A Tribe Called Quest could definitely kick it.
In fact, they were so confident in their abilities to "kick it" that in the "Can I Kick It?" music video, 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 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 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 weren't 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." (Source).
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" (source).
In a lot of ways, it was just a group of kids having fun, but 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" (source). In other words, they were centered on Black experience without being exclusive about it.
In "Can I Kick It?" and in most of People's Instinctive Travels, this Black-centered drive isn't 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" (source).
In other words, the politics of the song aren't 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, it happens through the music itself in "Can I Kick It?"
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. (Source)
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."
So, what is ATCQ mocking or goading and what are they signifyin' on? Well, it's 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 or a white artist.
But he also takes a direct bite of New York City street culture, a culture he didn't grow up in, but considers "wild" enough to warrant a song. In Parodies of Ownership, Richard L. Schur explains that "by reclaiming a stolen or bitten rhythm line, 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." (Source)
A Tribe Called Quest snatches New York City back from Reed with "Can I Kick It?"
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 "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.
Here's how ATCQ responds:
If you feel the urge to freak, do the jitterbug
Come and spread your arms if you really need a hug
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?
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. And he did, making him New York's first Black mayor.
Schur reads a whole lot into this moment in the song, saying, "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." (Source)
Schur's ideas might be a little far-reaching at that point, but we think he's got the right idea. For all their joking around, Tribe Called Quest took their work as cultural critics seriously. They believed in acknowledging the cultural roots of hip-hop, consistently referred to urban Black culture as the basis for their lyrics and mixes, and they worked hard to achieve a mix of integrity and originality. Check out what Ali had to say in this interview:
There was no way we couldn't talk about these subjects on our debut album. We weren't a bubble gum act. For us, the music had to bang, so people could feel it, but we had to put something on top of it to make it relevant to who we were as a group. At that time, there was so much change happening and excitement happening in hip-hop specifically. [...] I don't want to sound like we had this grand plan on a chalkboard and executed it. If you take the words from our album, the music and movement was just instinctive. (Source)
In the same interview, Phife said "it was just a matter of being ourselves." And in a podcast interview just a year after Phife a.k.a. Malik Taylor's death from complications of diabetes, Jarobi said, "When it comes to how we rock, there is always a certain level of integrity that we will always have no matter what. So, when it comes to how we create, it's just something special that we have always remained true to." (Source)
Tribe Called Quest plays on multiple caricatures of Black culture in "Can I Kick It?" 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 basketball) each become ways to poke fun at those who would boil Black identity down to just a handful of things.
It's 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's 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 timeless hip-hop classic that's 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.