A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels…” at 25

Vinyl doctor Oliver Wang examines a celebratory box set and expanded reissues of the band’s seminal debut

Michael Rapport’s 2011 documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, laid bare some of the long-simmering tensions within the group, especially between Q-Tip and Phife. One came away from it with the glum thought that Tribe would only exist as a memory — despite all its members being alive — but then a few weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon announced that the crew was getting back together to perform on The Tonight Show.

What occasioned the brief reunion is the 25th anniversary of Tribe’s magnum opus, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. There’s at least two releases commemorating the album: a remastered CD with three new remixes and a boxset which splits the LP into eight different 7-inch singles, complete with a custom carrying case wrapped by the original artwork. By hip-hop standards, it’s a lavish treatment (though one that’s increasingly common) and this isn’t even for the group’s best or second-best album. However, while People’s Instinctive Travels (PIT) may not be as sublimely conceived or executed as the Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders, it remains one the group’s most influential albums in how it defined the sound of the Native Tongues Family.

A Tribe Called Quest, 1990

The Jungle Brothers introduced the Native Tongues concept with 1988’s Straight Out the Jungle while a year later, De La Soul’s dizzying 3 Ft. High and Rising lofted the Family’s creative ceiling. However, it wasn’t until PIT that a recognizable sonic signature for Native Tongues began to cohere around a jazz and soul-sourced vibe that felt like the birth of a new sonic era. Tribe, after all, opened the album with a baby’s cry.

By 1990, artists like Stetsasonic and Gang Starr were already experimenting with jazz interpolations and samples but the “jazz and hip-hop” trend was still primordial. That’s why PIT felt so surprising, even revelatory. Their aesthetic, assisted by engineer Bob Power, found an ideal balance between cafe boho languor and corner cipher vigor. A song like “Push It Along,” offered punchy drums lifted from a Junior Mance cover of Sly Stone but then slipped on a mellow Grover Washington Jr. groove (itself a cover of an Idris Muhammed song). Or take the album’s most enduring hit, “Bonita Applebum.” The Roy Ayers melody is obviously central but try imagining the song without the Little Feat drums. It might still sound the same but it wouldn’t remotely feel the same.

It was all about finding the right blend of hard/soft elements. Too much of the former and it would have sounded like everyone else sampling James Brown. Too much of the latter and you got acid jazz. Maybe that’s why all the bonus remixes on the 25th anniversary album feel so anemic; they’re all lightness with not enough heft.

A Tribe Called Quest’s 25th anniversary edition of ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’

The worst is J. Cole’s remix of “Can I Kick It?” which trades in the minimalist grace of the original — that Herbie Flowers bassline laid over Joe Dukes drums — for a noodly, quiet storm melody paired to that most overused of drum machine sounds: the handclap. Pharrell Williams’s chill room remix of “Bonita Applebaum” is equally forgettable though CeeLo Green’s twist on “Footprints” at least sustains some of the magic of the source material by augmenting the original beat rather than remaking it entirely. On the whole though, they feel like a wasted opportunity especially since a couple of these songs have already been remixed well in the past.

None of this suggests the original album is somehow sacrosanct. Back when I was rocking the album on a Walkman, I always fast-forwarded past “Pubic Enemy,” a better pun than song. Likewise, I often skipped the last three songs on the album, especially the insufferably jokey “Ham ’N’ Eggs.” “Go Ahead in the Rain” and “Description of a Fool” were better by comparison but both sounded like early demo tracks that didn’t mesh well with the heart of the final album.

Get On Down’s 7-inch boxset inadvertently draws attention to the individual strengths and weaknesses of different songs by splitting the album into eight different 45s. The label does a few things in the process: they re-create original 12-inch pairings such as “Can I Kick It?” with the non-LP song “When the Papes Come” on the flip, but they also create “new” singles such as one 45 that places “Description of a Fool” on one side and “Footprints” on the other. The 7-inch format has limitations however; fan favorite “Luck of Lucien” has to be split onto two separate 45s since the decision to keep the long intro skit means the song’s seven-minute run time was too long to fit onto a single side.

A brief aside about 7-inch hip-hop albums: since the 1970s, if you wanted to throw shade at an album, you could describe it as “nothing more than a collection of singles” (the irony being that the LP, as a format, more or less began in the late 1940s as exactly that). The album-as-45s phenomenon makes that concept literal by dissembling the LP into a half-dozen or so singles, and thus prompts a reconsideration of how individual songs stand “on their own,” once shorn from an album’s sequencing.

“Footprints,” for example, still stands out on its own, especially with those rousing horns and the song’s slinky Mizell Brothers groove. On the other hand, another 45 pairs two songs that were already back-to-back on the LP — “Youthful Expression” and “Rhythm” — but as good as they sounded within the flow of the album, neither feels substantial enough to stand by its lonesome.

There’s also a larger question of whether reissuing an album onto 45s has much utility besides the “cool, donuts!” factor. Believe me; I’m easily seduced by it too but outside of my love for the petite dimensions of the 7-inch, it’s hard to imagine any point, ever, where I’ll be glad to have “Ham ’N’ Eggs” on 45. Then again, the great thing about 7-inches is that you can cherrypick what to tote and what to toss.

A Tribe Called Quest, 2015, showing off the 7-inch box set

All this said, practicality doesn’t seem to be what’s driving interest in the 7-inch box set. Not only did its original run of 1000 units sell out almost immediately but it’s commanded $400+ on the used market, yet another lesson in the power of manufactured scarcity. I’m not one to begrudge eager fans however. For many years, I rated PIT as my favorite Tribe album. I named my first college radio show “The Paths of Rhythm.” I even tried to adapt their cover art stick figures into a failed logo (no, you can’t see it). The album profoundly reshaped my sense of hip-hop’s sonic and thematic possibilities circa 1990.

As I’ve gotten older, I find myself listening far more to the group’s later albums, when their had more fully grown into its own. PIT, as befits a debut LP, is very much an opening gesture, an attempt to introduce a group whose own identity had yet to fully cohere. Still, knowing how the group would eventually fall apart, it’s easy to long for those early days and revisiting People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm a quarter century later is a reminder of how it was very much a document of the group’s proverbial journeys into an undiscovered country that we were invited to join them on.

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