Why The Hell Should I Like… A Tribe Called Quest?

Why the hell should I like... ?

Why the hell should I like… ?” is an experiment of sorts between Popblerd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What we’re going to attempt to do is to pick 10 songs from our favorite artists — one for which the other has professed dislike or disinterest — and show them why they’re wrong (or why they should be interested.)

A Tribe Called QuestA Tribe Called Quest is a pretty serious contender for the best rap group of all time. Formed in the late ’80s by childhood friends Jonathan Davis (Q-Tip) and Malik Taylor (Phife Dawg), the group recruited DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and, joined by on-again off-again member Jarobi White, Tribe went on to become one of the most critically and commercially successful “legitimate” hip hop acts of the early ’90s. The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) are almost universally regarded as classics.

Along with similarly-minded rap crews like De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, Tribe was part of the Native Tongues collective, a group of artists who did much to expand the vocabulary of hip hop’s ideology and fashion in addition to making great music.

Like most great musical partnerships, Tribe didn’t last especially long — they split up in 1998 — but Q-Tip has gone on to a fairly successful career as a solo artist, producer, DJ, actor, and multimedia personality, while the other members have also enjoyed more quiet success. Tribe has reunited on several occasions and just this past summer a documentary about the group, Beats, Rhymes & Life, was released to great acclaim. Although the movie went into great detail about the power struggle and bitter feelings that characterize the relationship between the group’s two main members, hope springs eternal in the minds and hearts of Tribe fans (including myself) for a full-on reunion that includes new music.

It was pretty difficult to put this list together. To me, Tribe’s first three albums combined do not have one skippable track. Q-Tip’s most recent album, The Renaissance, was another masterpiece. However, if you put a gun to my head and made me choose the 10 best Tribe/Tip-related songs, here’s what I’d pick.

(Spotify users can check these songs out on the Why The Hell Should I Like… A Tribe Called Quest? playlist.)

1. “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” (from People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm, 1990) — Tribe’s first official single signaled that they were going to be ever-so-slightly off the beaten path from what was considered “real hip hop” at the time. The music was softer (even though the drums bang on this one), Q-Tip’s voice was quieter, and their whole vibe was much more whimsical than the folks who were at the head of the hip hop table at the time (LL, Public Enemy, BDP, Rakim). Nevertheless, this song proved that Tip’s storytelling skills were at the top of the heap, no matter how “different” he and his group may have sounded.

2. “Bonita Applebum” (from People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm, 1990, remixes found on Revised Quest for the Seasoned Traveler, 1992) — Might be the best hip hop love song of all time. The original version is shy, almost coy. The “Hootie” remix, which utilizes samples of The Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets,” is a little more upfront, and there’s yet another remix that utilizes Carly Simon’s Chic-produced “Why?” that’s more than a little odd (but still good). Despite the high quality of the revised versions, the hazy vibe of the original makes it my favorite.

3. “Scenario” (from Low End Theory, 1991) — Probably Tribe’s best known song, it’s not really about anything, but why should it matter when a song is this energetic? Even the normally reserved Q-Tip sounds (relatively) hyped. Of course, any song that features Busta Rhymes is going to kick it up a notch, energy wise. This was the first in a long career’s worth of scene stealing cameos from Mr. Rhymes before he got ‘roided up and turned into a common thug.

And for one of the best “remixes” in hip hop history, go here.

A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory4. “Jazz (We’ve Got)” (from Low End Theory, 1991) — Tribe gets unfairly saddled with the “jazz rap” tag. Despite the fact that some of their songs used jazz textures (and many of the songs on The Low End Theory utilized a live bassist), I always thought that was an unnecessary ghetto-ization. Of course, naming a track “Jazz” may not have helped their cause much. The video adds the bottom-heavy (but what song on this album isn’t?) “Buggin’ Out.”

5. “Hot Sex” (from the Boomerang Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1992) — Finding a Tribe Called Quest song on the otherwise R&B-flavored “Boomerang” soundtrack was… odd, to say the least. Golden-era Tribe doesn’t flow into Toni Braxton or Boyz II Men too easily. Nevertheless, this song became a fairly sizable radio hit and features Tribe at their most upbeat, with a typically energetic verse from Phife. Also, the lyrics have nothing to do with sex, hot or otherwise.

