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Why A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions” Is the Only Hip-Hop Song You Need

Old-school boomboxes line a decorative, patterned wall

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On June 19, 2020, producers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed teamed up with the legendary jazz musician Roy Ayers to release Roy Ayers JID002, the second installment of their provocatively titled Jazz Is Dead series. Far from burying the genre, the project celebrates and revitalizes Younge and Muhammed’s musical heroes. In addition to Ayers’ own illustrious career which began in 1963, his music has found a second life as the backbone of dozens of classic hip-hop songs by artists as diverse as The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, and Common. With Roy Ayers JID002, he is both collaborating with two artists who have sampled him in the past and making songs that might themselves be sampled in the future, enacting a sort of temporal slippage. As John Morrison said on a recent episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered: “It seems like Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed are really… digging into sample culture, … it feels like they’re attempting to update their classic catalog. Some of this stuff feels like it could have been off of a record that was made in 1973.”

Looking backwards, we might reflect on Muhammed’s own career as a founding member of the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. Formed in 1985, the group comprised Muhammed, Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Izaak Taylor), and occasional member Jarobi White. Their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was released in 1990 to critical acclaim and ushered in a new era of optimistic and Afrocentric alternative hip-hop that stood in contrast to the increasing brashness of coastal gangsta rap. Instead of basing their beats on oft-sampled artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown, Muhammed and Q-Tip opted for lesser-known artists that had been essentially ignored by other hip-hop producers. In doing so, they forged a highly influential path in the genre. Their dedication to forgotten members of the previous musical generation has been a common theme throughout their careers, and is most apparent in their sophomore effort, The Low End Theory. In particular its opening track, “Excursions.”

The song moves both backwards and forwards, demonstrating that notions of a distinct past and future are inherently flawed.

More than any other song in their catalog, “Excursions” exemplifies and embodies not only the group’s core ethos, but also the very principles that undergird the hip-hop genre. It situates hip-hop in the continuum of Black musical history, reminding listeners of its rich genealogy. The song moves both backwards and forwards, demonstrating that notions of a distinct past and future are inherently flawed. It focuses on the cyclical nature of time and the way that knowledge is encoded, decoded, and recoded by the genre’s incessant borrowing from the past through sampling. The very act of sampling different songs to make one beat collapses multiple pasts into each other and deploys them for a project in the present. As Brian Josephs writes in his ranking of the group’s best songs for Complex, “A Tribe Called Quest managed to make decades’ worth of cultural influences all sound urgent, and on no other Tribe track is that more apparent than on ‘Excursions.’” As a result of its self-aware lyrics and samples, “Excursions” is the only song you need if you want to understand hip-hop.

Cover art for A Tribe Called Quest's album The Low End Theory with abstract kneeling person in red and green on black background

The Low End Theory album cover, ZombArt

It is easy to think the songs sampled for the beat were chosen merely for their constituent parts: a bass-line, a drum, and a few horns. But for a group notorious for their appreciation of the catalog, no selection is made based on sound alone. Instead, the choices reveal a great deal about the message that the group is trying to convey.

The song begins with the barest of bass-lines. It’s a slowed-down version of “A Chant for Bu” by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers.  Eight-and-a-half minutes of jazz trumpets, cymbals, bass plucks, and drumbeats–a full-blown instrumental conversation. “A Chant for Bu” is dazzling, and when it’s slowed down, the conversation sounds more like the rumblings of a primordial soup from which “Excursions” is rising. Q-Tip doesn’t appear until the ten-second mark, aware of his own necessary gestation period. He is handing over the opening moments of his group’s sophomore effort to their musical predecessor.

This gesture is even more impactful when considering the role that Blakey played in the world of jazz. As the bandleader of the Jazz Messengers, he was the mentor to multiple generations of musicians, all of whom recognized that being a Messenger was an important rite of passage and a sterling credential on their musical resumés. The title of the sampled track, “A Chant for Bu,” is itself an homage to the importance of Blakey on the genre: he is the titular Bu, the person who this song is dedicated to. Thus, by placing this specific sample at the beginning of “Excursions,” inaugurating the album with it, the homage to Blakey is reduplicated and a lineage begins to emerge.

The second sample is the easiest to miss. It enters in at the thirty-second mark, summoned by Q-Tip’s lyrics: “Come on everybody, let’s get with the fly modes.” It’s a simple, well-executed drum-beat, elemental really, so ubiquitous that it could have been pulled from almost any song from the era. Again, because the drums are so universal an element, there’s little apparent value in investigating the source. Yet the title of the sample and the simple ubiquity of the drums are a message in and of themselves. The short sample is taken from the opening moments of “The Soil I Tilled for You” by the little-known soul group Shades of Brown. Even at their label Cadet Records they were easily overlooked, since they were a soul group amidst a sea of jazz and blues artists. Accordingly, their sole 1970 eponymous release is a mixture of soul, doo-wop, jazz, and blues–all of which are heard on “The Soil I Tilled for You.” It’s ostensibly a love song–a country boy reminiscing about a girl who has gone to the city, but upon repeated listens, it is clear that what is being described is the grief of a race left behind by a country for whom they worked so hard. In the song’s chorus, this grief is on full display: “my teardrops fall, in the soil I tilled for you.” Other lyrics like “behind this plow I stand / getting blisters on my hand / praying that my grief won’t be in vain,” emphasize a desire to be recognized for providing the backbone of the country.

