A Tribe Called Quest found their footing while making their mark
The oral history of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
“It’s a new decade. The Native Tongues are about to proceed with the usual lingo. The usual rhythm,” spoke Prince Paul before the beat dropped on “Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts),” track ten on A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. This introduction served as a reiteration of the group’s intentions to join their fellow Native Tongue comrades in forging a new path in hip-hop.
The year was 1990 and hip-hop became the sounding board for young artists ready to voice their displeasure with a system that worked against their socioeconomic interests, and a vehicle for them to celebrate their proud cultural roots. A new generation of MCs and DJs embraced a variety of influential styles that represented the genre, ranging from artists rocking high-top fades, dreads, Jheri curls, gold chains, African medallions, cowrie shells, dashikis, fly kicks, and colorful clothing attire, to spitting poignant lyrics on a plethora of subjects. During this juncture, four extraordinarily gifted teenagers named Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, and Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed—collectively known as A Tribe Called Quest—embodied some of these stylings, but more importantly, they were on the cusp of charting a new musical course for hip-hop by providing it with an infectious fusion of youthful expression, witty storytelling, and innovative polyrhythmic grooves on their debut album.
Hailing from two New York City boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, each member met at different points in their lives. At the tender age of two, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip became best friends in Jamaica, Queens. By the time Phife turned twelve years old, he met Jarobi White, and they became tight-knit. Once they reached their early teenage years, Phife, Jarobi, and Q-Tip began rapping and beatboxing together at Tip’s house. The trio would transform into a quartet when Q-Tip crossed paths with Ali Shaheed Muhammad at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Manhattan. Upon meeting each other, they mutually agreed to join forces to pursue their musical aspirations. While they were spending years collaborating on pause tapes and experimenting with a four-track recorder, the foursome fortified their trademark style and began funding their own demos. Simultaneously, they met two other burgeoning hip-hop groups, the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, and formed the trailblazing crew the Native Tongues, an extension of the Zulu Nation. This union proved to be fruitful for the collective in many ways, specifically, by connecting them to DJ Red Alert, the uncle of the Jungle Brothers’ Mike G.
After being featured on a single from the Jungle Brothers’ debut album, Straight Out the Jungle, A Tribe Called Quest eventually obtained a demo deal with Geffen Records. Despite not receiving a contract offer from Geffen, they continued to push it along. Shortly thereafter, a bidding war between several record labels ensued for their services, which Jive Records won. This momentum carried them through the crafting of their debut album. Taking pieces of knowledge from producers Prince Paul, Large Professor, and Skeff Anselm, Q-Tip honed and perfected his skills as a producer, and together with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, they pioneered an alternative sound for the genre.
Assisted by legendary engineer and producer Bob Power, their sampling techniques, intertwined with an eclectic mixture of obscure and well-known jazz, rock, and soul records from bygone eras, proved to be a genius maneuver. As a result, it cemented their place in hip-hop lore. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm would go gold and elevate the profile of the collective as they proceeded to become one of the most enduring hip-hop groups during the 1990s. The album spawned three iconic singles: “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” “Bonita Applebum,” and “Can I Kick It?” In an effort to explore the origins of this classic album, we spoke with all four members of the group and honorary fifth member, Bob Power, about their roles in its creation.
Sadly, Phife would pass away from diabetes complications shortly after our interview, making this the final group interview they did.
What is the story behind the forming of the group?
Ali: Tip and Phife met each other when they were two years old. Their parents attended the same church. At some point, Jarobi moved to their neighborhood. Phife and Jarobi became good friends. Phife introduced Jarobi to Q-Tip. Sometime after that, I met Tip in high school. A year after we met, in tenth grade, he asked me to be a part of this group, and that’s when the machine started rolling.
Jarobi White: Q-Tip and Phife have known each other since they were two years old. Their parents went to the same church, and they went to the same school together. I moved to the neighborhood when I was eleven or twelve years old. I met Phife, and we became friends. One day, he started rapping and I said to him, “Oh, wow. I can do the beatbox.” So we started rapping together. After a couple of weeks, Phife said, “I want you to meet my homeboy. He raps too.” I met him and it was Q-Tip. We began making demos at thirteen years old.
Phife Dawg: I grew up with Tip, and I’ve known him since we were both two years old. Jarobi moved to Queens around the corner from my grandmother’s house. He moved to Queens from the Bronx when he was eleven and I was twelve. Tip went to high school with Ali. It was the same high school that Afrika Baby Bam and Mike G. from the Jungle Brothers attended. Mike G.’s uncle is DJ Red Alert. It was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time. That’s pretty much how everything came together.
How did everyone settle on the final name for the group?
