Can I Kick It?
by A Tribe Called Quest
Innovative sampling and mixing is one of the great legacies of A Tribe Called Quest. Although People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is sometimes considered a mere precursor to the legendary innovations of their second album, The Low End Theory, "Can I Kick It?" is one of the tracks that offers a preview into the Tribe's rising musical brilliance.
At the time when the album was released, hip-hop sampling was arguably a bit of a stagnant art. With the possible exception of Prince Paul and De La Soul, everyone and their brother was stuck in the rut of sampling James Brown and soul classics like"Express Yourself," staying sometimes a bit too close to the roots of the hip-hop sample. A Tribe Called Quest, in a quest to build a new sound, followed De La Soul in looking to rock and roll and jazz for inspiration. They liked the music, but they also felt a connection to it; like hip-hop, both rock and jazz had started as outsider music that only later got adopted into the mainstream. Most obviously, "Can I Kick It?" is built around a famous 1970s rock sample that is also a musical talisman of outsider status, Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."
Something about Reed's take on "the wild side" seems to have bothered the Tribe guys a bit. Rather than using the sample as a source of identification (the way so many hip-hop songs have done with soul samples), A Tribe Called quest introduced Lou Reed's song as an object of deconstruction.
Come again? Yes, we said deconstruction. What we mean in this case is that Tribe uses Lou Reed's classic as a basis to pull apart (deconstruct) the history of rock and the relationship between rock, soul, and hip-hop. Reed's song forms the basis for the Tribe song, but the lyrics and the other samples upend the song's original feel and intent. On top of the bass and guitar riffs from Reed, Ali Shaheed Muhammad layers bits and pieces from Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Lonnie Smith, David Porter, and the legendary Baby Huey, all black stars of soul and jazz in their time (Smith, who is responsible for the funky organ parts on the track, is considered "An Authentic Master of the Hammond B3 Organ"). Over Reed's base, the song becomes beat-heavy and lyrically light, entirely losing the melancholy self-seriousness of Reed's original.
Reed's song is an invitation to "take a walk on the wild side," and describes the street life of New York City in juicy detail. ATCQ mocks this impulse, turning their song into a "wild side" that is full of rhythm and blues, jazz organ samples, and black people who play electric guitars. Probably most important of all, they add the smooth-yet-nasal voices of Q-Tip and Phife. The song begins with an awkward click, as if Tribe had the wrong radio station on and then switched abruptly to the right one. A low static noise buzzes over the smooth Lou Reed sample to give the feeling that we're in the room with an old record player or listening to a transistor radio. The sparse, playful sampling from Ali kicks in quickly, with a cash-register type sound ringing out over Reed's bass line and a guitar part from Dr. Buzzard.
"The samples rework Reed's song, deconstructing its references to drug use, interracial sexuality and societal rebellion," writes William Schur (Parodies of Ownership, 32-33). We're not exactly sure how the samples themselves reference drug use and interracial sexuality (big Shmoop Music points to whoever can thoroughly break that down), but it's certain that Reed's smooth walk through 1970s New York becomes a stomping ground for some of Q-Tip's and Phife Dawg's most playful rhymes. And it sounds pretty great. In fact, it sounds memorably awesome, the sort of song that is hard to hear without going, "wow, that's cool!" or at least "what is this stuff?"
The Source certainly agreed that the sounds of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm laid out a new hip-hop path and invited listeners to walk down it. In a glowing 1990 review, they wrote: "These are the types of jams you could play for hip-hop nonbelievers, and smile as you watch them file in behind us on the 'paths of rhythm.'"