As part of 4ever in Electric Dreams' 90s hip-hop month, members of the team will be revisiting some of their favourite albums of the era so reminisce with us as we continue our celebration...
I can concede straightaway that this may be an unusual album to showcase as a personal classic from the 1990s. Only unusual in the sense that, A Tribe Called Quest's first three albums are certified, undisputed, classic releases: 'People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm' (1990), 'The Low End Theory' (1991) and 'Midnight Marauders' (1993) cemented the trio's legacy and inspired subsequent generations of hip-hop in both fans and performers. Pharrell Williams once described his affection for Tribe's music as the realisation that "music was art".
Whilst 'Beats, Rhymes and Life' (1996) certainly boasted its successes - namely Grammy nominations for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for the single '1nce Again' featuring vocalist Tammy Lucas - the album marked a significant period of change for the group, and it was one met with conflicting reviews...
Around this time, Tribe members, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad found themselves, personally, being pulled in different directions. With Phife having moved to Atlanta and Tip and Ali having discovered Islam, Phife began to feel somewhat isolated from what was once a tight unit. On top of that, a fourther name was indicted into the group by way of Consequence (Q-Tip's cousin) who became a fully fleged Tribe member, adding more concerns for Phife that the group were laying the groundwork to have him replaced. Thematically, and lyrically, 'Beats, Rhymes and Life' is also cited as having lost an element of what made Tribe "fun" as they explored slightly more darker themes throughout including the infamous East-West Coast rivalry along with themes around gang violence and mental health.
The album also introduced a significantly different sound in the album's production namely through the inclusion of The Ummah. The Ummah was a production collective that comprised Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed and new member James Yancey (known at the time as Jay Dee but later more commonly known as J Dilla). Following an introduction by vocalist and producer, Amp Fiddler, Tip and Jay Dee bonded quickly with Yancey's unparalleled production forming a large part of the overall Ummah aesthetic with Jay Dee production giving birth to songs including '1nce Again', 'Stressed Out', 'Baby Phife's Return' along with two more of the album's tracks.
While much of 'Beats, Rhymes and Life' is surrounded in elements of friction and somewhat drastic changes for what fans had come to expect from A Tribe Called Quest, it doesn't change the fact that - certainly for this reviewer - that this is a front-to-back brilliant album! Much of the album signifies growth and maturity and with even the renowned jazz sampling, which was so apparent in Tribe's first three albums, subsequently making way to a smoother sound that would go on to have an even bigger impact on neo-soul artists and the genre going forward.
If you're reading this as a devoted fan of Tribe's first three Holy Trinity of album releases, with 'Beats, Rhymes and Life' serving as a project that didn't initially engage you, I would certainly encourage you to take this moment to attempt to connect with it once again as, aside from having one of the best album titles of any album ever, there are some fantastic high points throughout and I'd argue the case for this being an underappreciated classic.
The 4Ever team...
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