By Alicia Swiz
I love A Tribe Called Quest.
The first time I heard them was in a middle school gymnasium with the first feelings of adolescence flushing through my body. Mostly through the parts that I didn’t know much about but I knew made me a girl. Another thing I knew about being a girl: nobody likes the new girl, especially the “cute” new girl. Except for the boys. I was at a tricky moment in my formation of self. I remember the feeling of being new, of constantly being stared at, of being lonely.
I remember the feeling of knowing when the girls whispered about me and the feeling of icy silence when they didn’t. I remember the sting on my skin when one of boys snapped my bra and the sting in my heart when one of the mean girls wasn’t satisfied by whispering or silence. I remember words like “slut” and “trashy” and “Who does she think she is in that ‘fuck me’ red lipstick?’” I remember Jason’ B’s hands on my hips, dangerously close to my butt, when the beat dropped – what would become a highly recognizable sound – to “Bonita Applebum.”
“Hey Bonita! Glad to meet ya/For the kind of stunning newness/I must have foreseen ya/Hey, being with you is a top priority/Ain’t no need to question the authority”
Everything else went silent as I received my first introduction to that which would trigger my personal revolution. Hip Hop.
The following Monday in school I received my first gift ever from a boy: a mixtape. Dubbed over one of his parent’s old doo-wop tapes, the track list was written on a post-it note in Jason B.’s 7th-grade-boy-looks-like-a-serial-killer’s-handwriting. He handed it off to me in between classes – no cover, no words, just the songs. Three of which were Tribe songs: “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” “Can I Kick It?” and “Bonita Applebum.”
In 1990, I was 11 years old and had just moved to Yardley, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. The move not only relocated me from the home I had so far spent all of my life in but also separated me from my brother (reluctantly) and my mother (happily). My parents had been divorced since before I was in kindergarten and we had been living driving distance away, across the river in New Jersey, my brother and I splitting time with both parents. When my mom decided to move to Florida my brother went with her but I elected to move in with my Dad – just a bachelor and his pre-teen daughter kickin’ it in suburbia. This choice would inform so much of my future self.
About the same time I was navigating a new parent, a new home and neighborhood, a new school, A Tribe Called Quest dropped their groundbreaking album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Childhood friends and just a couple of teenagers from Queens, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaeed Muhammad and Jarobi, were about to embark on a musical journey that would define hip hop for generations to come. It would also help to define me.
“Back in the days when I was a teenager/Before I status and before I had a pager/you could find Alicia listening to hip hop/My pops used to say/it reminded him of be-bop.”
In the fall of 1991, I was in eighth grade just shy of my 13th birthday, on which I requested, and received, a pink casio boombox with a cassette and CD player and a copy of Low End Theory. Having spent the summer with Jason Ballek’s mixtape growing weary in our living room stereo, I could finally listen in the privacy of my own room with my own private thoughts and my own private feelings.
Q-Tip was my favorite. The one, although I didn’t really know it at the time, I wanted to date (read: fuck). I wanted to be enveloped in his smooth voice and the safety of his respectful flirtations. But, Phife. Phife Dawg. He was the fire. Assertive. Cocky. And hot on the mic. “Yo, microphone check one-two, what is this? The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business.”
I am not the first person to point out the profound effect of this “Yo.” This verse. THIS SONG. In Michael Rappaport’s 2012 documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Low End Theory is credited by many as the emergence of Phife Dawg. This is one of the reasons why it has always been my favorite Tribe album. This track in particular felt very personal, beginning with the “Yo,” a common phrase in my Philly influenced vocabulary. Phife Dawg was was my reflection of self – the five-foot Alicia. I felt powerful when I sang along with him. He got me. “You see my aura’s positive/I don’t promote no junk/and I’m far from a bully/and I ain’t a punk,” he rapped with a swagger and confidence I was desperate to emulate.
Low End Theory is also full of hits. Timeless tracks embedded with social consciousness, originality and the continued celebration of positive black community first introduced on People’s Travels. There was one song in particular that played an important role in my life at the time.
