Rock and roll to the beat of the funk fuzz
Wipe your feet really good on the rhythm rug
Q-Tip starts the song out strong with a series of clear references to the topic of the song's subtle parody.
"Can I Kick It?" is shaped around a mixing of samples from funk, soul, and rock and roll records from the 1970s, beginning and ending with a recognizable sample from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." A Tribe Called Quest uses samples and wordplay to poke fun at Reed's appropriation of African-American music and culture.
In these lines, Q-Tip invokes rock and roll, the prodigal son of the blues that became a major site for white artists to imitate styles and beats that originated in Black communities. Over the years, many Black artists have pointed out the origins of rock and roll in Black communities and bemoaned the fact that by the 1960s, all the most popular rockers were white, with Black artists re-segregated into the broad "R&B" category.
"Wipe your feet on the rhythm rug" might be an innocent metaphor for dancing or just a fun figure of speech, but it also suggests that the people being addressed are trampling their musical predecessors, wiping their muddy feet on the rhythms of the past.
"Funk fuzz" probably refers to that form of distortion used in funk music that involves a "fuzzbox," an old-school instrument that creates a heavy, fuzzy sound, so distorted you almost can't hear the notes. It could also be a double entendre suggesting that A Tribe Called Quest are the new funk police, "the fuzz" of Afrocentric music.
No one ever knows for sure with the Abstract Poet—that's Q-Tip's nickname—but it sure is a cool line.
If you feel the urge to freak, do the jitterbug
"Freaking"—a dance form which, it should clearly be acknowledged, is popular across races—has caused a lot of alarm for parental types in the 21st century.
But back in the inter-war era, it was the jitterbug, a dance that originated in Black parts of Philadelphia, that was giving parents alarm. And giving suburban kids a new form of rebellion. Here's a description written in 1939 by a middle-class white man who went into a Black neighborhood in Philadelphia to try to learn the jitterbug:
"The hardest thing to learn is the pelvic motion. I suppose I always felt these motions are somehow obscene. You have to sway, forwards and backwards, with a controlled hip movement, while your shoulders stay level and your feet glide along the floor. Your right hand is held low on the girl's back, and your left hand down at your side, enclosing her hand." (Source)
We're not sure exactly what Tip's tongue-in-cheek jitterbug reference is trying to say, and it's probably best not to read too much into it, but the historical parallel is certainly clever.
Afrocentric living is a big shrug
A Tribe Called Quest were part of an organized collective of Afrocentric rappers, the Native Tongues.
Started in the late 1980s by the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, Native Tongues was a collective of hip-hop artists who focused on historical consciousness, collective empowerment, and cool music as an expression of cultural pride.
Native Tongues also included Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and later, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Common as collaborators, among others
Afrocentrism, a cultural outgrowth of Black pride and 1970s-style Black Power, was not a requirement of Native Tongues music, but it was an outlook of most members. "A big shrug" could mean a number of things: Q-Tip could be shrugging off racism with Black/African pride, or referencing those who think Afrocentrism is nothing more than a fashion statement.
Will Nipper the doggy give a big shove?
Nipper the dog was a model dog who posed for a famous picture.
Nipper's the one who stared into an Edison Bell cylinder phonograph in the early days of phonographs.
The picture of the cute dog staring into a horn later inspired the logos for several record companies including RCA.
So, what's the "big shove" all about? Could be anybody's call, but an annotation on Genius thinks it's all about independent record companies versus the big dogs. Yep, pun intended.
Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?
You'll be doing us a really big favor
David Dinkins was up for election when the song was released in 1990, and soon after became the first Black mayor of New York City.
Phife and Q-Tip devote a lot of this song to laying claim to New York City through their musical parody of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."
The two grew up together in Queens and met in high school in the '80s. They got into the Afrocentric movement alongside their high school friends in the hip-hop group the Jungle Brothers. Jungle Brothers' Afrika Baby Bam introduced them to the members of De La Soul and is also said to be the one who suggested they call themselves A Tribe Called Quest rather than their original idea, which was just Quest.
But we digress. The point is, they wanted a Black mayor. And they got one: Dinkins beat Rudy Giuliani by the narrowest margin in New York City election history.
But...Dinkins lost his 1994 bid for re-election to that same Rudy, and New York hasn't seen another Black mayor since.
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?
Phife closes his verse with a slightly sharper jab at the appropriation of Black fashions and beats by mainstream, white culture.
As we mentioned before, Phife and Tip are responding to and sampling Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," the one where he invites audiences to check out the world of poverty and prostitution in New York City.
The song includes that refrain, "And the colored girls go, doo, doo, doo," deploying the image of Black women on the streets of New York as part of what gives it "flavor." As you'll see, much of the response in "Can I Kick It?" happens musically, but this is probably the most explicit point in the lyrics.
First, Phife refers to "the rhythm we gave ya," probably referencing the rock and roll rhythms adopted by whites from Elvis Presley on forward. Then he gets even more explicit with "feel free, drop your pants, check your ha-ir," probably referencing the trend of sagging pants popularized by rappers and basketball players and eventually taken up by almost all young men for a period of time in the 1990s.
In a final poke at those who appropriate Black culture, Phife taunts, "Do you like the garments that we wear?" Although the joke is less explicit in other parts of the song, it seems like this is a pretty obvious way of saying, "Oh, so you think we're so cute and exotic?"