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Meaning

A Tribe Called Quest could definitely kick it. In fact, they were so confident in their abilities to kick it that in the music video for "Can I Kick It?," they casually kick around a human-sized model of the word "it," at one point dribbling the dot from the "i" like a basketball. They add to that silliness with Q-Tip and friends acting out the lines of the song with hand motions (he does a plus sign, a flying dove, and so on), and all four Tribe members dancing in a silhouetted line across the screen.

The video (which is done over a remixed version with even more interesting sample bites than the original) says a lot about what "Can I Kick It?" is all about. Interspersing classic scenes of A Tribe Called Quest rapping in a parking lot with goofy scenes of the group kicking the word "it," the video takes the idea of "kicking it" with a cool group of New York rappers and frankly makes fun of it. The group seems to be saying, yes, you can kick it, but only if you get over yourself first. We're just A Tribe Called Quest, not aliens from the faraway planet of Queens.

"Can I Kick It?" was one of the singles from A Tribe Called Quest's first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. People's Instinctive Travels, now recognized as a hip-hop classic, was originally a little too quirky and off-kilter for a lot of hip-hop heads. Its jazzy sounds, rock samples, and light lyrics (which were unique at the time because they were not about guns and street life or about revolution and hating cops) didn't initially seem cool enough for the moment. But the Tribe knew how to claim it, making themselves self-consciously un-cool. Not taking themselves too seriously, paired with genuine confidence, eventually made them leaders and innovators. As sound engineer Bob Power puts it, "The record was the one kid in your class, who nobody ever really picked on, and he was okay, but no one really hung with him. And then, all of a sudden, you realize he's the cool one and everybody starts to dress like him" (Shawn Taylor, 33 1/3: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 109). What was just sort of off-kilter at first became a revered object of imitation and emulation not long after.

This first album is probably the bravest of their output, because it happened when the Tribe was still the unnoticed kid in the class. The crew's relative anonymity freed them up to forge their own identity. VIBE describes it as "a blend that appealed to street corner radicals, high-brow culture miscegenators, and jeep-beat enthusiasts" (October 2006 issue). In a lot of ways, it was just a group of kids having fun, but A Tribe Called Quest was also working out some serious ideas. They were recent converts to the Afrocentric viewpoint of the Native Tongues Posse, a hip-hip collective they started with the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul which eventually included Monie Love, Queen Latifah, Talib Kweli, and Common, among others. In their brand of Afrocentrism, Shawn Taylor writes, "blackness was something to be wholly proud of, but the beauty and the limits of operating from a purely black cultural standpoint were also taken into consideration" (Taylor 7). In other words, they were centered on black experience without being exclusive about it.

"Our whole thing is based upon the black man, and the black man's being in America and the world…that's our sole being right there, that's our nucleus," Q-Tip once said. But in "Can I Kick It?" (and in most of People's Instinctive Travels) this black-centered drive is not immediately apparent. It takes a little bit of digging, into what Shawn Taylor describes as "black metanarrative." The Native Tongues and A Tribe Called Quest, he says, were interested in "Blacks commenting on blackness from a metaphorical and literal black point of view" (7). In other words, the politics of the song are not just in what they say, but in how they say it and in who they are while saying it. It's less direct and explicit than "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," but there's a definite strain of identity politics in the Tribe's work.

How does black identity politics express itself in a song that never makes any mention of blackness or whiteness? Well, in the case of "Can I Kick It?," it happens through the music itself. The basis for the entire song is Lou Reed's 1971 rock classic "Walk On the Wild Side." The racially laden song by the white rocker from the Velvet Underground is an invitation to come and see the really "wild" stuff that happens in his adopted home of New York City, a place full of prostitutes, transvestites, "colored girls" and "soul food." Ah, and therein lies the rub. Reed created a classic, but it was at the expense of several stereotypes about black New York.

This is where signifyin' comes into play. A Tribe Called Quest, who were born and raised in New York, use "Can I Kick It?" as a platform to respond to Reed. Here's how one theorist explains it: "When he asks, 'Can I Kick It?' Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest calls out Lou Reed for both identifying the location of his 'walk on the wild side' as New York City and including African American girls within that walk. Q-Tip questions Reed's ability to walk his streets or 'hang' with A Tribe Called Quest. Although the lyrics do parody Lou Reed's, the group signifies on Reed primarily through the rhythm tracks and the melody" (Richard L. Schur, Parodies of Ownership, 33). When he writes that ATCQ "signifies on Reed," Schur isn't talking about linguistic "signifying," the kind where a word is used to denote an object—he's talking about a whole other concept, signifyin'. Signifyin(g) is a word that describes the use of mockery, goading, parody, or playful re-appropriation to either praise or criticize someone else, especially in urban black culture and hip-hop. It often takes a pretty clever format, using signs, symbols, words, or songs that might have a different meaning in a different context, and changing the meaning by changing the context. This is exactly what A Tribe Called Quest does with "Walk On the Wild Side."

