By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Linden Boulevard represent, represent/Tribe Called Quest represent, represent/When the mic is in my hand, I'm never hesitant/My favorite jam back in the day was 'Eric B. for President.'" When A Tribe Called Quest MC Phife Dawg dropped call-and-response lines as agile and tactile as the above on "Steve Biko (Stir it Up)" off 1993's underrated masterstroke Midnight Marauders, there were few hip-hop acts around that could touch the group. Along with fellow mic-rocker Q-Tip, Tribe maneuvered through hard-core rap's gangsta gloss with a critical eye for the crimes and misdemeanors of street life without sacrificing the bounce of a serious groove years before Beyoncé even knew what being bootylicious was all about.
But the rise and demise of A Tribe Called Quest represents the best and worst of hip-hop's relatively short life span. Here was a crew that stood head and shoulders above its contemporaries in song craft and subtlety, preaching hip-hop's wisdom of unity and harmony while silently imploding three years back while touring in support of The Love Album. Today, since Q-Tip's displayed his solo chops with 1999's Amplified and Phife unchained his 2000 Ventilation: Da LP, it's fair game to admit what many hip-hop heads largely suspected: These two need each other in the way that Dick Cheney needs a pacemaker.
Q-Tip's flow is as smooth and innovative as it ever was, and Phife's understated delivery still camouflages one of the most sophisticated metaphorical voices in rap, but these two MCs also shared one of the most inspired vocal relationships in hip-hop. The dialogue they created forged one of the freshest approaches in '90s hip-hop, and many acts are still playing catch-up. Alone, each one sounds a bit lost without the other there to ground him--even if Phife disses Tip on "Flawless." Both miss the considerable skills of DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who moved on to Lucy Pearl.
But what Phife's solo debut may lack in serious sound sculpting, Detroit's Slum Village more than makes up for, thanks in large part to the serious production skills possessed by crew member Jay Dee. He's part of the Ummah brotherhood that has lent its production beat chemistry to the likes of Tribe, Common, D'Angelo and even the Brand New Heavies. Expectedly, Slum Village's debut, 2000's Fantastic, Vol.2, displays the sort of dizzying rhythm kicks that show off Jay Dee's virtuoso technical skills. Despite guest spots from Q-Tip and D'Angelo, however, beats this kicking don't mean a thing if they ain't got that verbal swing, and nobody steps to the plate to take on that challenge. And it leaves you hoping that Jay Dee will be able to organize his crew to stage a coup to do what we're all waiting for: Put Q-Tip and the Dawg back together in the mix and let their verbal wits duke it out.