Beats, Rhymes & Life by A Tribe Called Quest (1996)


Tribe was the first rap group that I totally understood. As a teenager, the rappers who I followed through the late 80s and early 90s sorta confused me. But then I started listening to Tribe and something clicked. They occasionally have a message to convey, but it’s usually something relatively easy to wrap your head around and doesn’t dominate the band’s identity. In contrast, a band like Public Enemy was talking about stuff that was way over my head. I can appreciate P.E. later as an adult who is more educated on race issues/rap corporate culture/etc, but at the time it was a bit much. For those unfamiliar with Tribe, they were a three-part group* in the mold of Run DMC (2 MCs, 1 DJ) that co-existed on record in a style like no other rap group had before them. If you’re looking for a more modern equivalent, they had the chemistry that Outkast has today…work together seamlessly, but confident enough in their own shit so they don’t have to shout over each other like many other rappers do. It’s the kind of rap that you can proudly submit as “music” without sounding like a dumb kid. You may recognize Q-Tip from singles like ‘Vivrant Thing’ that came out after the group split. The other 2 guys (Phife Dawg – MC, Ali Shaheed Mohammed – DJ) haven’t gotten as much notoriety as solo artists, but believe me when I say that this band had a VERY strong identity as a group, yet each of the 3 members had their own signature on EVERY track. This album also introduced a rapper named Consequence, who actually does a great job when he appears here, but he was not heard from again in association with Tribe. He does have a funny single from a few years ago called ‘Callin Me’ that you could find online.

This album came out in the summer of 1996…I had just finished my freshman year of college and the timing could not have been better for a Tribe CD. I came back home to trade college stories with my guys from high school, with this album as the backdrop. Track #4 ‘The Jam’ is still my favorite beat in any rap song ever – a simple basic drum kit beat with juicy bouncing instrumentation layered right on top. Like a chili dog from Ben’s Chili Bowl. A couple of cuts went to the radio (‘1nce Again’ and ‘Stressed Out’) but they are not the highlights. Simply play the first 4 songs at a high volume, preferably in a residential area. High five if you remember that! Once you hit the middle of the album, we take a slight turn toward a more serious tone. I’ve read where some folks think that’s because Q Tip started to get religious and had some messages he wanted to get across on this record. Honestly, I don’t care much about that, but I will say that you notice a more chilled out vibe on the “B Side”.

Here’s what is good about Beats, Rhymes & Life: by the time they recorded this, Tribe knew what they were doing. Each track is well-crafted, the beats are mature and even the order in which the songs appear is smart. Too many slow beats back-to-back could lull you to sleep, too many upbeat songs in a row would be annoying. It’s produced really well. However, the album falls short if you are a real Tribe fan, because you’re looking for classics like ‘We Can Get Down’ or ‘Check the Rhime’ from prior albums. At times we come pretty close with ‘The Hop’ and even the opener ‘Phony Rappers’. It’s not their best work, to be honest, but remember that we’re talking about rap royalty here. So listening to this album would be like driving a BMW instead of an Aston Martin.

* If you think Jarobi was really a 4th member of the group…whatever

music turtle recommends: GET SOME TRACKS!

What do you think about this album? Comment below


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