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's also a musical talisman of outsider status, Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side."
Something about Reed's take on the "wild side" rubbed the Tribe guys the wrong way. Rather than using the sample as a source of identification, the way so many hip-hop songs have done with soul samples, 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, a.k.a. 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. To prove our point, Smith, who's responsible for the funky organ parts on the track, is considered a Master of the 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 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" (source), writes William Schur.
We're not exactly sure how the samples themselves reference drug use and interracial sexuality (big Shmoop 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's 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 non-believers, and smile as you watch them file in behind us on the 'paths of rhythm.'" (Source)
Q-Tip and Phife were smart, humorous rappers living in Queens. They met in high school, and then 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 MC 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. Here's what Ali had to say:
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. [...] We had to be true to who we were in order to be effective. I think that was the best part. We were kids back then, and we really didn’t know what we were doing. 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. Some of it was ancestral and some of it we had no freaking idea or clue what we were doing, but we knew we were doing it. (Source)
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." (Source)
"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 '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." (Source)
They may be wrapped up in signifyin', but when A Tribe Called Quest makes a joke, it's not usually a cheap one.
They like to have fun, lyrically and in performance, but little that they do is about getting an easy laugh. Their humor seems to exude from their lyrics and performance naturally. The feel is less like watching a comic performance and more like watching two loving old friends gleefully joke around with each other. You can't help but laughing even if the joke wasn't really told for you.
Hence, perhaps, Tribe's popularity with white audiences.
It's a pleasure-inducing sensation, the Tribe Called Quest brand of silliness—but it manages to never feel faked or put on. More importantly, ATCQ never got backed into a corner of being "those funny guys," or "those political guys," or any other kind of pigeon-holed label. Their humor helped keep them feeling natural, alive, and less like the caricatures of themselves that so many celebrated artists become.
These days, a lot of people complain that there is a lack of real humor in hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest's intelligent mockeries could serve as a source of inspiration to future generations. After all, everyone loves a solid parody, and they're still a part of modern music.