Ali: Originally, the name of our group was Quest. Tip and I already did “Black Is Black.” Then, the Jungle Brothers thought that we should redo the song and put it on their record, because it would give us an introduction to the world and an easier way to promote a group called A Tribe Called Quest. It was in that session where we were working on “Black Is Black” that Afrika [Baby Bam] said to Tip, “Put ‘A Tribe Called’ in front of the word Quest.” Instantly, it stuck.
Phife: We had a few different names before A Tribe Called Quest. Afrika Baby Bam came up with our group name. At first, our name was Quest. Back then, it was all about crews of MCs like Ultramagnetic MCs. Tribe meant origin of a group of people, and we thought it fit us.
What is the story behind the Native Tongues becoming a formidable collective?
Ali: It was a natural thing to happen. Afrika and Mike G. from the Jungle Brothers went to the same high school as Q-Tip and I, which was Murry Bergtraum. All of us were making music at the same time. For them, things happened sooner—and probably wouldn’t have happened for any of us if DJ Red Alert had not been Mike G.’s uncle. Hanging out with them helped to shine the spotlight on us. We met De La Soul at Roy Wilkins Park [in Queens] at one of the shows the Jungle Brothers had. Their song “Potholes in My Lawn” was already on the radio, and they were performing it there. The Jungle Brothers were performing their songs there too. That same day, we all met and clicked instantly. This was the beginning of the Native Tongues.
Before your group was signed to Jive Records, you landed a demo deal with Geffen Records. Tell me about that process.
Ali: Tip and I began working on demos together. He would come to Brooklyn, and we would start knocking stuff out on the weekends. We spent four years doing that. Tip and Phife lived in Jamaica, Queens, which was a nice long train ride from Brooklyn. We put a lot of time into our craft. We believed in what we were doing. At the age of fifteen, when you’re forming a band and after some time, if it doesn’t work out, you usually walk away and try to form another band with a different group of people or whatever. But we had a vision, and we stayed committed to it.
Q-Tip: When we came together in 1985, we were always driven to do music. Not driven in the way like we felt we were going to get a record deal, but driven in the way that we loved creating music. We had a vision, and we were having fun too. When we got our deal, we thought it was great. It gave us a chance to grow as MCs and DJs. At that time, Rakim, Public Enemy, Ultramagnetic MCs, and all these other cats were out, so the bar was set pretty high for us. Everybody was dropping dope albums. It was just an exciting time. Everybody was young and ambitious musically, but not ambitious from a business sense. We didn’t look at it like that, but we certainly understood that we had to do demos in order to get signed to a label.
Since this was the beginning of your respective careers, how did you all work together to perfect your skills as a group?
Ali: One thing Tip didn’t need was coaching. When we first met, he just had it. He had a real understanding of timing, cadence, and flows. He switched up styles and he never repeated himself, even if he was borrowing from someone, he had a way of making it his own. When he would present song ideas to the rest of the group, we’d be all for it. On the other hand, Phife needed coaching. In the early days, he was very raw. Tip and I were working on the demos, so he had the time to exercise his skills, whereas Phife wasn’t recording as much as Tip was then. By the time I got around to recording Phife, he didn’t have the same sensibilities of being behind a microphone in a studio, but a lot of people experience that and they need a little bit of coaching on timing or where they’re placing a word or taking a breath here or there. Phife’s talent was evident though. Tip had it in him from the beginning. I don’t know if that came from him studying other MCs growing up, but when he got behind the mic, he had it. He had that voice with the poetry laced on top. It was just masterful.
How was the group signed to your recording contract with Jive Records?
Ali: The demo we recorded was made due to a demo deal that had fallen into our hands. There was an A&R person named Jeff Fenster that worked for Geffen Records who heard about the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and the collective called the Native Tongues. He found out there was another group that was a part of this collective and it was us. Geffen offered us a demo deal worth $3500. We went into the studio and recorded several songs. “Bonita Applebum,” “Can I Kick It?,” “Description of a Fool,” and “Pubic Enemy” were on that demo. He loved it, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He felt like the company wouldn’t know what to do with the group, so he let us shop the demo. We shopped it and it fell into the hands of Sean Carasov at Jive Records. It also landed at Def Jam Records and Tommy Boy Records. Jive wanted to sign us, and there was a bidding war between Def Jam and Jive for us. After contemplating the difference between the two companies and thinking about how Boogie Down Productions signed with Def Jam and thinking about Whodini and some of the powerhouses on Def Jam like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and EPMD, we thought that we might get more attention if we signed with Jive. Jive came in with a strong offer as well, so we settled with Jive.
