When I was 11 years old, television changed my life.
My father was attending a conference in beautiful Jasper National Park, and he decided to let me tag along. I, being 11 years old and stupid, had no interest in the majesty of the rocky mountains or the stunning beauty of crystal blue lakes; instead, I played my ugly bricklike 1st-generation Game Boy and reveled in the joy of having my very own hotel TV while my father attended conference sessions.
In the course of flipping channels, I stumbled upon the RapCity show on MuchMusic, Canada’s watered-down answer to MTV. I had been vaguely familiar with rap prior to that, at least – I vividly remember having hours of fun with my friend’s cassette of MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em”, shoving it into his face while shouting “Please Hammer… don’t hurt ’em!” But until that moment, rap was a novelty, and not something that had really commanded my attention. But that all changed that day with the video for… well, for a novelty rap song. (Hey, I was still 11 years old, so I wasn’t quite ready to get sucked in by deep lyricism.) The song was I Left My Wallet in El Segundo by A Tribe Called Quest.
It like me like a thunderbolt, even though thunder is a sound and sounds don’t have shapes. In retrospect, it makes sense: here was a colourful, larger-than-life video for a song with a clear narrative – Perfect for my shitty little turdlike 11-year-old brain. A Tribe Called Quest were clearly fun, non-threatening, and had a sense of humour about themselves. And of course, there’s that simple, catchy chorus. I’m pretty sure that feeling of revelation continued as my eyes remained glued to the TV for other videos by other artists, but this song was the precise moment I became a hip-hop fan.
Rewatching the video for the first time in over two decades while researching this post, I am struck by some things that would have escaped recognition by my moronic not-yet-human 11-year-old self. The sombrero-wearing dwarf is unfortunate at best and racist and dwarfist at worst. (I’m not sure if a man who’s four feet high [sic] technically qualifies as a dwarf, but let’s just say that he does.) On the other hand, I now have a proper adult appreciation for the phonetic intertitles, and especially for Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s overwhelming glee over being served a comically large can of fruit punch.
I remember being with my classmates on a field trip a few years after this pivotal experience. As we rode the school bus, I gleefully and proudly led a buswide chant of “I left my wallet in El Segundo, I left my wallet in El Segundo, I left my wallet in El Segundo!” Of course, I failed to include the remainder of the chorus – “I gotta get it, I got, got to get it” – because that level of complexity was far too much for my stupid idiot 11-year-old idiot brain idiot idiot idiot.
What followed was a lifelong journey as a hip-hop fan. I soon got into a lot of violent, misogynistic, nihilistic stuff that I partly enjoyed as mere sonic wallpaper, and partly because its macho posturing was a world apart from my insignificant little autistic white teenaged existence. But through it all, A Tribe Called Quest were always there – Q-Tip, the suave and poetic frontman, and Phife Dawg, the goofball and reluctant sidekick. (Ali Shaheed Muhammad was the producer and beatmaker, though I can only assume his significance in the group faded as Q-Tip became a virtuoso producer in his own right – is there anything that man can’t do? And he’s so pretty, too!)
I soon drifted away from Tribe’s succinctly-named debut album, People’s Instictive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, since the hippy-dippy Native Tongues sound aged badly for me, and songs like Wallet and Scrambled Eggs were a little too cute for their own good. But as my fondness for that album diminished, I became absolutely obsessed with their third album, Midnight Marauders. After all these years, I still don’t have a clear sense of what most of the songs are actually about, other than being collections of endlessly quotable braggadocio and miscellanea. But it doesn’t really matter – with Q-Tip and Phife’s lyrics and tremendous personalities, as well as the warm, crisp production, the whole album just radiates warmth, friendliness and good vibes in the best Tribe way. It’s very difficult to maintain a bad mood while listening to this album. And plus, it has one of the best album covers in hip-hop history.
Now that I’ve gotten older, mellower, and less drawn to violent fantasies, I’m a bit embarrassed about my previous fondness for second-rate ugliness like Onyx’s second album (the one where they stopped having any fun), or Das Efx’s third album (the one where they stopped rapping with nonense words and began limiting themselves to real words, like “fuck”). But in 2018, Tribe sound better than ever.
After their mildly disappointing 1998 album The Love Movement, Tribe went quiet aside from occasional rumours about how adamantly opposed they all were to any sort of reunion. Then, in 2016, Phife Dawg, real name Malik Taylor, died of complications from diabetes at 45. In retrospect, all of his goofy sugar-related rhymes over the years took on a grim significance – “I never half-step, so I’m not a half-stepper/Drink a lotta soda, so they call me Dr. Pepper”
And then, somehow, 18 years after their breakup and with a dead member, seemingly out of nowhere, Tribe released a new album. Luckily, the title is by far the worst thing about “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” – a name that Phife suggested, and which they were presumably compelled to use because, well, he had just died. But in every other sense, the album is a miracle. It is hip-hop by and for adults, in the very best sense. Q-Tip raps with four and a half decades of life experience, but without veering into the overly… I’m trying not to say “abstract” territory of much of his solo work. Phife makes a substantial contribution in spite of his early passing, and he’s still Phife, which is not a bad thing at all – he provides the levity that was missing from Q-Tip’s solo work, as well. Sonically, almost every track confirms that Q-Tip had long since completed his journey from pretty boy rapper and noted wallet-loser to one of the most underrated producers in hip-hop history. Overall, the whole album is a shockingly satisfying career-ender for a group that I discovered at the start of my terrible adolescence, and that I finally had the chance to bid a proper farewell to as some sort of a man. And it’s all because my 11-year-old turd-brained self thought that watching TV was better than enjoying the majesty and splendour of nature. As it turns out, I think I actually made the right call.
Rest in peace, Phife Dawg.