15. “Check the Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest (1991)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

Ya on point, Phife?

All the time, Tip.

Ya on point, Phife?

All the time, Tip.

Ya on point, Phife?

All the time, Tip.

Well, then grab the microphone and let your words rip.

This shit is just so cool. I love A Tribe Called Quest. I have their stuff on vinyl and when I spin anything by them, a bad day transforms to good, and a good day climbs to great. They write songs that thematically challenge the status quo, were innovative as hell as leaders in alternative hip hop, and always just so easy to listen to. The interplay between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg never felt forced or pandering or competitive. It just… vibed. Their songs have unparalleled flow, which is amazing considering some of the discord between Phife and Tip in the group’s history.

Look I’m not the person to put A Tribe Called Quest into the proper historical context. I was listening to “Oh My God” feat. Busta Rhymes the other day and I texted my best buddy Jason about it, who gave me a huge historical rundown of Native Tongues and Leaders of the New School and the creation of a positive vibe designed to embolden and empower the Black community, which I found fascinating, and knew embarrassingly little about.

And I fear if I try to do my normal thing where I connect this song to some larger theme about my life or about society, I’m going to come off sounding like try-hard, whiter-than-notebook-paper Bradley Whitford asserting that he “would have voted for Obama a 3rd time if he could have” in the movie Get Out. Tribe has a resume that speaks for itself that you can read about from people far more qualified than me.  

And here’s where I acknowledge that I have gotten pretty far up my own ass during this series. It’s gonna get worse before it’s over because I wrote the Top 10 first and know how it reads. It’s all very existential and deeply personal (and I think it’s really fucking good), but that sort of self-analysis and inventory-taking of how I intersect with various elements of society has been the overwhelming motif already.

In the case of Tribe, not everything has to be a fucking personal lesson or some life changing insight. Sometimes the shit is just great. What I don’t want to fail to convey is that above all else, I think every song on this list is just cool as hell. Whether it’s Patsy Cline or DMX or Pantera or Britney Spears, or this bitchin Tribe song, they’re just dope and on a certain level I’m annoyed that I’ve dug into them this much. Sometimes you just fucking like what you like and it’s best not to overthink it. I have a master’s degree in overthinking shit, but I remember when one of our professors broke down a particularly biting episode of Family Guy, some poor dude in the class said, “Dude, you just unfunny’d my favorite show.” I’m trying not to uncool my favorite songs, and I really have no sense on how well I’m achieving that.

This is all just so deeply my shit and I wanted to share it with you, like some idiot dog dropping dead birds on the back porch because that’s how we express affection. And I suppose you could make a case that this whole series is just my love letter to life and you wouldn’t be wrong. But I know snark in my bones, and writing from an entirely positive viewpoint has proven to be incredibly fun and much more rewarding. God, I’m moralizing this shit again. Back to the song.

It wasn’t until Music Video Theatre Vol. 9 that this song showed up. I picked it. I crushed my choices in Vol. 9. The video for this one starts with just a static shot of a house that looks like a negative film exposure. Tip and Phife are superimposed in front of it and look like giants. Then they just start flowing, and I never want them to stop. They’re perched on top of a convenience store performing for a crowd of eager fans like the B-Sharps in that episode of The Simpsons. They look cool. They sound cool. They spit beef at MC Hammer and Tip lands an all-timer of a line with “Lesson number four thousand and eighty… record company people are shadyyyyy.”

Look, bottom line I’m just happy Tribe exists. And I think I’m not alone because less than a week before writing this, I was at a Frickashinas show and pretty much everyone there looked like me and Jason – bearded white dudes in their 30s and 40s. “Check the Rhime” came on between bands. Jason and I definitely weren’t the only ones asking each other, “Ya on point, Tip?” “All the time, Phife.”

It’s cool when you see what you think might be an esoteric personal choice reflected broadly in places you don’t expect. I think we all love Tribe. How can you not?

Up next: Tony Hawk’s influence on an entire generation’s music taste.

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