Jarobi: We were putting out demos, and we came across Geffen Records. They paid for our initial demo. “Bonita Applebum,” “Pubic Enemy,” and a couple of other songs were on those early demos. During the process of making the demo, they decided they weren’t going to sign us to a record deal. Off the strength of Q-Tip having the single “Black Is Black” from the Jungle Brothers’ album, people began to hear it and felt like it was going to be the next big thing. A bidding war ensued and Jive Records won. They presented us with the most appealing situation. I don’t think many labels were ready for the sound we were bringing back then. Either that, or they didn’t know what to do with us, but Jive did.
Phife: There was a little bidding war between labels. I guess Jive Records ended up feeling our vibe. De La Soul was signed to Tommy Boy Records, the Jungle Brothers were signed to an independent label first and then signed to Warner Bros. Records for their second album. By then, the few labels that were bidding for us knew we were next in line. Jive came with the best offer at that time. Back then, it was all about being on Def Jam or Jive. One of the big reasons I think we went with Jive Records is because they didn’t only have it going on in the United States, but they had it going on in the U.K. and overseas as well. It worked out for us. I wasn’t signed on as a member of A Tribe Called Quest until right before we started working on Low End Theory.
Q-Tip: We signed our deal in 1989. First, we met the Jungle Brothers, then we met De La Soul. We recorded some records that were getting airplay in the tristate area. All of us got along very well. We became part of their fraternity. I named the collective the Native Tongues, and it started to get some buzz. We were the last from that crew to not be signed to a record deal. When our demo was being circled around, there was a bidding war between Atlantic Records, Def Jam Records, Profile Records, and Jive Records. We decided to go with Jive Records. They gave us more money than the other labels. They really understood us the most. There was this guy named Sean Carasov who was the A&R at the label. He went super hard for us. He signed us. He worked with the Clash and the Beastie Boys. I was a fan of both of those bands. I thought it would be cool to be in that lineage with the Clash and the Beastie Boys.
After seeing the successes of your fellow Native Tongue family members the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul in 1988 and 1989, did it feel like a new road was being paved in hip-hop for your group to achieve success?
Ali: Yes. Definitely. Their success let us know that it was possible for us to be taken seriously and succeed. When an artist released their debut record, the number of records they sold didn’t really matter back then. I remember our record was selling and we were getting numbers. I felt great. But there seemed to be an air of—not disappointment—but people saying, “Hey, guys. You’re going to get there.” I was like, “What do they mean by that?” Knowing that people were breaking records with their new sounds made us feel like there was a path for us to do the same.
What role did the Native Tongues play during the recording of this album?
Ali: At that point in time, everybody’s presence in each other’s lives was inspiring. We really inspired each other. They loved what we were doing, and we loved what they were doing. Knowing that the material was so good from the other members, it forced us to step our production up. Watching the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul perform inspired us even more. The bar was set high. We had to make sure everything we did was equally as good or better.
What was the group’s approach in terms of the lyrical content and music paired with it?
Ali: I think a lot of it had to do with the backdrop of New York City and being a teenager. We wanted to show that we understood the world and knew where it was headed and to celebrate it. It was about having self-identity and being empowered. We wanted to show people they could be comfortable just by being themselves and not having to mimic other people. It was important to have fun. There were so many things going on in the New York City environment back then. Between 1988 and 1990, we were trying to get beyond the crack era, but the crack era really destroyed us. There were points in time, especially in New York City, where you didn’t feel the tonality of racism, but then you had the Central Park Five incident and the Black kid that was murdered in Bensonhurst. There were so many different things that happened to make a young teenage Black male feel like he wasn’t going to amount to anything good and do well in society. It was the exact thing that Public Enemy was talking about in their music. By us being affected by this lifestyle and culture, we felt like we were hip, sophisticated, fine, educated, and intellectual, and we wanted to express that to the world. It was great how Q-Tip was able to display these things. He was really eloquent with his words. He called himself the Abstract Poetic. He was very poetic. He was able to capture that moment in time. It wasn’t just about what was happening in 1988 and 1989, but it was culmination of us growing up.
This is a great segue. The subject matter covered on this album is still relevant in today’s society such as police brutality, STDs, and Afrocentrism. This album reflected the great era that hip-hop was in during that time. Why was it important for the group to discuss these issues on your debut?
Ali: 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. The environment demanded that you push yourself to the limits. We were around people like Boogie Down Productions, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Kool Moe Dee, Ultramagnetic MCs, Brand Nubian, and Gang Starr, who were pushing the envelope, so 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.
Jarobi: At that time, in the late 1980s, police brutality, Afrocentrism, and sexually transmitted diseases were all hot-button issues that we were dealing with in society. The most important thing in our music was the truth and reality of it.
Phife: Out of the fourteen songs on this album, I’m only featured on four of them. There were a lot of studio sessions that I didn’t attend. As far as the subject matter, it was just a matter of being ourselves. Q-Tip wrote the lyrics, and they created music that we felt during that moment in time. Depending on how the beat sounded, it pushed us a certain way. Whatever people heard, that’s how we felt. It wasn’t a matter of holding back and thinking that what we were saying was going to go over people’s heads or thinking that it was too much for our debut album.
