"There are those magic alliances that happen because they were simply meant to. And in their wake, things changed forever. Such was the case when Q-Tip and Phife Dawg from Queens, NY met Brooklyn's own Ali Shaheed Muhammad when they were all high schoolers in 1985," reads the website for a new A Tribe Called Quest documentary. "Ali's experimentation with jazzy soundscapes, eclectic samples and tasteful scratching broke away from hip hop's looped soul/funk conventions and provided the perfect backdrop for Tip's abstract afro-centric poetics and Phife's Trini-infused, self-aggrandizing yet socially-conscious rhymes. Along with the Mystic Man himself – Jarobi – in tow, the crew ushered in a neo-Renaissance of Borough sensibility and the golden age of East Coast hip hop."
That pretty much sums up the ATCQ calling card, but we'll expand a little bit. Q-Tip and Phife were smart, humorous rappers living in Queens; they met in high school, during which time they also befriended the guys from the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul. They wanted to call themselves Quest, but Afrika Baby Bam said they should label themselves as a tribe—A Tribe Called Quest. New enthusiasts for tribal Afrocentrism themselves, the Tribe agreed, and a new thing came into being.
The Tribe were all thinkers, and all outsiders of sorts. Q-Tip was shamelessly nasal, glasses-wearing and goofy in performance (although typically quite serious in interviews); Phife identified himself early on as "the funky diabetic" and "the five footer," a proud short guy with the occasional Napoleon complex line but mostly just a lot of confidence. Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the quietest of the crew, became one of the most influential DJs around even though he took a backseat in later ATCQ work. Together, they stood out from the likes of N.W.A. on the one hand and M.C. Hammer on the other; instead, they were an early formula for what came to be known as "alternative" hip-hop.
The Tribe rejects the label "alternative," but they do all agree that it was their fearlessness as individuals that made the group what it was: "I think that's one of the things that made A Tribe Called Quest so iconic – it's that we have an identity that was really different to what was going on when we came out. You know, people in hip hop looked at us – the old school generation looked at us like, 'Yo! These cats are weirdos!' [laughs] But we were persistent and we stayed true to ourselves," said Ali in a recent interview.
Phife echoes that sentiment precisely: "We just tried extremely hard to be ourselves in an era when every MC or musician played their part or position," he said in 2005. "It was hard not to be like everyone else, but we prided ourselves on being original. Being consistent as well as consistently being ourselves is our legacy."
"Can I Kick It?" is one of the earliest examples of the new Tribe form: laid-back, rock and jazz inspired, quirky and funny, and so original that it's almost impenetrable and certainly inimitable. They don't love the label "alternative" (who would?), but Q-Tip is happy to take credit for originality: "Either you thuggin, or you quote-unquote backpacking it…it's divisive to say one against the other but there are different strands that exist within the form," he said in an interview. "I think our legacy is that we pioneered one of them."