The Best A Tribe Called Quest Songs

You can debate about who is the most influential hip-hop group of all time, but we wouldn’t have OutKast, Kanye West, or Pharrell without A Tribe Called Quest. They're the most beloved hip-hop crew ever. In Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi’s honor, here are the best A Tribe Called Quest Songs.

Tribe Called Quest 1990

Image via Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Tribe Called Quest 1990

A Tribe Called Quest’s significance has never faded since the boys from Queens first became a group in the mid-’80s. The world was once again reminded of their iconography when we lost Phife Dawg, the heart of the group, to diabetes-related complications in March 2016. The Apollo Theater memorial that took place that April showed how much the Phife and the Tribe were loved: Dave Chappelle, KRS-One, Andre 3000, D’Angelo, and Lauryn Hill were just a few of the many who came through to pay their respects.

And the adoration for A Tribe Called Quest hasn’t dimmed since then or after they returned with We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, a comeback album 18 years in the making that doubled as a fantastic going away party for the 5-foot-assassin. You can debate about who is the most influential hip-hop group of all time, but there’s a big chance that we wouldn’t have OutKast, Kanye West, or Pharrell if it wasn’t for the Tribe.

The way Tribe wove their New Yorker perspective into sounds inspired by black music’s proud history is a core reason behind hip-hop heads’ love of the artform. Their first three albums, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1991’s The Low End Theory, and 1993’s Midnight Marauders still stand together as one of hip-hop’s great three-peats.

Still, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was good enough to produce songs that rank in the upper echelon of the Tribe’s already near-unassailable catalog. They’ve disbanded in 2017 supposedly for good, and “The Space Program” is their last music video, but they’re leaving with what many other great acts don’t get: a sense of closure. In honor of Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, and Q-Tip, who turns 48 today, here are the best A Tribe Called Quest songs.

25. “Stressed Out”

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Beats, Rhymes, & Life saw the trio at their nadir. The added energy brought in from Q-Tip’s cousin Consequence was overshadowed by intra-group tensions and rhymes that were alienating in their angst. Phife Dawg, in his typical matter-of-fact way, diagnosed what was missing at the project’s heart: “Chemistry was dead, shot." But when they did let some light in, we got soothing cuts like the Faith Evans collab “Stressed Out.” The crew notably performed the song on the ‘90s sitcom Moesha.

24. “Find a Way”

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The Love Movement may have been a bit too tidy for its own good, but it did give us a classic feel good anthem in “Find a Way.” Phife Dawg and Q-Tip once again mine that fuzzy territory between friendship and sex for a radio joint. It’s one of the easier Tribe songs to two-step to.

23. “Luck of Lucien”

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While not as famous as “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” for obvious reasons (it’s not ATCQ’s first-ever single), fellow People’s Instinctive Travels cut “Luck of Lucien” once again shows Q-Tip’s penchant for oddball storytelling. This time around, he tries to get Frenchman rapper Lucien Revolucien acclimated to the New York way of living. The results are both humorous (ever heard of a crackhead dip?) and empathetic.

22. “Lyrics to Go”

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Q-Tip does more than enough to acquit himself here (“I could do a split and turn around like Alvin Ailey”—look him up, kids), but the star here is the production. The ethereal high octave Minnie Riperton hits on “Inside My Love” get stretched throughout the song, giving Q-Tip’s words a dream-like quality. It’s another example of the Tribe’s inventiveness behind the boards.

21. “Buggin’ Out”

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The Low End Theory also got its spark from the increased presence of Phife Dawg (he appeared on only four songs on the Tribe’s debut). After Q-Tip’s solo showcase on the opener “Excursions,” the standing bass comes out again to let Phife Dawg take the floor with Q-Tip supporting for “Buggin’ Out.” It’s the performance that proved he was really the heart of the crew. “I never walk the street thinking it's all about me/Even though deep in my heart, it really could be,” he raps—and he’s basically right.

20. “Oh My God”

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Busta Rhymes wasn’t part of A Tribe Called Quest’s original incarnation, but make no mistake: he was an essential spice to their recipe. “Scenario” is the most recognizable example, but then there’s also Midnight Marauders’ “Oh My God,” a banger whose energy comes from Busta’s spasmodic presence on the hook.

19. “Scenario (Remix)”

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While the original Low End Theory closer remains the essential, the remix cribs a Kool & the Gang sample that gives that gives the new posse cut a high-stakes air. In addition to bringing A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School together again, the remix also features a brash, standout lead verse from Kid Hood, who was sadly murdered days after the verse was recorded. While Busta Rhymes was the obvious show-stealer on the original, Phife Dawg comes the hardest this time around. “So do like Michael Jackson and "Remember the Time" (Do you remember?)/Put on your dancin' shoes or somethin 'cause you sure can't rhyme,” is the best piece of career advice since Biggie’s UPS shoutout.

18. “Hot Sex”

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The story of “Hot Sex” also has some beef trailing it. New jack swing crew Wreckx-n-Effect took offense to Phife’s “Me sweat another? I do my own thing/Strictly hardcore tracks, not a new jack swing” on “Jazz (We’ve Got).” Q-Tip got punched in the eye as a result—that’s why he’s wearing a mask in the video.