Q-Tip: It was a reflection of the times. I think the reason why the subject matter is still relevant is because people like to talk about change, but humans have been dealing with the same things for thousands of years. There really isn’t much innovation in that regard. [laughs] There is going to be racism, ignorance, and sexism. When you look at the situation in our society, I think many people could relate to our lyrics.
When you were writing the lyrics for the fourteen songs on this album, what was your creative approach to finding the words that complemented the music?
Q-Tip: I went with what I felt in my soul. I didn’t want to overdo it. I really wanted us to have fun and be the people we were back then. We didn’t want to put on any airs. Those were some of the prerequisites that we had. That was the stuff that helped to create some of my favorite records like Slick Rick. He was one of my major inspirations. The shit he would say lyrically and his content resonated with me. When I was fifteen, I remember first hearing “La Di Da Di.” It blew me away. I specifically remember being with my homeboy, Tony T., an MC from around my way. I said to him, “Yo. This dude is crazy witty.” He replied, “What does witty mean?” I said, “Well, it means that he is smart and sharp with his words.” I remember writing a rap saying, “Like Slick Rick, I got a sharpness to my smartness.” [laughs] When you think about “La Di Da Di” where he says, “[I said] ‘Cheer up’ / I gave her a kiss / I said, ‘You can’t have me, I’m too young for you, miss.’ She says, ‘No, you’re not,’ then she starts cryin’ / I says, ‘I’m [nineteen],’ she says, ‘Stop lying’ / I says, ‘I am. Go ask my mother.’ ” He was just on some other shit. For me, he was the one in hip-hop that made it okay for an MC to let his imagination run wild. That’s the approach I used when writing lyrics for our debut album.
How did the group decide on the title for this album?
Ali: It was something that Tip was toying around with. He was messing around with different words and putting stuff together. He wanted to make the title something people would remember. I remember when he told me, it sounded so crazy that I was like, “Let’s go with it.” It really made sense. Thinking about the words in the title, they really defined the mission and our thoughts at that time. We really wanted people to believe in our music and to open themselves up to it. We wanted to unite masses of people together. This is why the people that are painted on the album cover are different people painted with different colors. It was representative of humanity and mankind and people coming together over the love of our music. The title was fitting.
Jarobi: Everyone has their journey. Instinctively, for us, our journey was to make good music. This album was a reflection of our journey in music.
Phife: Q-Tip calls himself the Abstract for a reason. Instead of going from A to B to C to D, he’ll go from A to B to D to X back to B, you know what I mean. [laughs] That’s just how he is, so it’s not like him to come up with a simple title. He likes to make people think. When he first came to me to tell me the title, I thought he was crazy, but I was cool with it. I thought the group name was too long. It was as long as the album title, but it worked out and it’s who we became.
Q-Tip: It kind of just happened. Some artists will write down different titles for their albums and have their different processes. With me, I just kept working and working and working, and if things popped up, they popped up and I used the idea. It was pretty spontaneous.
How important was legendary engineer Bob Power to this project and can you describe the collaboration process between everyone inside of the studio?
Ali: Working with Bob was really great. One of the first engineers we worked with was Shane Faber. Shane recorded a couple of our early songs. I think, Shane being a producer, was putting too much of his input from being a producer versus just being an engineer into our sessions and working environment. One day, we had a session with Bob and we loved his energy. We kept requesting him as an engineer. He was trying to figure out our sound as an engineer and learning what we were trying to do. It became a great partnership. There were things that we would explain, and with him being a musician, in addition to being an engineer, he understood the musicology aspect of the recording process. It helped us.
For example, we told him we wanted the bass to be fatter, and we asked him, “How do we get it to become fatter?” He replied, “Well, you guys can just put some tones underneath the bass.” We asked, “What is that?” Then, he would explain it to us. The same thing happened when we wanted the kick drum to be thicker. There were different tricks and methods he brought to the table as well as understanding the musicality of it all. There were some things he didn’t know, but he was willing to go on the journey with us. Also, one of the other things I loved about Bob was that he was really focused. He explained things to us that he was doing, so there were some valuable lessons he was giving to us. He was a born teacher. He recorded and mixed our records. His style of professionalism was great as well. Sometimes, he’d tell us, “Hey, guys. Be quiet. I’m in here working for you, but I can’t hear shit because you’re in here talking.” There was just a realness about him. All of us just clicked. He was important to our sound and understanding that we wanted stuff to be harder, the snares to snap, and more bass. He was vital to our unit.
Jarobi: Bob Power, sonically, was a fucking genius. The beauty of A Tribe Called Quest was that we had an idea of how we wanted our music to sound. We weren’t technically savvy, but he was able to get in the studio with us and understand what we wanted. He took our sound to another level. He was such a brilliant guy. He was invaluable to us. Without him, I don’t know what our music would’ve sounded like.
Phife Dawg: We had the privilege of working with Bob Power on this album. He is one of the greatest engineers to ever do it. It was all about what we were trying to do sonically. He was the fifth member of A Tribe Called Quest. He knew what we wanted before we even told him. He very rarely made a mistake as far as the sound. It was the easiest part of working on this album.
Q-Tip: Working with Bob was amazing. He used to do jingles in the backroom of the studio. He wasn’t the main engineer. When we used to go into the studio, there were records on the wall that were recorded there. I used to look at the credits on the records and Bob Power’s name would be on there. I’d be like wow. We were working with Shane Faber. One time, I was in a Jungle Brothers session, and Shane couldn’t make it, so Bob subbed for Shane in this session. He was very professional. He dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s, so to speak. The fellas were making fun of him because he’d asked, “Are you guys ready? Okay. All clear. Stand by. That sounds good. Okay. Hold on. I’m getting some buzz.” Afrika [Baby Bam] was laughing. We were all eighteen at that time. [Afrika] said, “You sound all proper and shit.” But I really liked how he did his thing. He was efficient. But everybody was laughing, and I was watching. I asked him, “Is your name Bob Power?” He replied, “Yep!” So the session ended. A couple weeks went by, and I started putting two and two together. We were trying to get somebody to do our session. After remembering that he was guy who did the jingles, we decided that we had to have him do our sessions. He was so musical. He became the fifth member of our group.
Bob, how did your musical background prepare you to be able to work with a brand-new, young, and talented hip-hop group?
Bob Power: I have a couple of degrees in music; a Bachelors and Masters in music. I scored television for seven years on the West Coast before I moved back to New York in 1982. I also had a deep background in R&B, as a musician. So I had a pretty broad view on different ways to put music together, so that really helped me. The most important thing with hip-hop and working with A Tribe Called Quest was having an open mind on how technology could be used. My diverse musical background allowed me to understand, get behind, and internalize all the wonderful musical things that were happening at that time. Given the technological hurdles, my fascination with technology helped me to stick with it and figure out solutions to make things work.
There is a real amalgamation to the music that was chosen to be sampled from for the songs on this album. Talk to me about the methodology in choosing these samples that were implemented into your overall sound?
Ali: Both Q-Tip and I were involved in the sampling process for this album. I was a record collector, but not in terms of jazz music. Q-Tip was heavy into jazz music. He and Afrika from the Jungle Brothers used to leave school to go to the Village and buy records. The Village was sort of a backdrop for us, because we all went to high school in Manhattan. At some point, I started joining them when I could between going to school and work. It was a matter of finding records while we were digging. We’d go back and listen to the good finds and several bad ones and try to remember the players on the good ones and different producers who might have been linked to one artist or another, a different drummer, piano player, or bass player. One record we’d find and say, “Wow. That’s dope!” A player played a certain style on a record and then we’d go find another artist they worked with, and we’d notice there were some similarities in the signature and some things that were different. It was just a combination of some songs that had open drum breaks and some didn’t. It may have been a feeling in the music we got when we heard a chord progression change together. It was always about trying to find something that gave us the feeling when we dropped the needle: “Man, did you hear that? Pull it back. Whoa.” The melodic music really seemed to move us.
What we wanted to do with our record was to fill it up with music we loved. I don’t know how that began, but growing up, I listened to a lot of R&B. My uncle went to school in Cortland [New York], so he listened to rock, and he was in rock bands. Tip introduced me to jazz. We met in the middle when it came to funk, the Beatles, and other elements. If you were Black growing up in New York City, you had to listen to WBLS and KTU. Later on, KISS FM came into the picture. Music is the universal language, so being open to other genres was a beautiful thing. So for us going into the studio, we just wanted to use the music we loved. We loved these songs that came from great, iconic, and creative people. When it came to recording this record, if we loved the music, we’d put it in there. We thought maybe someone would discover it later on and say, “That’s how they used Jimi Hendrix. Oh shit. That’s how they used Rotary Connection. What the hell is a Rotary Connection?” This is music. We just happened to pick those bits and pieces from different genres, and as we were sampling, we’d put that music into our art. It’s a great conversation piece to be able to pull from everywhere and not be limited to one specific genre or group.
Jarobi: All of us grew up in households where a lot of music was around. Our parents had varied tastes. They had different types of music across the board. We wanted to honor the kind of musicality that we heard from artists we liked. Run-DMC were in our neighborhood, and they were the dopest shit in the world. We weren’t aspiring to be like a rap group per se. We were chasing after Marvin [Gaye]; Stevie [Wonder]; Earth, Wind & Fire, and shit like that. We really wanted to have great musicality in our sound.