6. “Midnight” (from Midnight Marauders, 1993) — My favorite all-time Tribe song, this song allegedly features Raphael Saadiq, but I can’t tell on what. He certainly doesn’t sing. I’m assuming he plays bass. At any rate, this song, already great from a musical perspective, is made even better by Q-Tip’s narrative. This song SOUNDS like New York City at midnight. It’s got the right dark texture.

7. “8 Million Stories” (from Midnight Marauders, 1993) — Phife Dawg’s turn to shine. The film “Beats, Rhymes & Life” finds Phife bemoaning his second-banana status, and… well, I’m not really sure what to make of it. From an outsider’s perspective, it might seem obvious that Q-Tip was Tribe’s Alpha Dog, but it’s worth mentioning that the music suffered when Tip became more obvious a front man on the lyrical as well as on the musical tip. Listening to songs like this, it could even be argued that Phife was the better emcee.

“And to top it off, Starks got ejected.” As a Knicks fan during that era, I felt Phife’s pain something awful.

8. “Electric Relaxation” (from Midnight Marauders, 1993) — Another (sort of) love jam from Tribe. Nowhere near as subtle as “Bonita Applebum,” the lyrics are occasionally crass in a playful sort of way. I’ve known some people to be turned off by the lyrics, but to me it’s just a confirmation that sex can actually be kinda fun.

In typical Tribe fashion, this video has damn near nothing to do with the actual song.

9. “Believe” (from Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, 2009) — Q-Tip’s first solo album, Amplified, was… well, it included a song with Korn. That’s all I have to say about that. His second album, Kamaal the Abstract, went way to the left musically and featured Tip singing in addition to rapping. It was pretty good in an abstract (no pun intended) kind of way, but his label shelved it and it went unreleased for almost a decade. His official second album, The Renaissance, was his best work in a decade and a half, and this spiritual collaboration with D’Angelo was one of the reasons why.

The album version is apparently blocked from YouTube. So we have to settle for this inferior (and faster) version. Meh.

10. “Life is Better” (from Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, 2009) — On this song, Tip recruited the beautiful and talented Norah Jones for a bouncy romp through hip hop history. Makes me wonder what Norah would sound like if she did a more contemporary-sounding record.

And now, I patiently await your rebuttal!

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Why the Hell Should I Like… Field Music? (The Rebuttal)

“Why the hell should I like… ?” is an experiment of sorts between Popblerd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What we’re going to attempt to do is to pick 10 songs from our favorite artists — one for which the other has professed dislike or disinterest — and show them why they’re wrong.

Field MusicWell, I have to admit. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit got me this time. For our latest “Why the Hell Should I Like?” column, he didn’t pick an artist or band I didn’t like or wasn’t interested in — he picked a band I’d never even heard of! What the hell?

After perusing the primer that Gray Flannel Suit had so thoughtfully prepared for me and after doing a little bit of my own research, I picked up a little more knowledge. The band’s core consists of brothers David and Peter Brewis, along with a revolving door of supplemental musicians. They’ve recorded three albums as Field Music. In between the second and third albums each brother recorded individually under different band names. Are you confused yet?

At their best, Field Music has an appealing pop/rock sound that reminds me more than a little bit of the work that the Finn family does (Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn Brothers, Neil Finn, Liam Finn, etc.). Catchy and intelligently written, the songs performed by Field Music and their offshoots are filled with great melodic sense and have a slightly quirky air about them. Again, very similar to the way the Finns’ best work comes at you in straightforward pop/rock fashion only to take a delightful (and occasionally unexpected) left turn.

That said, if the music made by the Finns (have I worn that comparison into the ground yet?) is usually a solid A, I’d have to give Field Music’s stuff a B, at best. “Them That Do Nothing” was my favorite of all the songs, quite possibly due to its delightfully goofy video. I was also drawn to the material that David Brewis released as School of Language. While his brother Peter went off into art-rock mode for his own side project, The Week That Was, it seems as though David pretty much stuck to the Field Music’s script for his material. “Disappointment ’99” and “Extended Holiday” are pretty solid, and I think that if I need a Brewis Brothers fix, that might be where I go next.