All that stuff is backstory, though. At the forefront is the tightest and mustiest production in the Tribe’s discography. The irony of “Hot Sex” is how the most memorable part of the song is when that classic beat suddenly cuts out for Q-Tip’s “Where ya at?” The group was always ambitious, but at their best, they were also precise.

17. “Footprints”

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The Tribe cribs Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice,” lowers the pitch, and adds some hard drums to deliver a sense of immediacy. Q-Tip follows suit, quickening and tightening his flow in verses that reiterate he and his crews mantras in one of his most dazzling performances. There’s also a callback to Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black,” one of his first on-record appearances.

16. “If the Papes Come”

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The B-side to “Can I Kick It?” finds Q-Tip getting even more nutty with his rhymes (“Four and four is eight, if fat shit makes the plate/I make sure the Tribe is iinnnnn”) over a psychedelic instrumental that sounds like it was concocted in an abandoned speakeasy. With barely a hook, “If the Papes Come” definitely isn’t the most accessible Tribe record. But it’s significant because it’s one of our first glances at the darker, experimental bent that would shape their career-defining sophomore effort, The Low End Theory.

15. “The Donald”

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The timing of Thank You 4 Your Service made many predict that closer “The Donald” was going to be aimed at Donald Trump. Thankfully, a bigot wouldn’t get the final word on the final Tribe album. Instead, the title takes its name from Don Juice, the late Phife Dawg. Fellow Caribbean descendant Busta Rhymes leads us through a procession that dries the tears during the homegoing.

14. “Butter”

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In which Malik Taylor gets played by a girl and names his romantic interests before DMX did the same. “Butter” finds the 5-foot-assassin riding the now-the-girls-flock-toward-me narrative that many of his peers used. But what places this Phife vehicle above similar joints is how it doesn’t pretend to come from a place of righteousness and entitlement. A lot of dissing comes from a place of relatable pettiness (“Here, here, take the towel, wipe off your brow”) that stops far short of being mean-spirited.

13. “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”

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The Tribe already had one of rap’s great storytelling songs with their debut, featuring a fairly simple premise: Tip lost his wallet, pissing off his normally mild-mannered compandre Ali. “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” establishes two Q-Tip tropes: His non-linear approach to rhyming—we don’t understand he’s telling the story to a cop until after the first verse—and his deep love of pop culture. Neither Ali nor Phife knew at the time that “El Segundo” was a Sanford & Sons reference.

12. “The Space Program”

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A Tribe Called Quest kicked off their first album in 18 years with a high-concept joint. “The Space Program” isn’t a hopeful Afrofuturistic anthem; the title refers to urban renewal’s continuous displacement of poor people of color, a cycle so vicious it might follow humankind to space. Q-Tip ties the whole idea together with a flow more agile than most rappers half his age and lines (“Now, people on top of people, feels like we can’t breathe/Put so much in this muthafucka, feel like we shouldn't leave”) fully realized enough to easily follow along. Of course, this song is also notable for featuring Jarobi’s first verse on a Tribe track. His presence is so rife with energy, it’s somewhat of a miracle he doesn’t outrun the beat.

But the song’s emotional depth comes from Phife Dawg, who closes out the song with a galvanizing refrain: “Gotta get it together for brothers/Gotta get it together for sisters/For mothers and fathers and dead niggas.” Without question, you’re all in.

11. “We the People”

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A Tribe Called Quest are ultimately optimists, but they’ve never shied away from being acerbic when taking a look at the world. Thank You 4 Your Service is a comeback album, but it still came during Trump’s 2016 campaign. As a result, we get a song like “We the People,” which rides off a synth as dour as the times.

“All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go,” Q-Tip sardonically sings in a hook that reflects Trump’s bigotry. He spends his verse not as a preacher but a street reporter, pointing out the brothers in the struggle still eating ramen noodles. Q-Tip draws strength from his spiritual brother, joining his voice with Phife Dawg’s on the bridge: “We're not just niggas rappers with the bars/It's kismet that we're cosmic with the stars.”

10. “The Chase Part II”

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“The Chase Part II” is where Midnight Marauders turns from the nocturn and makes its way down the homestretch, a drive through a shoreside highway. The antepenultimate track proves once again that Tip and Phife’s chemistry stand out because they’re both singular voices, not a homogenous one. Phife bigs himself up with patois slang and shits on the impressively mediocre quarterback Vinny Testaverde, while Q-Tip follows up with two verses that unfurl as freely as the sample they ride. You get why the Consequence-featuring version that appeared on the B-side of “Award Tour” didn’t make the album.

9. “Sucka Nigga”

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The “N” word will probably never be abolished from hip-hop despite the NCAAP’s efforts, and Q-Tip realized this decades ago. What makes “Sucka Nigga” an accessible examination of the word is how he removes any sense of pretension for an honest take on the issue. Yes, it’s a derivation of a term used to dehumanize black folk, but now it’s a part of our language. Q-Tip implicates himself, too: “I start to flinch, as I try not to say it/But my lips is like the oowop as I start to spray it.”

