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24 years of Tribe

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So here’s a crazy little fact that’s musically mind blowing: Twenty-four years ago today, three albums were released simultaneously.

One was Nirvana’s awesome Nevermind.

One was Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

One was A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory.

I love all of them. I respect all of them. I’ve listened, repeatedly, to all of them. I was a college kid at the time, and inside the offices of The Review, the student newspaper, we played the CDs repeatedly, over and over and over and over again. I’d actually say the Chili Peppers got the most spin time, because a couple of the higher-ups were hooked on “Under the Bridge.” And Nevermind had an interesting in-office trajectory, because the music reviewer actually gave the CD a C or C-. Before long, however, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a daily (hourly?) staple (these days, my daughter wears a Nirvana T-shirt, and asks her friends why they don’t know “Lithium”).

For me personally, however, The Low End Theory remains not merely a collection of music I cherish, but—along with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Thriller—one of the three greatest R&B/hip-hop albums of all time.

It’s funny … when I arrived at Delaware, the editors needed someone to cover concerts. I, of course, volunteered, because writing scraps were hard to come by and free music beat paying for music. The first show they sent me to was Black Sheep and Tribe at the Bob Carpenter Sports Center. I was, oh, 18 or 19, born and raised in a very white town, relatively unexposed to hip-hop. I vividly remember entering the building and seeing what had to be the entire African-American student population—plus, oh, 10 whites. I knew nothing of Tribe, and stood with my notebook, begging classmates for song information (“Did you say Bonitaapplehead?”). I was intimidated by the assignment, bewildered by the track titles … and in love. In friggin’ love. The pulsating beats, the command of the crowd, the passion and oomph and heart and soul. I’d never seen anything like it, and though my review mangled Tribe’s body of work (I still remember a letter to the editor, rightly urging the paper to next time send a writer who actually knew rap), I was hooked.

I bought Low End shortly thereafter, and listened and listened and listened. Initially, “Scenario” was my song, because it’s as catchy as catchy can be. Over time, however, I adopted all the tracks as my own. I pretty much know every word of Low End; every grunt and sigh and shout and yelp. Q-Tip is phenomenal. Phife, otherworldly. It’s a masterpiece of jazz-funk-rap integration, and belongs on the Mount Rushmore of modern musical invention.

Now, more than two decades later, my son is an unofficial Tribe head. He, too, knows the tunes, and agrees there’s no better start to a song than the opening 20 seconds of “Check the Rhime.”

Ah, Sept. 24, 1991. What a day …