All in all, I liked much of what I heard but didn’t totally love it very much. That’s something of a surprise, since I tend to go for the type of music that the Field Music collective makes. That alone might spur me to dig a little deeper and check their full albums out via Rdio, Spotify, or whatever music streaming service might have them. Thanks to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for giving me something new to investigate… as though I didn’t already have enough stuff that requires investigation!

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Why the Hell Should I Like… post-‘Thriller’ Michael Jackson?

Why the hell should I like… ?” is an experiment of sorts between Popblerd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What we’re going to attempt to do is to pick 10 songs from our favorite artists — one for which the other has professed dislike or disinterest — and show them why they’re wrong.

Michael JacksonOn June 25th, 2009, the world lost one of the greatest entertainers of all time — Michael Jackson. Although recent history had not been kind to Michael, after his passing it seemed like a light switch went on in the collective mind of the American public and they began to view him with respect again.

Because let’s face it, despite his obvious issues, the man was a one-of-a-kind talent. A fantastic singer, a great dancer, a solid songwriter and producer, and, if you look over the current pop music landscape, certainly the most influential musician of his time.

Unfortunately for Michael, he lost his “cool” card somewhere in the mid ’80s. Once Thriller became a phenomenon, it became uncool to like MJ. He was yesterday’s news. You know the routine — we build people up only to tear them down. So, despite the fact that he put out quite a bit of good music in the twenty-seven years between the release of his landmark album and his tragic death, much of it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Not that he was the only artist to have that problem.

For example, think about Stevie Wonder’s run of classics during the ’70s. Anything he released was going to pale in comparison to Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life, right? It’s why albums like Hotter Than July aren’t regarded as classics, even though they would be had they been recorded by anyone else.

Anyhow, Stevie’s another topic for another time. Let’s go back to the King of Pop. I was challenged to pick ten songs from the post-Thriller era that I felt would most convince someone of the validity of Michael’s later work. Here are the ten songs I came up with.

1. “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin'” (1984) — When big brother Jermaine left Motown and signed with Arista, he figured out pretty quickly how to make a seamless label transition — cut a record with the hottest pop star in the universe, who just happened to be his little brother. “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin'” is pretty ordinary ’80s synth-funk, but Michael’s vocal performance is positively electric. It sounds like all of the confidence he gained immediately following the success of Thriller manifested itself in his vocals on this song. Jermaine sounds like a guest on his own record. And to add insult to injury, allegedly Michael wouldn’t allow Jermaine and Arista to release this song as a single. It wound up hitting #1 on Billboard’s dance chart and earning a Grammy nomination anyway.

2. “Torture” (1984) — Jermaine’s release from Motown also allowed him to return to the Jacksons after a nine-year absence. “Torture” is the only track on the Victory reunion album to feature a lead vocal from the older brother, and he and Michael’s chemistry is put to much better use on this song. Translation: Michael played nice and didn’t kick his big brother’s ass all over the song.

3. “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987) — One song that proves Michael’s worth as a singer. I have a relatively boyish speaking/singing voice, and I can’t go near the notes Michael hits here. Almost makes me wonder if certain songs on the Bad album were sped up, seeing as he usually dropped this song (in particular) a step or two when performed live. Still — a stone cold dance groove, at least partially inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “Go Home” (at least if you believe Stevie).

4. “Man in the Mirror” (1987) — Interestingly, the song that came to define Michael the most post-Thriller was one of the few songs from that era that he had no hand in writing. He proved himself to be a sympathetic interpreter on songs like these, going for a reflective tone in the verses to straight-out gospel testifyin’ in the song’s coda.

5. “Smooth Criminal” (1987) — You know, I wasn’t so crazy about this song until recently. This was the beginning of Michael doing the whole “singing through clenched teeth” thing that he was so fond of in his later days. Still, great melody and totally danceable, too.

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Why the Hell Should I Like… Rush? (The Rebuttal)

Why the hell should I like… ?” is an experiment of sorts between Popblerd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What we’re going to attempt to do is to pick 10 songs from our favorite artists — one for which the other has professed dislike or disinterest — and show them why they’re wrong.

