A Tribe Called Quest: Storm Warnings

Besides achieving Top 20 success with their new single, ‘Can I Kick It?, A Tribe Called Quest have also been heavily involved with the re-recording of Lennon’s anti-war anthem ‘Give Peace A Chance’ which features people like Guns N’ Roses, Iggy Pop, Chuck D and MC Hammer. Andrew Smith reports on the protest coalition.

LAST YEAR, British DJ CJ Mackintosh provided a hit for A Tribe Called Quest by mixing their ‘Bonita Applebum’ with Carly Simons’ early Seventies, Nile Rodgers-produced smash, ‘Why’. This year they’ve raided their record collections anew, splicing together sections of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, Ian Dury’s ‘What A Waste’ and the odd fleeting classical sample to create ‘Can I Kick It?’, their biggest British hit to date. Their sound is cheeky and playful, full of oblique references and strange resonances. A Tribe Called Quest are still the most eccentric rap act in town.

It’s nevertheless true that in this country, Quest, like their soulmates and some time collaborators The Jungle Brothers, are still caught in the shadow of fellow Native Tongue guys De La Soul. Tragic though this is, it’s finally changing, according to Ali.

“Yeah, it goes a couple of ways,” he explains. “Some people still think of us as part of De La Soul. Others say, ‘Hey, it’s those Native Tongue guys coming on with their weird shit.’ When the new album comes out, I think they’ll realise that we’re ourselves, that we’re harder than De La, more soulful and more hip hop and more serious. If we all make it through the next few months, life’s gonna be good for us, man. Just watch.”

At the moment, however, Q-Tip, Ali, Jarobi and Phife’s minds have made a temporary return to this planet. Two weeks ago, they took time off from recording the follow-up to their audaciously cool debut LP, People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, to go into an LA studio to make their own uniquely delinquent contribution to an anti-Gulf War single.

Ali has been credited with the original idea of making a rap protest record, but once it got out, word of the project spread through the business like wildfire. Soon everyone from rockers like Guns N’ Roses and Iggy Pop to rappers like Hammer, Run DMC, Chuck D of Public Enemy and LL Cool J were involved. Thankfully, Sting wasn’t asked, although Michael Jackson, whose appearance was marked by a midnight military-style covert operation that would’ve had Saddam quaking in his DMs, did pledge support.

The song chosen to get the message across was John Lennon’s worthy but dull protest vehicle — which he later more or less disowned — ‘Give Peace A Chance’. A relatively straight reading of the original, this new version was produced by Lenny Kravitz (who else?) and premiered on radio stations across The States on the fateful 15th, the day the UN deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait finally ran out. The war, as we know, started the following evening, and ‘Give Peace A Chance’ has received widespread play on the home front ever since.

The difference between this and other “benefit” records is its degree of controversy. With the American media, like our own, baying for blood, the artists involved are arguably taking a certain risk. This isn’t about feeding cute, starving babies, it’s throwing stones at the glass house of our most basic moral assumptions. Ali, for his part, has some fairly serious doubts about the artistic merit of the results, but found other satisfactions in being involved.

“Yeah,” he says, “it did look kind of weird seeing LL Cool J singing ‘Give peace a chance,’ you know, with one hand on his dick.”

Weird is right. The last time I spoke to Cool J, he was opining loudly that the best thing all round would be for Saddam to get “offed” before any trouble started. Can this unholy alliance of people have had much in common, in terms of a perspective on the war: with the notable exception of Chuck D and Public Enemy, none of the artists named make a habit of delving into the world of politics. Quest’s chief rapper, Q-Tip, explains:

“Me and Chuck D, we’ve sat down and talked for hours. We agree on a lot of things, but the reason why A Tribe Called Quest won’t normally say them is because it ain’t any shit that people haven’t heard before. The thing about Public Enemy and NWA is that they’ve got one story to tell and that limits them. You can go around saying ‘Back to Africa’, but what difference is it going to make? It’s just a piece of land. If we wanna bug out, then we can bug out and if we wanna get serious then we can do that too. Chuck D couldn’t do a love song, he’d look stupid.”

Which is precisely what people said about LL Cool J and ‘I Need Love’, and will no doubt say about ‘Give Peace A Chance’.

“I think people are going to overlook that because of the importance of the issue,” says Ali. “Seeing someone like LL Cool J singing this should help to make a lot of people wake up and start to put pressure on their elected officials to stop this war.”

Why should it be stopped? Didn’t Iraq invade a neighbouring state?

“Yeah, but that goes on all the time, and we don’t do anything about it. It’s less about that than the economic importance of the area. Anyone who tried to upset the pro-Western status quo would run into trouble, be seen as a threat. We have to spend billions of dollars trying to hang onto all this oil which doesn’t belong to us anyway.

“The whole thing’s about the price of gas, man. Why can’t we spend those billions of dollars trying to develop alternative energy forms, so that we won’t have to depend on oil all the time? Instead of taking time out years ago to sort out some of these problems, we’ve let it get to the stage where a major disaster is going to force us to do them.

“Also, I don’t think people have realised how hard this is gonna be. We might have the advantage in the air, but when it comes to fighting on the ground, that’s another matter. The Iraqi soldiers live there, they know the terrain. It’s just like neighbourhoods. When you go into someone else’s neighbourhood, you’re small. That’s one of the simple rules of life, and Saddam’s soldiers will stop at nothing, they’re quite willing to die. They fought Iran for eight years. Most of our men have never fought in a war before. We’re gonna get our butts kicked. It’s going to be a sad lesson, but maybe it’s one that needs to be learned.”

Have you had any flack from the record companies for making this record?

“Naw, that’s what this supposedly great country is about, isn’t it? — freedom of speech I doubt that even the record companies would aim flack at the people who are putting their children through college and paying for their big houses.”

Does the whole situation frighten Ali, I wonder finally? I should know better than to ask a member of a rap group to admit to fear.

“No, I’m not frightened. It may be that an event like this is necessary for the world to be able to wake up. If it’s gonna happen, it’ss gonna happen. I can’t fear death, you know?”

He laughs at the idea as though it were absurd. A Tribe Called Quest are due to release their new album in March.

Circumstances permitting. Ha.

© Andrew SmithMelody Maker, 2 February 1991

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