Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Beats, Rhymes and Cod-Psychology

The new Tribe Called Quest docu-film is a timely reminder of just how insanely remarkable and unique the whole Native Tongues project was. If ever there was a lost cause in need of defending and resuscitating, this is it. Unfortunately, the film as a whole succumbs to the vogue for tiresome human-interest biopics, and concludes with the unfortunate spectacle of two middle-aged men squabbling over nothing very much at all, a whimpering descent into farce with a timeliness of its own.

I'm going to dismiss accusations that Tribe were merely wussy, white-boy hip-hop out of hand (isn't it incredibly racist and sexist to imply that only white people would "get" this sophisticated, cerebral strand of the genre, that really authentic hip-hop has to be macho and martial?). The Tribe narrative, documented in the scintillating first half of Beats, Rhymes & Life, is quite literally one of the most inspiring and interesting in the history of popular music. Intelligent, funny, funky, and politically engaged, Tribe and their milieu were the most hopeful thing in early-nineties pop culture by far.

It's depressing then, that just as Tribe's trajectory was interrupted as apathy and careerism intervened in the later part of the decade, this film should follow an opening story of consciousness, collectivism, and scarcely plausible musical brilliance with a second-half narrative detailing a somewhat inexplicable extended argument between Q-Tip and Phife during the 2008 reunion tour. We all fall out with our friends and retreat into our families is the banal, boring ultimate message of this half-brilliant film. This may or may not be true, but it's certainly a hackneyed way of treating a radically, anomalously affirmative episode in the not-too-distant musical past.

But anyway, here's to the memory and continuing legacy of those abstract, literate, world-expanding choons ...


W. Kasper said...

ATCQ were class - the best of a pretty classy bunch. 'Low End Theory' is rightly regarded as a classic now, but I think it's time the Jungle Brothers got their due too. 'J Beez Wit The Remedy' is still too weird and idiosyncratic for reassessment, methinks. Funny how 'Thanatos' thoroughly defeated 'Eros' in hip-hop. The Native Tongues may have been too life-affirming and inclusive for their own good at the end of the day.

Phil Knight said...

But all pop careers, like all political careers, are bound to end in failure, aren't they?

Everyone in pop seems to be involved in one of three impossible struggles (or a combination thereof):

i) A battle with the social super-ego (all the "rebel" types)

ii) An attempt at a utopian change of consciousness

iii) An attempt to attain career longevity against ageing, the fickleness of public taste, the souring of inspiration.

It makes me wonder why we ever put any faith in these people.

W. Kasper said...

I probably experienced all three last time I had a 'permanent' 9-5 job! You could even include fickle public taste w/r elections and government cuts. Smaller scale (and smaller reward) than politics and pop though, so the bump to earth is much less severe (although other 'redundees' may beg to differ).

Anonymous said...

Low End Theory & Midnight Marauders is a nice double album career peak, hard to argue with that shit. Really like the Midnight Marauders cover too, nice bit of hip-hop community ethos.

Really just wanted to comment on 'J Beez Wit The Remedy'. Jungle Brothers were good (Forces of Nature is underated), but probably because this is a bit of a lost album it is assumed to be some sort of hidden gem - but its just a mess. At times its embarrassing, its weirdness is really to little end, and its not even some sort of drug-induced pych thing. Just a real mess - only way to describe it.

Is there anything in the film about the problems with Q-Tip's Kamaal The Abstract album or his conversion to Islam?

Alex Niven said...

Yeah the Midnight Marauders cover is awesome. The stress on collectivism in the original projects is what annoyed me about the film - it disregarded this for a wearisome dissection of egos.

Nothing about Q-Tip and Islam in the film. One of many things that could've been given more attention.

Ed said...

Glad to hear the hating on 'J Beez Wit the Remedy'. I bought it, listened to it, hated it and sold it, and then discovered it was supposed to be some kind of lost masterpiece.

I have been wondering how much effort I should make to track it down again. Now I've heard this, maybe I won't bother.

Greyhoos said...

Well, since the topic's been in full drift mode: Aside from their debut, I always thought the JBs were a but uneven, suffered from a bit of a creative identity crisis, so no surprises about 'J Beez Wit the Remedy.'

The story behind that one being: Afrika Baby Bam met up with Bill Laswell after getting roped into the Praxis project (working alongside Bootsy, Bernie Worrell, and Buckethead). From there he & Laswell start talking about the next JBs album. Laswell introduced Bam & the other two to some artists he knows -- Pharoah Sanders, et al. in the leftfield music community. Next thing you know, dudes in the JBs start getting all strung out on some outer-orbit Sun Ra arc, plus (reputedly) dropping acid on a very, very regular basis. Somewhere along the way they take in an additional member by the name of Torture (later known by the name Sensational) and they all decide to cut a bunch of material that takes the "abstrakt" into some Cecil Taylor realm. They hand some of the demos to Warner Bros, who tell them that there's no way they're going to release it, so go back and record some isht that's gonna sell, fellas. So the reulting album is a bit of a rushed salvage job, with only about 4 tracks of the orig sessions remaining.

I actually quite like the material in question. But if you're expecting conventional hip-hop or a typical Native Tongues outing...sure, I can see why some'd find it off-putting or disappointing.

But ultimately, it wasn't all that much of an aesthetic stretch, seeing how Organized Konfusion had already ventured into similar territory w/ "Releasing Hypnotical Gases."

W. Kasper said...

I haven't heard 'J. Beez' for nearly two decades, but I remember quite liking it at the time - much more than Divine Styler, himself on a 'cosmic' tip, but on the wrong side of Mo Wax wankery for my liking. Although admittedly, I'd likely find it all a bit rubbish now. Was it the curse of Laswell striking again? I'm telling ya - the guy's a dullard dub-pseud jinx!

However, Organized Konfusion really were underrated. Pharoae Monch's "raise your hands in the air ans shake like ya just don't care" solo stuff was all the more disappointing compared to some of O.K.'s highlights.

Greyhoos said...

Well, you know how I am about Laswell. Very few records that he's ever had a hand in that I care for, and mostly they're the ones that smack of "hands off" on his part. And Remedy may be the sole exception where I think he actually served as a catalyst for something good. (Or maybe it was all the acid. Shrug.)

And hell yeahs about OK. Monch used to be the most amazing em-cees ever.