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POP MUSIC

Rap's New Gold Standard

Popularity has never been the main goal for A Tribe Called Quest, whose unique brand of hip-hop shuns conventionality. Maybe that's why the group's latest album is selling so well.

September 01, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

As Phife, who offstage is the most understated member of the hit rap group A Tribe Called Quest, shops for clothes in a trendy Beverly Center haberdashery, he notices that a teenage girl is staring at him.

Nearby, a beefy security guard who had accompanied Phife and the rest of the trio to the mall in their stretch limo frowns at the girl, hoping to send a signal that the rapper doesn't want to be disturbed.

"You guys sing or something, right?" the girl finally says to Phife, ignoring the guard's menacing presence.

Phife smiles.

Despite being a member of one of the most acclaimed groups ever in hip-hop, the 25-year-old New Yorker is used to having to identify himself--even to rap fans.

"We're in A Tribe Called Quest," he says politely. "We're performing in town tonight."

Even though the trio has stretched the boundaries of hip-hop music with each of its four albums, Quest has only recently joined the ranks of rap's commercial elite.

The group's "Beats, Rhymes and Life" album entered the national sales chart at No. 1 last month, and Quest's label, Jive, predicts the package could reach a million in sales by the end of the year.

"Beats, Rhymes, and Life," A Tribe Called Quest's fourth album, has much in common with 1993's million-selling "Midnight Marauders." Relying less on purely jazz-based rhythm samples, stripped-down beat tracks are the emphasis, often with vibrant, melodic bass lines holding the overall shape of the track.

Q-Tip and Phife, who are respected for their imagery as much as their positivity, both shine throughout. The earthquake boom beneath "Get a Hold," the upright-bass-tinged "The Hop" and the boogie-woogie electric guitar pushing the East Coast/West Coast unity song "Keep It Moving" help move both brains and bodies. Only the butter-soft, lackluster "Stressed Out" and the dull "Word Play" (both of which seem like afterthoughts) detract from a noteworthy effort.

Phife and his colleagues Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad seem flattered by all the attention, but popularity alone has never been their prime motivation.

When the idea of black urban reality in hip-hop was represented by artists donning gold rope chains and screaming lyrics full of nihilism and misogyny, Quest bucked the trends with flower print shirts and songs filled with spirituality and hope.

If the group's albums failed to chalk up the double- and triple-platinum figures of some of its rivals, Quest still enjoyed tremendous respect within the creative rap community. Q-Tip and Phife share rapping duties, while Ali is the deejay onstage and the producer in the studio.

"When the new videos would come to the studio and we would have meetings, Jac Benson and I would always say, 'These guys should have a Buzz Clip,' " says Fab Five Freddy, the founding host of "Yo! MTV Raps" and a longtime fixture on the New York hip-hop scene.

"I have respect for a group like [Quest] who can persevere for as long as they have," he says. "They have a humble patience that has kept them grounded, and now they're in a position to get the props they should have had a long time ago."

The props these days range from a four-star lead review for the album in Rolling Stone to rave notices on the Smokin' Grooves tour, which comes to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Monday.

What have all these accolades done to the members of the group?

Ali, 26, feels the new album remains true to the group's vision.

"This record is meant to uplift--not to glorify the materialism and the weed smoking that's so common in rap," he explains. "We're not knocking people who live that lifestyle, we're just trying to beat back those forces with righteousness and the positivity of the heart."

*

Living just a few houses apart in St. Albans, Queens, a 40-minute subway ride from Manhattan, Phife and Q-Tip were middle-class kids who for the most part were sheltered from the crime and poverty that shaped the worldview of many rappers over the last decade.

That didn't prevent the youngsters, however, from having hip-hop dreams, fueled by the rhymes of such New York old-school heroes as Melle Mel, Cowboy, the Cold Crush Brothers and the Funky Four Plus One.

Though they loved the music, they didn't dream as teenagers that they'd ever be making records themselves. In fact, Q-Tip (whose legal name is Kamaal Fareed), 26, enrolled at Manhattan's Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers.

Ironically, it was there that he found a hotbed of future rappers. Between classes, he would freestyle with his friends--including Michael Small and Nathaniel Wilson, who would later become the key members of the Jungle Brothers, and Jason Hunter, who as Brother J helped form the black power rap group X-Clan.

But Q-Tip found his future when his old neighborhood pal Phife started the group A Tribe Called Quest in 1988 and invited him to be a part of it. Ali, a classmate at high school, joined them shortly after.

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