, this smooth, funny track is an example of what hip-hop could have been.

Produced by Q-Tip, the instrumental is comprised of two primary samples, including ‘Daylight’ by RAMP and ‘Memory Band’ by Rotary Connection. The released version was a re-recorded clean-cut version of a demo track made in 1985. The song was a favourite of Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams, and in 2015 he remixed the track for the 25th-anniversary reissue of the debut album.