I spent a lot of 2017 in schools, and I imagine that I will spend a lot of future years in schools. Because of this, I spend a lot of time talking to people younger than I am, and I spend a lot of time talking to them about music. This creates an interesting discussion point for me—I spent 2017 remembering that when I was young and wanted to talk to someone older about music, I mostly wanted validation that the thing I liked was not, in fact, awful. This had mixed results in my teenage years. My love of the so-called “shiny suit era” had its detractors, many of them older than me, many of them longing for the days of what they imagined to be “real hip-hop.”
The question I spent most of my time answering in 2017 was how I felt about what is now called “mumble rap” in the popular discourse—rappers who eschew lyrical prowess in the name of drum-heavy trap beats and melodic choruses. If there’s one thing that’s for sure, changing trends in music will forever have their scapegoats, and because the trends in rap music shift so rapidly, scapegoats appear and then are replaced by new scapegoats nearly every two or three years. Shiny-suit rap was a scapegoat once, back after Biggie was murdered, and Tupac murdered before that, and conservative media outlets were delighting in what surely was soon to be the death of the genre they hated most. But then songs about money and partying and living like no death would ever arrive for you ended up on the radio. Auto-Tune was a scapegoat for a while, until Kanye West made 808s & Heartbreak in 2008 and people decided Auto-Tune was a worthwhile artistic endeavor—until Jay-Z released the song “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” in the summer of 2009, and then it was done for good.
“Mumble rap” is the most active and vigorous scapegoat rap has had in years, in part because the internet—particularly social media—has created a landscape for it to thrive and be a hotly debated topic, engaging with ideas of language and whether or not rappers should have to adhere to them, and whether or not this so-called mumble rap is actually pushing the genre forward, past some of its bowing to establishments.
The real truth is that the rappers don’t actually mumble. Rappers like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Young Thug aren’t really aesthetically or sonically similar, and all of them rap fairly clearly. What people are really angling at is the drug-drenched persona of young rappers who seem to, as they put it, have no substance. What people are really pointing at is what they believe to be a lack of lyricism. I don’t necessarily rebuke this in its entirety, but I rebuke the idea that my pals and I weren’t young once and didn’t listen to shit that moved us to dance or get reckless no matter what the rapper was saying. I rebuke the idea that every lyric written when I was a young hip-hop lover was sent down from the heavens and written with a golden pen. I rebuke the idea that the “turn up” is new or something that anyone in need of it should be ashamed of. Or the idea that the turn up isn’t flexible. That it doesn’t happen in the middle of a gospel song on Sunday, or in a trap house on any day when people in the hood get paid, or in a nightclub in New York when the horn player catches a good solo and the band lets him air it out until he’s gotten all he can out of his instrument.
And so young people want to ask me what I think about mumble rap. Some of them wait eagerly, hoping I’ll validate their interests. Some—the ones I find more interesting—bemoan the state of hip-hop now and wonder if it’s crumbling due to this new faction of young rappers largely existing in a haze of drugs and excess.
I am trying not to be the elder that I had access to in my days of young rap fandom. For those elders, it was the eighties that was the holy grail, and everything in the late nineties was a horn signaling the death of a genre. I don’t think that’s where we are now. Some of the young people I talk to aren’t sure what so-called real hip-hop is, but they know enough to know what it isn’t. Early in the year, many of them had never heard of A Tribe Called Quest, and then later, only knew them as a phoenix, risen from the ashes—though they were unsure what the ashes were or how they got there. So many people have an idea of what “real hip-hop” is, or the standards of what it should adhere to, and that makes the genre narrow. So narrow, in fact, that many of those people can’t see the disciples of Tribe right in front of them. Artists like Anderson .Paak, who joined Tribe onstage during their Grammy performance in 2017, eagerly drumming along with his heroes. Or even someone like Joey Bada$$, or Isaiah Rashad, or Danny Brown. Lineage is most important to preserve in rap music. It isn’t always what you hear on the surface but what you hear trying to claw its way out. Tribe made it easy for all of us with jazz, but it’s not like that anymore. You really gotta want to sit down with an album. And I know, I know it’s hard to do, with one album leaving just in time for another to arrive. But if there’s something I know about whatever I imagine real hip-hop to be, it’s that it demands patience from a listener. It demands someone willing to sit awhile and let the music enter them.
I don’t tell young rap fans that, though. I tell them that I’m trying to get into the songs they’re into, and I am. I tell them that I listen to stuff that people younger than me are listening to because I never want to be out of line and out of touch. I want to know where rap is going, and I want to always be able to accept it, or at least find a path to acceptance, no matter how long or winding it is. I tell them I like Lil Uzi Vert, and I do. I think that in ten years’ time, though, none of this will matter. Genre is going to be a thing of the past soon anyway, man. It’s all gonna be pop music before too long, so you might as well enjoy your safe houses now while you’ve got ’em. I tell the rap fans younger than me who don’t know it yet that A Tribe Called Quest made rap music that they might think is real enough. That it was just beats and rhymes—no gimmicks. That’s still happening now, too. The dream isn’t over yet. Find something you love before everything is washed away by a wave of sound pushing all rap closer and closer to the dreaded radio. Everything reaching for the pop charts. I tell young rap fans who haven’t heard it to listen to Midnight Marauders, to the way “Steve Biko” falls effortlessly into “Award Tour” and the small burst of marching, playful horns that feel like an endless summer coming. I tell young rap fans that they might have liked Phife, the eternal underdog—small, and yet still somehow towering. I tell them that at least we still have Q-Tip, who—even after all this time—is committed solely to his massive and impossible visions.
And we may never have anyone as great as them again. The idea of the rap group isn’t entirely gone, and it might go through another cycle—especially now, with the rise of groups like Migos and Rae Sremmurd. But a group like A Tribe Called Quest will never exist again. And what a tragic but perfect ending to what they gave. Of course there had to be a funeral. Of course there had to be a death during a dark year, painting the months even darker, and of course there had to be an album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, pushed into a country that needed it right as it arrived, and of course there had to be a performance on music’s largest stage with black fists raised in the air. Not every story in music ends with a group forced to throw in the towel due to a great and impossible loss, and not every story should. But had it not, I would want A Tribe Called Quest to return again and again, giving me the doses of updated nostalgia that I might need when no other music could provide it. At least now, I think, we can lay them to rest.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry, 2016), They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), and Go Ahead in the Rain (University of Texas Press, 2019).
Excerpted from Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, by Hanif Abdurraqib, published by University of Texas Press