Q-Tip: Well, we definitely wanted to set a certain tone for the album. We wanted the jams to have a certain edge to them. We wanted to have a vibe and energy that matched with the things we were saying in the songs. A real uniqueness that gave us our own identity. I didn’t really have a certain methodology. Our approach was, it was our first album and what did we want people take away from it. When I chose samples to use, there wasn’t a perfect equation to it. For me, it was about what sounded dope. Everybody was there for the same mission. It was great because there wasn’t any different interests in the room. Everybody’s goal was to make the best possible piece of music that we could. The vibe was always great. It was always fluid, creative, and full of questions. Nobody said no to each other. We always kept pushing. When we went crate digging, we were looking for whatever records were dope. There weren’t any prerequisites other than the music being good and inspirational. We spent a great deal of time in the studio messing around with different versions and tempos. We were really trying to get the best sounds. We made more mistakes than advances. [laughs] But that was okay because that’s what the studio was for. I loved it. I was and still am a studio rat.
How elaborate was the process of getting the samples onto two-inch tape?
Ali: When we brought music samples in, Bob made sure things were tuned a certain way. Sometimes, when we were collecting samples, all of them weren’t in the same key. Back then, the samplers didn’t have a lot of memory. I think the maximum time on an SP-1200 was eight seconds and the Akai S950 had limitations on time. We found ourselves taking a record and speeding it up and putting it on a 45—like a regular 33 LP—and speeding it up to make sure it could get into the sampler, but then we had to pitch it down with these little different things and tricks, and Bob understood the process.
Bob Power: Q-Tip and Ali did some sampling while we were in the studio together and some before they came to the studio. Sometimes, they would bring in records and we would sample little bits of them, then record them back on the tape. Getting music on two-inch tape was very labor intensive. We had to use a lot of little tricks to figure out how to trick the technology into doing what we needed it to do. For example, if you had a sample or a combination of samples where the musical phrase was longer than a second or whatever the technology in the sampler was, you had to sample, re-sequence, then record onto tape small phrases at a time. Then, we’d sample the second piece and sequence it in such a way where it sounded contiguous with that first piece and put that on another track on the tape, and on and on. So it was very labor intensive.
Take me into the studio atmosphere when you all were recording this album. What time did you arrive to begin working and how long did it take while the group was recording the music and vocals?
Ali: We went to work in the studio. We knew that we were on the clock, and money was being spent. Also, we had a great support system there with the Native Tongues. At any given point, anybody would walk into the room and give you a thumbs up or come in and play something they had been working on. Then, we’d say, “Oh shit. We need to come back with something.” We were always in the studio. Tip questioned things a lot when we were in the studio. Three days would go by and he’d say, “I don’t know, guys. I’m not feeling this. Let’s do something different.” Sometimes, he would even erase songs. I’d say, “Tip, are you crazy?” He’d respond, “No. No. No. Let’s just start over.” The music was the most important thing, and he wanted to get it right. And he got it right. At least, that was our intention—to make music the most important thing for our group.
Jarobi: In the studio, we had the Jungle Brothers, the Beatnuts, De La Soul, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah there around us. There was nothing formulaic to our music-making in the studio. We went in there and just vibed out. Everyone pushed each other to be at our best. We couldn’t come up with any wack shit. You didn’t want to be the weakling or the wack guy in the collective. We had a great sense of camaraderie. We were around some really dope people. All of us were different people that had similar ideas. Everybody just wanted to be good. Q-Tip was definitely the leader of the group. He was the creative rhinoceros. [laughs] At any day or moment, anything could happen in the studio. It was all freeform and fostered the creativity that we all had back then. Sometimes, we’d be in the studio and get into a creative huddle to go back and forth on ideas. We were young-ass kids back then. We were seventeen and eighteen years old.
Phife: We had many all-night sessions. This is the reason why we called ourselves the Midnight Marauders. We were saying that before we decided to use it as the title for our third album. We called ourselves that because everything we did was at night, whether it was all-night studio sessions or lock out sessions, going to the club, going out to eat, or getting up with a shorty. There were many times where we recorded into the early hours of the morning. If it took us an hour or two on a song, we moved on to working on the next one. Sometimes, we could do it all in one take, and on other songs it would take multiple takes. We didn’t want to put just anything out there. We cared about our product, and we tried to honor our craft as much as possible.
Q-Tip: It was a dope scene in the studio. There weren’t any interruptions. It was an otherworldly place. When you stepped in the studio, there were big speakers, a board, and all this big equipment. It was an exciting time. I was eighteen years old. I was a kid in a candy store. Those tools in the studio became extensions of my imagination and thoughts. Those days were amazing, because we just focused on the music. The rest of the Native Tongues were there with us, and we made each other better. We were a family.