So, first of all, I’ve gotta give props to Mr. Gray Flannel Suit, not only for agreeing to collaborate with me on this series but also for rocking a gray flannel suit in the heat of summer. That’s dedication.

I don’t dislike Rush. I just don’t know much about them. Prior to listening to the list of songs that was selected for me, I had exactly ONE Rush song in an iTunes library that just recently crossed the 43,000-song mark — “Tom Sawyer.” No excuses — I was brought up on Top 40 (and urban) radio, and even as I grew up and my musical taste became more eclectic, I just never ran into anyone who professed their love for Rush other than a casual liking of a couple of songs. So I welcomed this chance to get a little more familiar.

Truth is, I couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide, even though I knew exactly what to expect when I clicked on that first link. The song descriptions were super-helpful, coming from someone who’s obviously a huge fan, and they added a bit of color to my basic understanding of the Canadian rock legends.

In his intro, Mr. Flannel Suit said: Over the last 20+ years of my fandom, I’ve heard all manner of excuses for not liking them or not wanting to give them a chance. The three I hear most often are that Geddy Lee’s voice is too much to take, their lyrics are too pretentious, and they spend too much time showing off with their instruments.

That’s what I’d gleaned from friends who were into Rush. After a run through the list of songs, I can say this:

1) Geddy Lee’s voice is NOT too much to take. The only song on which his nasal, high-pitched whine got to me was the ballad “Tears”, so maybe it’s just a sign that Rush shouldn’t do very many ballads? Look, I grew up on falsetto singers. Folks who sing high aren’t gonna get to me, and hell, it’s part of what makes Rush distinctive, right?

2) Yeah, their lyrics are a bit pretentious. Having said that, nothing about the lyrics got me into full eye-roll mode until “Cut to the Chase”‘s “the archer must be sure with his aim” refrain beat me into submission. Aren’t prog-rock lyrics supposed to be pretentious?

3) If I was as good as they were, I’d show off with my instruments too! Yeah, there’s a fair amount of “look how badass I am!” noodley-type stuff going on in their songs, but hell, these guys are obviously VERY proficient on their instruments. It’s what I came away from this playlist being most impressed with. I’m not very good with technical musical terms, but any band that’s able to pull off time signature changes and all this other “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque stuff gets a gold star in my book based on sheer talent.

I don’t know if I see myself becoming a Rush super-fan like, say, my friend Mikey (who jumps up and down about Rush not being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame every time I bring it up), but I dig what I’ve heard so far. Some of the Eighties stuff in the list reminded me of Genesis — a band that I’m a huge fan of (and whose roots are equally proggy). I mean, Geddy Lee’s no Phil Collins, but…

I guess the one thing that surprised me most is that they didn’t rock as hard as I expected them to. I mean, maybe it’s a consequence of going to too many metal shows, but it seemed like most of the rocking done on these songs was in a very, uh…polite way. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. Or maybe they’re just studio perfectionists and scrubbed all of the aggression from these songs before releasing them. It also probably wasn’t a very good idea to start the playlist with a 10-minute song! My ADD kicked in pretty quickly, but it’s a testament to my enjoyment of the music that I was able to sit through it relatively painlessly.

In the end, I didn’t out and out dislike any of the 10 songs that were presented to me, and I actually wound up downloading two of them — “The Pass” and “Afterimage.” Not a bad start to this series. I can only hope that Mr. Flannel Suit digs what I come up with as much as I dug these Rush songs!

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Cross-pollination: 10 reasons to love Rush (on Popblerd)

RushMike at Popblerd (my musical brother from another mother) and I have been knocking our heads together for a few weeks, trying to find a way to get a project going between our sites. Focusing on music was an obvious direction, as we have pretty similar (awesome) tastes in music. What we decided on is a new series called “Why the hell should I like… ?”, in which we will take turns trying to make the other see the light, so to speak, with regards to our favorite artists.

The first piece in the series — focusing on Rush — launched on his site last week. Mike admitted to me that he never tried too hard to get into Rush, so my task was to give him 10 songs that would spur him to try now. He’ll take some time to listen to the songs, and then post his response here.

After that, he’ll write a post here to make his case for me getting into another artists, and so on. We hope you enjoy the series, and feel free to weigh in yourselves!

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