Dylan Jones: 'A Tribe Called Quest appeared unembarrassed about having a sense of humour - unusual for gangster rap'

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As the foundation of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" glides across the stereo, we hear Q-Tip and Phife Dawg shuffle into the picture, gibbering away as though they were in The Goon Show. And suddenly – as if from nowhere – "Can I Kick It?" is in full view. A Tribe Called Quest's jazz-rap fusions can still play all night, moving from hotel lobby to shebeen to the iPad with ease, and you can dip in and out of their tunes without any great shock to the system. With laidback loops involving Cannonball Adderley, Roy Ayers, the Average White Band and the Rotary Connection, ATCQ invented a new kind of hip-hop, a decade after the first kind.

"Nothing was touching Tribe, nothing," said Pharrell Williams, and for a while he was right. As one critic succinctly put it, they "heralded the advent of a generation of intellectual, philosophical, sociological rappers that investigated the condition of the African-American soul rather than the street epics of gangsters".

Out of Queens they came, all goatees and whispers, a central part of the Native Tongues Posse, surfing a wave of fresh alt hip-hop, determined to mix it up, elegantly fusing rap with jazz. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White launched themselves in 1985. Their first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was similar to De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising in that it celebrated its own eclecticism, not just musically, but lyrically, too (referencing safe sex and vegetarianism, and appearing unembarrassed about having a sense of humour – not something you find often with gangster rap). One reviewer said that record was, "So sweet and lyrical ... you could play it in the background when you're reading Proust".

ATCQ fell apart acrimoniously, something catalogued in the award-winning documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which has just opened in the US. Although not everyone I know will be going to see it. "Tribe?" said a friend of mine. "Like yoga, Starbucks, Banksy, camping and Facebook – just more stuff white people like."

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'

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