Hanif Abdurraqib’s Personal Narrative Of A Tribe Called Quest, ‘Go Ahead in the Rain’

I played The Low End Theory for months on end, wondering if I’d ever stop — Hanif Abdurraqib

Fans of hip-hop have personal connections to the music. In Go Ahead in the Rain, which is a history lesson, a long essay, and a love letter to A Tribe Called Quest, award-winning writer, Hanif Abdurraqib remembers listening to early spins of A Tribe on his tape recorder, and coming to understand jazz on his terms as opposed to his father’s suggestion. This personal narrative also includes Abdurraqib recalling how the group ushered him through his first kiss, his early experiences of independence, and assembling a crew in high school.

“I thought about how uniquely specific A Tribe Called Quest was in shaping a part of my identity that I’ve held onto for most of my life: my comfort in the weird, or comfort in the absurd,” Abdurraqib said during an interview with VIBE. “Or comfort in the things that don’t feel quite right to everyone. I found myself wanting to celebrate that, even more by the year of 2016.”

It’s Abdurraqib’s individualized narrative, and connection to A Tribe that guides Go Ahead in the Rain. In Abdurraqib’s previous work, They Can’t Kills Us Until They Kill Us, the National Book Award winner packed loads of emotion into tightly compacted sentences, as he does here in Go Ahead in the Rain. As a kid in Columbus, OH., Abdurraqib unenthusiastically took trumpet lessons, at the behest of his father, who was a jazz musician. “Once I placed the trumpet into its case for the last time and tucked it into a closet somewhere, I played The Low End Theory for months on end, wondering if I’d ever stop. This was the jazz I had been looking for,” writes Abdurraqib. It’s vital moments like the former, about growth and discovery through the music of ATCQ that fill Go Ahead in the Rain.

The 206 page book commences with a somewhat weary history lesson about musical traditions slaves carried from West Africa to America before taking readers to his childhood in Columbus where A Tribe Called Quest’s music was one of the few hip-hop catalogs allowed in his parents home.

Depending on one’s age, A Tribe’s story, which spans over three decades, of inner-turmoil, and its Native Tongue era, will serve as a walk down memory lane. For others, Go Ahead in the Rain is a starting point to absorb the group’s musical catalog, while being guided by a valid consumer. While some of the history lessons move slow, it is Abdurraqib’s preciseness and distinctiveness that makes his words powerful. He covers ATCQ’s beginnings in Queens, their arguments, as stated earlier, their involvement in the Native Tongue movement, to which he cleverly links to his Beechcroft High School crew. “The thing about Native Tongues is that they were like my crew, or potentially your crew,” he writes. “They were uncool enough to define a new type of cool on their own terms. The Native Tongues briefly built a world in which they knew themselves as each other’s people.”

When A Tribe Called Quest emerged from Queens, producers who sampled went through the painstaking process of sampling the song’s rhythms and riffs. In Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Prof. Tricia Rose discussed A Tribe’s sampling prowess. “A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Verses from the Abstract’ features Ron Carter on bass but the hip hop drum lines completely recontextualize Carter’s jazz sound.”

Black Noise @ 25: Scott Poulson-Bryant and Tricia Rose — 2019 Commencement Forum

According to Abdurraqib, two forces accelerated A Tribe Called Quest’s breakup in 1998. One, the divide between commercialism, and authenticity. “Be real enough to stay underground, or go pop enough to get money,” Abdurraqib writes. The second force, according to Abdurraqib, was the ongoing fractious brotherhood between the late Phife Dawg, and Q-Tip. Phife only shows up on four songs on the groups debut album. At that point in his life, Phife wasn’t an official member yet, and he was the least mature of the group, attracted to teenage impish behavior.

Abdurraqib identifies with Phife, who is described as the resolute MC who perfected the intricacies of hard metaphors and punch lines. Q-Tip was the sagacious big brother of the group. After Abdurraqib details punching his big brother in the mouth before running and hiding in the closet, he tells the story of Q-Tip getting punched in the face by a member of Wreckx-n-Effect, after an alleged disrespectful punchline from Phife.

Phife Dawg Talks ATCQ, Learning To Write Raps, Wreckx-N-Effect Beef.

The theme of mortality also runs the gamut in Go Ahead in the Rain, too. Phife died of complications from diabetes in March 2016, just after A Tribe Called Quest had reunited for the recording of We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service. The album was released Nov. 2016, with lyrics that were prophetic when you think about the election that same year. “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go.”

“Black folks have been creating with their backs against the wall for years, telling the future, speaking what is coming to the masses that aren’t eager to hear it until what’s coming actually arrives,” Abdurraqib writes. It’s this type of layered language, juxtaposed to Abdurraqib not ready to give up his cassette tapes when CDs were a the wave, that makes Abdurraqib a heavily built writer. While CDs were at that time the newest technology, they were fragile, and it made skipping songs really easy. Cassette tapes, locked in listeners.

Today, hip-hop has the uniqueness of Tyler, the Creator, the rawness of Griselda, and the feminist/womanist in Rapsody. Similarly, Go Ahead in the Rain moves from The Source Magazine cover, to Emmett Till, to Compton, Calif., to Otis Redding.

“It’s funny, isn’t it — the things that play on our screens and in our heads for years, detached from any fullness,” Abdurraqib writes. Looking back on his childhood, Abdurraqib finally understands what role Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi played in his accomplished life. With this, Abdurraqib places ATCQ in the fullness of history.

With Phife gone, “a group like A Tribe Called Quest will never exist again,” Abdurraqib writes. “At least now, I think, we can lay them to rest.”

“I needed to write about what A Tribe Called Quest meant to me, as someone who was young, and who for a while could not have a lot of rap in the house, but could have A Tribe Called Quest in the house,” Adburraqib said to VIBE. “How they catered toward an era before theirs. How they catered towards jazz, and sounds that, at least in my house, my parents could appreciate and welcome in. N.W.A. wasn’t getting in the house.”

staff writer at vibe.com. contributor at salon. educated: columbia univ. bylines: XXL, Black Perspectives, Washington Post, among others blogs.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store