The thing about hip-hop icons A Tribe Called Quest — they were purists all the way, coming up during the three-MCs-and-a-DJ era, and that’s how they always brought their show to the stage. Even when their sound evolved beyond its sampledelic beginnings, even when original arrangements and instrumentation became part of their records, the live show always remained true to the classic hip-hop form.
Certainly, in nightclub settings, this rocked the freaking house; as the venues got bigger, though, results were more mixed. As much as the 90s were a golden era of hip-hop, and Tribe was very much a band responsible for breaking down the barriers of genre to reach bigger audiences, mainstream promoters and show producers were still very much confused by it as a live art, clearly didn’t know what the heck what to do with it in big rooms — which is why my two encounters with the band in its heyday were very mixed.
Seeing them open for the Beastie Boys at the First Union Center in 1998, their mix pumped through the massive and reverberant arena without much in the way of sonic reinforcement; their performance was live as hell, but from the stands it sounded like Tribe was lost in a cavern. Playing the Vet for Temple’s football homecoming that fall, they only got a couple songs in before the performance got called.
However, this video I came across today — as I reflect on the anniversary of Malik Isaac “Phife Dawg” Taylor’s passing — sits more comfortably on rock-the-house side of things. It was April 18th, 1997, and the band was playing the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a pretty spacious room, and you can hear the booming mix trying to find its proper space within the walls. Q-Tip mentions mic problems throughout the set, and even freestyles about the topic at one point. But once DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad finds his sonic groove — I’d put this at about the 8 minute and 20 second mark, a remarkable transition from “Buggin’ Out” into “Oh My God” — it’s truly OMG amazing. Continue reading →