What is ATCQ mocking or goading—what are they signifyin' on? Well, it's actually pretty simple: Lou Reed, and with him, the history of rock and roll. Tribe members, like plenty of other black musicians before them, were well aware of the history of white artists biting off black beats and rhymes to create popular music. Lou Reed takes a bite of some classic blues sounds, for sure—but by 1972 that was nothing new for a white artist. But he also takes a direct bite of New York City street culture—a culture he did not grow up in, but considers "wild" enough to warrant a song. In "Can I Kick It?," A Tribe Called Quest snatches New York City back from Reed: "By reclaiming a stolen or bitten rhythm line, A Tribe Called Quest is engaged in a turf war with rock and roll. This battle is not about a physical space, but appropriated elements of intellectual property" (Schur 33).

This analysis might sound a little complicated and heavy-handed, but it's really as simple as any good parody. Essentially, in order to point out Reed's offenses, A Tribe Called Quest takes "A Walk On the Wild Side" and makes fun of it. Imagine all the lyrics to "Can I Kick It?" as if they were directed at Reed himself; better yet, imagine that occurring in a street cipher, with the members of ATCQ rapping to a slightly uncomfortable Reed who made his legacy by singing a song about these guys' hometown. "If you feel the urge to freak, do the jitterbug / Come and spread your arms if you really need a hug," raps Q-Tip. "Follow us for the funky behavior / Make a note on the rhythm we gave ya / Feel free, drop your pants, check your ha-ir / Do you like the garments that we wear?" quips Phife. They're not trying too hard to be profound, but they are playing with the idea that Lou Reed found the streets of New York City and the "colored girls" singing on the corners to be so very hip.

The only place where ATCQ explicitly mentions race is Phife's line about Mayor Dinkins, suggesting that he hopes Mr. Dinkins will win that year's election (he did, making him New York's first black mayor). Schur reads a whole lot into this moment in the song: "A Tribe Called Quest calls out not only Lou Reed and rock and roll but the white political establishment that has attempted to dominate black urban spaces. 'Can I Kick It?' simultaneously constitutes a parody of white popular culture and a demand for political and cultural freedom" (33).

Schur's ideas might be a little far-reaching at that point, but we think he's basically got the right idea. For all their joking around, A Tribe Called Quest took their work as cultural critics pretty seriously. They believed in acknowledging the cultural roots of hip-hop, and consistently referred to urban black culture as the basis for their lyrics and mixes. They worked hard to achieve a mix of integrity and originality: "I wouldn't necessarily say it's art imitating life," said Ali Shaheed Muhammad in an interview. "I think that hip hop has always been the voice of the inner-city, the struggle of the people, and it started off like that, and it still is (…) At times people don't take it seriously. But there is always going to be a group of people who understand the origin, the roots of hip hop and who will make sure they maintain that integrity."

In "Can I Kick It?" A Tribe Called Quest plays on multiple caricatures of black culture that Lou Reed is somewhat guilty of reinforcing: soulfulness, natural rhythm, street smarts and even basketball (when they dribble the dot from the "i" like a ball) each become ways to poke fun at those who would boil black identity down to just a handful of things. It is the prevalence of stereotypes that makes this sort of jibing necessary in the first place, and that, in a way, is the meaning of "signifyin'": it is an artistic and literary response to being pigeon-holed and marginalized that depends on humor, double entendre, and subtle cultural references. (See Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s influential 1988 book on the topic to find out more. Yes, that's the same guy that got arrested at his own house in 2009 and then got invited to an infamous "beer summit" by President Obama.)

We might be reading too much into "Can I Kick It?," but part of the power and charm of the song is its subtlety, which leaves it open to interpretation. Maybe we're wrong, and it's just an innocent Lou Reed tribute. Or maybe we're right, and it's a clever intellectual parody of Lou Reed and rock and roll's appropriations of black culture, a sort of musical turf war. Either way, "Can I Kick It?" is a timelessly listenable hip-hop classic that is still a breath of fresh air on any stale music landscape. More than twenty years later, A Tribe Called Quest's paths of rhythm are still great paths to walk down.
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