A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Hip-Hop and the Creation of the Urban Beatniks

While the 70s decade marked the final years of the revolutionary hippie movement, it also marked another decade of innovation that combined counterculture with solidarity, Afro-Rican percussion, funk and electric synth, creating a new, unique sound: hip-hop. Twenty-something years later, in 1993, hip-hop was graced with two of the most monumental albums of the 90s. A Tribe Called Quest released its third album Midnight Marauders, and Digable Planets released their debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). The 90s music decade manifested an exquisite sound of rhythm and bass, slick-jazz beats, and intellectually-fused lyrics. The songs on these albums contain poetic narrative depicting day-to-day urban life in New York, illuminating provocative political issues and illustrating hip-hop culture.

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The ATCQ Counterculture

A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets cultivated an urban-hippie counterculture that mixed a contemporary version of the 50s literary Beat Generation with East Coast hip-hop. They mixed influential rhymes with elegance and produced the generation of the Urban Beatniks. ATCQ’s vibrance and colorfulness spread the sentiment of the early 90s all throughout New York’s four boroughs, and the group’s profound lyricism developed conscious hip-hop. This conscious hip-hop originated from the experience of street life and served as an alternative to ease life’s worries. The urban story-telling rhyme schemes heard throughout hip-hop were meant to reflect simplicity while, simultaneously, witnessing the troubling reality of oppressed black and Latino people in New York, and acknowledging issues like racism, social injustice, the AIDS epidemic, and the ill-path of drug dealing and gang violence in America.

The Planets and Provocative Thought

Butterfly, one of the members of the Digable Planets, recited the words of  “La Femme Fetal (The Fetal Woman)” like some spiritual hymn for social activists of the time. The song provoked thought on the controversial issue of abortion, painting an image of the regulator as a powerful man, seeking control over the dynamic aspects of a woman’s life, as well as her body, to amplify male superiority. Though musicians way before their time pioneered a swing of music that articulated the tone and vibe of social and political provocateurs, ATCQ and the Planets repeated the frustrations of the urban youth with funky eclecticism.

ATCQ and the Planets intellectually merged their music and style with Pan-Africanism and political and social academia. This was particularly evident when ATCQ made a return last November of 2016 to release its last and final album We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. The popular left discussion, for example, on the imbalance of power between government and big capital investors (who exchange favors to increase their greed-stricken indulgences at the expensive of average working-day folks) is not just a popular discussion by millennials. Former old-school MCS have encouraged discourse on the issue since day one. In the 70s and early 80s, African-American and Latin American DJs and MCs fired up the South Bronx with unorthodox street dialect that significantly raised the bar for hip-hop. Then, in the 90s, ATCQ’s Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad dropped knowledge on the masses, stimulating the minds of a broad array of  Black, Latino, White, Asian, Green, and even Purple listeners.

“When I Reminisce Over You, My God”

That hip-hop is forever reminiscent of a time when underground lounges were packed with groovers, snappers, and boom-bappers, who wore oversized flannels with bright patterns, quilted denims, Einstein specks, Kangol hats and grungy sneakers. Fans submerge themselves in this pool of nostalgia when listening to 90s hip-hop, day-dreaming about a dim-lit room where young writers and musicians perform slam poetry, chilling and interpreting the encrypted writings of former Beat Poets, as staticky jazz plays in the background. East Coast 90s hip-hop was the epitome of feel good music, like eating Fruit Loops and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Thunder Cats on a Saturday morning, or chilling with the crew, playing video games, passing joints and talking about spiritual enlightenment, or like getting fresh for a night out, strapping up Timberland boots and rocking puffer coats.

ATCQ and the Planets were a nonconformist combustion of musical artistry that rejected ordinality, and today, deflect the stereotype that hip-hop is inglorious and degrading of black culture, responsible for the influx of crime and misbehavior in ghettos. Both groups’ use of profanity and even sexually explicit content was minimal, and even then, it projected innocence and playfulness. Bragging about selling drugs, banging models, and being doused in bling was almost taboo. But hip-hop has always been all-inclusive and diverse, and usage of profanity doesn’t determine how rad a rapper is. Rather, it’s about the fluidity of content. For example, hip-hop intellects wouldn’t compare Asap Rocky to ATCQ or the Planets; they’re vastly different, but Asap Rocky is respected, even if his lyrics are vulgar, his trippy psychedelic sound and flow tend to drown out explicit profanity.

Hip-Hop Lives

The legacies of ATCQ and the Planets are alive today, playing on home stereos, turntables and digital music libraries, still livening up parties. The criticism of the rising experimental trap music confronts what some would surmise as so-called hip-hop in 2017. The growing popularity of the trap wave has caused a lot of backlash from hip-hop pioneers. Many of these hip-hop gurus refuse to consider it a sub-genre of hip-hop or rap. Understandably, they don’t want trap music to tarnish hip-hop’s ideology or subjugate its evolution over the decades. After all, these pioneers invested in hip-hop as a form of art, like the avant-garde writers created in their works during the early 1900s. Low-fi trap music intricately weaves the use of cliche homophones with over-used mentionings of accumulating wealth, selling drugs, partying, and being involded in sexual promiscuity, hinting that the music got its influence from the glorification of street life, celebrity pop culture and exaggerated reality TV. The lack of maturity in the lyrics, though, are purposely jotted to appeal to listeners who want to have a good time and not think about imperative real-life shit. All understood— as this sometimes simplifies one’s condition of life.

But never forget that groundbreaking hip-hop is conscious, is poetry, is infused with jazz, is authentic, is enlightened, is multicultural, is the original high hat, is “Chill Like That”, is “Can I kick it?”, is of the Urban Beatniks, and is the rock-rock-on originator.

In the words of Q-Tip’s outro in the “Chase, Part II”:

“Rock rock on, everybody in Queens, rock rock on
Everybody in Brooklyn, rock rock on
Money Earnin’ Mt. Vernon, rock rock on
Everybody in Jersey, rock rock on
Everybody in Philly rock rock on
Everybody in Houston, rock rock on
Everybody LA, rock rock on
Everybody in The Sand, rock rock on
Everybody in Egypt, rock rock on
Everybody Nigeria, rock rock on
Everybody in London, rock rock on
Everybody in Sweden, rock rock on
Everybody everywhere, rock rock on
To the niggas on the famous, rock rock on
Everybody no name, rock rock on
To the kids at Nu-Clear, rock rock on
To the… The Cave rock rock on
McDonald’s, rock rock on”

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