Time then does not move forward in a purely linear fashion, but cyclically, accumulating meaning and accompanying memories along the way.

It is therefore fitting that A Tribe Called Quest makes this long-forgotten group the backbone of the track, since drums are the rhythmic core of any rap song. Yet, because they are so central, irreplaceable, and omnipresent, it is easy to take them for granted and assume that they will always be there. Acknowledging this fact, the group samples a song about how easy it is to overlook and abandon the basic but necessary labor that engenders future production.

The final sample is the most explicit, and the one that most comprehensively ties the song together. It’s an excerpt from “Time” by The Last Poets, the trailblazing collective of poets and musicians whose work helped popularize Black nationalism and Afrofuturism in music, and whose spoken-word style continues to be a massive influence on rappers to this day. The song enters just as the horns kick in from the sample of “A Chant for Bu,” and immediately focuses the listener’s attention on time and temporality itself:

            Time, time is a ship on a merciless sea
            Drifting toward an abyss of nothingness
            Until it can be recharted for its own destiny
            Time is an inanimate object paying and paying and paying for no justification for belief
            Time is dancing, boogalooing-away all memories of past experience

This sample is significant for a number of reasons, chief among them being the juxtaposition of this depiction of time as moving inexorably forward, as well as the fact that it is being sampled twenty years after it was written. The practice of sampling is itself a mashing together of past and present, old and new. As Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his book about A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, the beauty of the sample is that it can be “extracted from the past and stretched over a sound reaching for the future.” Umar Bin Hassan, the voice on “Time,” is right to note the forward march of time, but is wrong to claim that it is boogalooing-away all memories of the past. The very presence of his voice on “Excursions” demonstrates how this memory can be preserved and passed down four decades later. In fact, The Last Poets themselves are transmitting knowledge and memory in their very name. They adopted the moniker after reading “Towards a Walk in the Sun” by Keorapetse Kgositsile and identifying with the closing lines:

             …there will be no art talk. The only poem
            you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted
            in the punctured marrow of the villain; the
            timeless native son dancing like crazy to
            the retrieved rhythms of desire

“Time” itself draws on similar themes as the poem, but in Kgositsile’s text, fading into memory is not equivalent to fading into oblivion. (This point is especially true of Kgositsile himself, who has gained renewed attention via the career of his virtuosic son Thebe Neruda, aka Earl Sweatshirt.) Time then does not move forward in a purely linear fashion, but cyclically, accumulating meaning and accompanying memories along the way.

'Excursions,' then is not a meteor, dazzling briefly before fading away, but a comet, cycling in and out of our musical solar system, bringing new wisdom each time it reenters our orbit.

Indeed, Q-Tip makes this clear to the listener from the outset of “Excursions” in an opening verse that has been cited, sampled, and reinterpreted numerous times, enacting the very cyclicality that it describes:

            Back in the days when I was a teenager
            Before I had status and before I had a pager
            You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
            My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
            I said, “Well Daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles?”
            The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael

The song thus begins by immediately looking backwards, then adds yet another layer of recursion by having Q-Tip’s father reminisce about a time further back still. The song’s ultimate preoccupation being the cyclicality of music and memory, “Excursions” can only grow in importance. It is hyperaware of its own construction and points its listeners to its influences, rewarding their investigations into its samples with a deeper and more nuanced meaning of the song, the genre, and history. As postcolonial scholar Ian Baucom writes in his book on the slave trade, Specters of the Atlantic, “Time does not pass or progress, it accumulates.” Black artists often tackle the legacy of the Middle Passage and slavery in their works, exploring its long afterlife in order to better understand how to make sense of their own history. In these works, the goal is not to make a clean break from history, but rather learn how to exert control over it. The accumulation that Baucom describes then is both the problem and the solution. “Excursions” and its samples embody this accumulation literally, collapsing different eras onto each other, in order to better carry them forward. This temporal layering is not simply a musical decision, but a form of resistance against a nation that fetishizes novelty and which is determined to erase its history in order to justify a colorblind and meritocratic future. “Excursions,” then is not a meteor, dazzling briefly before fading away, but a comet, cycling in and out of our musical solar system, bringing new wisdom each time it reenters our orbit.

*For a playlist with all these songs discussed here, as well as other related songs, follow this link.

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Daniel Dominguez is a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He received a Bachelor’s in Comparative Literature with Honors from Stanford University in 2016. His work focuses on contemporary experimental literature and book history in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Nahuatl. He also has interests in media theory, translation, and reader-response theory. He has written on the ludic and ergodic qualities of the works of Julio Cortázar and Georges Perec and has presented on new developments in the publishing industry. In addition to his research, he serves as Co-Editor of Princeton’s translation journal Inventory and is a fellow of the 2020 Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop.