Once the young’uns of the New York-area Native Tongues posse (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers), A Tribe Called Quest proved to be its greatest and most consistent exponent. While the trio’s stunning debut quickly aligned them with the others’ formalist revisionism (an expansive range of samples, from Lou Reed to Stevie Wonder) and attitudinal adjustments (humanist consideration and good humor in place of violence and misogyny), the effortless flow of raps by Q-Tip, Phife Dog and Jarobi (DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad completed the original quartet) suggested an inherent rhythmic sophistication that would later manifest itself in the group’s innovative appropriations of jazz. Quest’s slightly fantastic and sometimes absurdist narrative acumen masterfully guides the rhymes. Whether pleading to wild but conjured dream girls (“Bonita Applebum”), fearing cholesterol (“Ham ‘n’ Eggs”), telling shaggy dog stories (“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”) or offering bravado-free self-portraits (“Youthful Expression”), People’s Instinctive Travels maintains a perfect balance of style and substance.
Down to a trio with the departure of Jarobi, the band made its real breakthrough on The Low End Theory — fatback acoustic basslines lifted from old bebop records (and a real-time performance by Ron Carter on “Verses From the Abstract”) and propelled by jeep beats. Arguably the first hip-hop album to incorporate an unfettered jazz influence, it’s among the most artistically successful of such fusions. Pairing roomy rhythmic patterns and lots of tensile basslines with more of their simpatico easy-flowing raps, Quest delivers a thoroughly enmeshed blend that understands the rhythmic looseness of jazz without imagining that hip-hop’s beat rigidity can flex enough to swallow it whole. The record finds them broadening their lyrical scope as well: “Excursions” offers a vision of unified black cultural achievement, “Show Business” spews fumes of disgust with the music industry, “The Infamous Date Rape” thoughtfully ponders the complexity of refused sexual advances and “What?” spouts an endless stream of twisted wordplay-soaked riddles. An unqualified masterpiece. Revised Quest for the Seasoned Traveller is a collection of interesting, varied remixes of tracks from the first two albums.
Although Midnight Marauders builds upon the huge advances of The Low End Theory, it can’t help but smother some of them. The jazzy fluidity remains, but instead of the previous album’s brilliant and economical sense of space, this one brings the occasional gloppy sonic overload. Ultimately, however, such complaints are minor; the album catches Quest confidently tightening up previous accomplishments, not just breaking the same impressive ground.
The Anthology recaps Quest’s career in 18 tracks, including “Can I Kick It?,” “Bonita Applebaum,” “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and “Oh My God,” adding Q-Tip’s solo hit, “Vivrant Thing,” from a 1999 Violator label sampler.