Bob Power: There was a real sense of brotherhood between the Native Tongues collective. The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and Black Sheep were coming in a lot back then too. It was a big friendly community. I was almost always in the control room while they were in the live room or booth. Occasionally, we were all in the same room. We all got along well in the studio. There wasn’t any drugs and drinking going on in the studio. They were great people back then. They were excited, and I was too. I was twenty years older than them, but we had the same work ethic. They weren’t trying to be cool. They were just being themselves—artists trying to make a record that was fun and fun to make. All of us loved music, so everything just fell into place. When you listen to the record, you can hear the joy in the recording. We spent a lot of long nights in the studio. At Calliope, we were on a high floor, facing east, and the sun used to rise in our eyes after a long night of work.
Can you explain the difference between the recording processes at Calliope Studios versus Battery Studios?
Ali: At Calliope, the floor would creak in certain places, especially in the vocal booth. We could hear the conversations going on in the control room. It wasn’t isolated. Also, there were always external radio channels coming through our headphones. It’s not that weird because they’re radio waves. Radio waves can penetrate a wire that’s connected to something transmitting. I noticed at Calliope it was concentrated at times. There was a lot more crosstalk on their tape machines. What that means is you’re recording drums on one track, but then you’re really hearing vocals bleeding through. When we went to Battery, the control rooms and the isolation booths were more isolated. You could tell there was money spent in the building. The tie lines were really soldered very well, so our signals were crisper and didn’t bleed. The facility was cared for. The food menu on that side of town was more palatable as well. Battery was a step up, but we were spending more money there, for sure. It was a comfortable place. The Neve board at Battery was instrumental to our sound. It added warmth and a certain feeling to our sound. Once we experienced that, it was hard to leave Battery Studios.
Q-Tip: Calliope Studios was really a loft. I always had to sit up at the front. The speakers had a sweet spot there. Battery Studios was more of a designed, soundproof studio. It was more compact. There were more sweet spots in the room. I could sit in the back or anywhere. Sweet spots are usually places where you could ergonomically stand or sit. I could hear the full communication of sound in there. I liked the vibe in Calliope because of the view from the windows. I could see the beautiful skyline. It was creatively inspirational because I could look out of the windows and listen to the music. Sonically, Battery was better.
Bob Power: Calliope was down and dirty. It was a great place with a lot of creative energy. Battery Studios was a high-end studio. They had the latest and greatest of everything. There was certainly a difference between the two. Calliope wasn’t a dump or anything, but Battery had lounges, clean bathrooms, a couple of different studios, and a lot of great gear. Calliope was on West Thirty-Seventh Street, near Eighth Ave. It was very gritty back then. It still is. It had a high floor and a wall of windows facing east and south. There was a huge room with the console where we often recorded things as well as a grand piano. It had a very small vocal/drum booth. Battery was a multi-room, upscale studio on West Twenty-Fifth Street, between Sixth and Seventh Ave. It had one vintage Neve console, one SSL, and one smaller room with a small console, lots of MIDI gear, and a small booth. [Although] that neighborhood, Chelsea, was dodgy; we were advised to not leave our cars parked on the street at night.
What was involved with the overall mixing and mastering of the record and some of the equipment that was used?
Ali: When we were at Calliope Studios, they didn’t have automation on the boards there, so we would have to grab the faders and arrange a song on the fly by pushing the mute buttons. What I mean by that is, when we were recording, we’d start the sample from the beginning of the tape and it would run all the way through. Once our budget expanded, we moved to Battery Studios. Battery had flying faders, mix boards with automation, which definitely helped our mixing process. A lot of it was about trying to balance out the frequencies. For example, a couple of songs had two layered drum loops and stuff that people wouldn’t put on top of each other, so we may have had a kick drum slamming because it was hitting at the same time as the snare drum. Bob had to figure out a way to find room for our odd way of layering and putting stuff together. He had to make space for the bass because the bass was important, so he couldn’t cut it too much. The mixing sessions became the space for us to figure all of this out. There were days where we had lots of visitors like family and friends coming over to hang out and they made noise in the control room. As I said before, Bob would let us know when to be quiet. All he’d say was, “Guys.” He didn’t have to ask, “Guys, can you turn it down?” When he said, “Guys,” it meant that he wanted us to leave the control room and go to the lounge, if we weren’t working. It was during those mixing sessions where Q-Tip and I learned a lot about frequencies and the process. We owe that to Bob. I don’t know how our record would’ve sounded in the hands of another engineer.
