The Roots drummer talks A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, reissued Nov. 13 on Sony Legacy with remixes from Pharrell Williams, CeeLo Green and J. Cole.
The first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest was a trip. It was on a trip, actually. I was with my family in California in 1990, and I stood in an endless line to get into The Arsenio Hall Show. I passed the time by spotting famous people. Sheryl Lee Ralph came around the corner; Warren Beatty, who was on the show that night, went in through a side entrance. While my eyes were getting a glimpse of celebrity, my ears were getting a glimpse of the future, courtesy of the music on the P.A. system. It was hip-hop, and it was two types of hip-hop at least. On the one hand, it was Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, the epicenter of aggressive L.A.gangster rap and (along with Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet) one of that summer’s major statements. On the other, it was A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels Along the Path of Rhythm.
A Tribe Called Quest was like nothing I had ever heard. It was stylish, funny, jazzy, soulful, smart and everything else. Tribe was socially conscious without being too self-conscious about it.
And the songs: “Bonita Applebaum,” “Can I Kick It,” “Ham N Eggs.” Q-Tip was telling stories and drawing characters with a light touch that went deep, and the samples dug into the most amazing corners of ’70s music. Was that a Vaughan Mason & Crew sample on “Pubic Enemy”? Were those jazz artists like Roy Ayers and Lonnie Smith? Tribe colored outside the lines of traditional funk and soul samples. They made your parents’ record collection relevant again. I almost drove out to El Segundo to leave my wallet there as a tribute.
In 1990, I was a budding hip-hop artist, but hearing Tribe made everything bloom. I started to see the magic of the entire Native Tongues collective (Tribe, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers); on the brink of becoming The Roots, Traiq [Black Thought] and I started our own version, called Foreign Objects. I remember getting my hair braided as I watched the “El Segundo” video. I was suddenly proud to say I had a favorite rap group.
And then there’s the matter of my own name. On our very first album [1993’s Organix], I was credited as “B.R.O. the R.? (Beat Recycler of the Rhythm).” For every reason, that couldn’t stand. The Questlove name (or ?uestove if you’re feeling punctuational) grew from the seed of A Tribe Called Quest, though I watered it with my own questions about self-knowledge and searching. They helped name me, and now I name them for what they were, are and always will be: one of the brightest constellations in hip-hop’s endless sky.
This story will appear in the Nov. 28 issue of Billboard.