8. “Can I Kick It?”

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A clear gem from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, “Can I Kick It?” was one of the earlier showings of what would become A Tribe Called Quest hallmarks. First, is the sampling: The Lou Reed-samping riff ran into a squawking horn on the hook, an example of the marriage of jazz and experimentation that would become the group’s signature. Then there’s Phife Dawg, a largely absent presence who was still able to get off one of his memorable one-liners: “Mr. Dinkins would you please be my mayor?” David Dinkins returned the favor and paid his respects to Phife Dawg at his Apollo Theater memorial.

7. “Excursions”

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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.” Essentially a Q-Tip showcase, The Low End Theory is both his claim as one of hip-hop’s great rhymers and a sharp reminder of the trio’s mission statement, presenting a panoramic view of black culture that both militant and inclusive. Couplets like “Get in the zone of positivity, not negativity/'Cause we gotta strive for longevity” followed by commandments such as “Don't be phony and expect one not to flex” presented a complete worldview that felt emphatic as the Abstract burrowed through that standing bass line. In a sense, it’s the Zulu Nation version what Janelle Monae proclaimed in her feminist Grammys speech: “We come in peace, but we mean business."

6. “Bonita Applebum”

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What makes this love song stick out—aside from the unapologetically bohemian vibes—is how it’s almost absent of any machismo, which is a radical move in hip-hop. “Bonita Applebum” is overly romantic, but it isn’t at all corny because of how much of it is rooted in sensuality. There’s an unmistakable intimacy when the music cuts and Q-Tip leans in to say, “I like to tell ya things some brothers don't,” right after hinting at cunnilungus.

5. “Award Tour”

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Following the darker, bass-heavy sounds of The Low End Theory, the glossier keys of “Award Show” were a ray of sun that hinted at Midnight Marauders’ more sanguine shift. It’s more accessible—”Award Tour” is the Tribe’s highest charting hit at No. 47—but it was a promising single. First, Q-Tip arguably improved as a rapper: He’s even more sure-footed and perhaps even more charismatic in a verse that uses Mario Andretti as an excuse to show how quick-tongued he is. Phife Dawg, aka Dynomutt, got even more taut with his one-liners (“Coming with more hits than the Braves and the Yankees”).

Phife’s “Never let a statue tell me how nice I am” ended up being a precise proclamation, too. Despite being one of the most acclaimed hip-hop acts ever, A Tribe Called Quest never won a Grammy. To date, Q-Tip’s lone win is a collaboration with electronic duo Chemical Brothers.

4. “Scenario”

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A Tribe Called Quest albums each have their own ambition, but they’re all ultimately hip-hop projects at their core. It makes sense their greatest album ends with an old-fashioned posse cut with Leaders of the New School, because ATCQ efforts are never just about them, but also a wider family (see the Midnight Marauders cover). It’s also not surprising that they let somebody else get the last word: The last verse is a thrilling dry run for Busta Rhymes’ solo career.

3. “Jazz (We’ve Got)”

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One of The Low End Theory’s core missions is showing the natural connection between hip-hop and jazz. Predictably, the most explicit example is the track with “jazz” in its title. While other well-intentioned but lesser artists might use this as history lesson, Phife and Q-Tip take the four minutes to just flow over it, showing a group remarkably confident in their beliefs in their early 20s. Q-Tip’s rhyme style mimics that of many great jazz artists: improvisational and self-assured. Phife Dawg slides in with Caribbean patois and namedrops Shabba Ranks, fluidly connecting hip-hop and jazz to a wider black diaspora that somehow doesn’t include new jack swing. With this many elements in sync, it’s hard to argue against the Tribe’s point.

2. “Electric Relaxation”

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The Tribe’s second big hit from from Midnight Marauders was a lesson in minimalism, building itself around a chirping riff that had become hip-hop’s most immediately recognizable. “Electric Relaxation” also finds Phife Dawg at his wittiest: The 5-foot-assassin condenses his musings on the opposite sex from “Butter” for a few of his most famous one-liners (“I like 'em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian,” “Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman's Furniture”). Kanye West and Consequence put together an updated version in 2003, and J. Cole cribbed the same Ronnie Foster sample for 2013’s “Forbidden Fruit.” At best, both renditions only reminded you how good the Tribe’s classic was.

1. “Check the Rhime”

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“Check the Rhime” is the most predictable top choice for a Best Tribe Called Quest Songs list, but it’s also a sensible one. Their opus The Low End Theory touches on a wide breadth of themes, but it’s throughway is this idea of connectivity. “Check the Rhime” is the cut that epitomizes this as Q-Tip—the coolest nasally voice to rap—naturalistically weaves through the sparse, yet historically wrought soul textures along with the seamless back-and-forth between him and Phife. Yes, the classic one-liners are there—people still know what Rule No. 4080 is—but what makes “Check the Rhime” an essential is its joyfully inviting display of cultural and familial kinship.

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