Bob Power: At Calliope, they had an Otari Series 54 console. They had mostly dynamic microphones, but I know we used AKG C414 microphones on the vocals a lot. When we went over to Battery, they had a fancy SSL and a Neve console. We still used the same microphones, plus I had my own collection of vintage microphones, and I brought those in too. For the first time, we had a chance to play around with different microphones. Also, back then, MIDI was in a very primitive state. MIDI is the language that computers, synthesizers, and samplers use to speak to each other. It was extremely primitive at that point. Q-Tip was sequencing on an SP-1200, and Ali had an Alesis eight-track MIDI sequencer and an Akai S950. Sampling technology was very primitive. The S950 had maybe a second and a half worth of memory. Putting together those complex, elaborate constructions was so difficult. It took a lot of time. We had to do things bit by bit because of the undeveloped memory for samplers at that point. We had to be creative in the way we approached things. People say we used twenty-four tracks, but we really had twenty-two tracks to deal with because you needed to print a synchronization code on one track and use another track as your guard band. Because samplers would only hold less than a second worth of sound at one time, we ended up putting little bits of things across different tracks and combining them later.
Let’s discuss the making of the singles that were released from this album?
Ali: When we recorded the original version of “Bonita Applebum,” it was a little more provocative. This was before we got our record deal. It wasn’t like the record company told us to tone it down. When we got our record deal—maybe it was because we were two or three years older—but Q-Tip decided to tone the chorus down. On “Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” when I heard the title, I was like, “What the hell does that mean?” [laughs] But it was never about that. People could’ve gotten lost on it, but I never did because the lyrics of the song described our relationship. Even though the title was foreign, the body of the song wasn’t foreign, so it all made sense in a very strange way to me, and that’s Q-Tip’s genius.
Phife: Well, Q-Tip wrote the verses for every song on this album. It was a one-hand-washes-the-other type of situation. In the same way that the Jungle Brothers worked with him, he was working to put us on. See, Jarobi and I were supposed to be a group. He was giving me a couple of features on this album, so by the time we worked on our record, they’d know my place and Jarobi’s place and knew who we were. We ended up being full-fledged members of the group, but I didn’t start writing my own rhymes until Low End Theory.
Q-Tip: On “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” I would always watch Sanford & Son, and Fred Sanford always talked about El Segundo, so I turned it into a fun record. It was nonsensical. With “Can I Kick It?,” this song represented the confirmation of our arrival. It was a call-and-response record. “Bonita Applebum” was about a fictitious girl that I was trying to woo.
After the group spent years cultivating your individual talents, what was the feeling amongst the members once you heard your music on the radio for the first time?
Ali: One day, I was driving around Brooklyn, and this guy pulled up next to me playing our song “Footprints.” I looked over at him, and I started throwing my hands out of the car saying, “Yeah!” He just looked at me and gave me a nod. He was probably saying to himself, “Who is this crazy guy next to me?” [laughs] It made me feel good because another human being was actually playing “Footprints.” That song wasn’t even on the radio at that time. To me, that was bigger than hearing one of our songs played on the radio.
Jarobi: When I heard our songs on New York radio for the first time, it was mind blowing. It was a real achievement.
This album is considered one of the greatest albums in the history of hip-hop. Your group has inspired numerous artists and producers within the genre over the past two-plus decades. As you look back on the album’s groundbreaking success and your group’s influence, how do you feel about its lasting impact on popular culture?
Ali: When I think of artists that have made a lasting impact on popular culture, I think about Michael Jackson, James Brown, Nat King Cole, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. They really made an impact on popular culture. I feel like we made an impact, but I don’t know to what degree, and maybe that’s because I’m still too close to it to understand it. We definitely created a shift in the way music was being made, and in the way people felt about hip-hop specifically. Especially during the time period where there was darkness in the music and the mood of the music. There was a hesitation by America to embrace that youthful, artful expression that seemed to be aggressive at times. People didn’t want to touch it, and they thought it would go away. Maybe we were good interpreters to help introduce people to something we knew that was a beautiful art form. Maybe we were the gateway to people beginning to accept certain aspects of hip-hop and allowing themselves to be more open and know that it could be done in a safe environment. Maybe that was our impact.
Jarobi: One of the tenets in hip-hop music is to be real. We were just trying to make music that was staying true to ourselves and our expression of hip-hop.
Phife: I feel blessed that people still hold this album in such high regard. I don’t think it was going to get this major. I just thank God for it.
Q-Tip: It was a great experience, and it helped introduce us to the world.
Bob Power: I feel very fortunate to have been welcomed by them to work on the album. It feels great to still be friends with the group to this day. You don’t plan these things. There is nothing that you can try to make that way. That era in hip-hop was almost like the late-1960s rock and pop music. In the musical world, people were doing things differently. They were finding ways of using the technology to make music in ways that hadn’t been made before. So it was a great awakening.
Responses from Facebook
Leave a Response