“The jazz, the what? The jazz can move that ass/Cause the Tribe originates that feeling’ of pizzazz/It’s the universal sound, best to brothers underground/In the one-six below, ya didn’t have to go”
Although I had now lived with my father for over a year, he remained a mystery to me. I knew he grew up in Manayunk, a now gentrified and trendy area in the heart of Philadelphia, and was loyal to his city. Row homes still dominate the cobblestone streets where he once lived and, if you’re visiting the city with him, he will show you where he played stick ball during the day and the window he snuck out of at night to play trumpet in clubs he wasn’t even old enough to get into. He met my mom in one of those clubs and amidst vibrant horns and funky bass lines, they fell in love. I am certain it was the passion for music and the energy vibrating from his heart when he played that my mom was drawn to. My dad loves music. Jazz, in particular. The moody musings of Miles Davis, the dance friendly swing of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, the party jams of Tower of Power and always, always the warmhearted songs of Louis Armstrong.
Without me even realizing I needed it, Tribe gave me a site for connecting with my dad. For bridging the gap between our generation but also for cracking open the silence that shrouded so much of our alone time. It’s not that we didn’t get along it’s just that he didn’t quite know what to do with a teenage girl just like I didn’t really know what to do with my single father, an anomaly in the nuclear family friendly neighborhood he had settled in once I decided to move in.
Inspired by my newly developed fandom and empowered by a boombox and cassette tape, I did what most hip hop heads did to connect with someone – I made him a mixtape. A personal collection of introductions to what had quickly become my favorite genre, recorded from the Q-102 nightly countdown by hitting pause at the commercial, trying to catch the beginning without catching the voice of the DJ and racing to go to the bathroom before the song ended. It was about half Tribe songs plus other members of Native Tongues – De La Soul, Leaders of the New School, Black Sheep. The only women to make an appearance were Queen Latifah and Monie Love on the joint track “Ladies First.”
It’s pure coincidence that I was coming of age during hip-hop’s Golden Era, that I happened to reside on the East Coast, just a train ride away from the New York boroughs where the majority of the movement was being born. At the same time, across the country, the Riot Grrrl movement was created by young women responding to sexual assault and reproductive freedom violations. And while those are the exact issues that would one day bring me to my feminism, they were not yet my battles. At 11, 12, 13 years old I hadn’t yet felt the lived experiences of systemic sexism or racism or the multitudes of ways our country oppresses the “other,” myself included. I hadn’t yet learned how to see gender as an essential part of my identity.
“Used to love ’em, leave ’em, skeeze ’em, tease ’em/Find ’em, lose ’em, also abuse ’em/My whole attitude was new day, next hon/And believe it or not, they all got done”
Tribe was not immune to the sexism embedded in hip hop culture, as reflected in a sampling of their lyrics, but, unlike most major label produced hip hop, sexism and vulgarity didn’t dominate their message. While the adult, feminist version of myself is much more in tune to lyrics like “Where the hell can Nikki be/I’m gonna smack her up” the teenage Alicia was much more receptive to “Honey check it out/you got me mesmerized/wit your black hair/and your phat ass thighs.” It was in the celebration of a different aesthetic that I began to see myself.
Prior to becoming a Tribe fan, I was immersed in two highly feminized hobbies: ballet and gymnastics. Oh, and I wanted to be an actress. Of course I did. What other options do we present to young women? I wasn’t disciplined enough for ballet – or acting – and I wasn’t strong enough, physically or emotionally, for gymnastics. My boobs were too big for both (even at 12). This was before hip hop dance was being offered in suburban dance studios, before I was old enough to go to clubs; MTV was barely 10 years old and still dominated by rock and pop. In 2016 you can finally see the influence of hip-hop in both gymnastics and ballet but in the early 90’s the iconology was still all Nadia and Pavlova. Anglo-European bodies that moved with strict delicacy and performed the technique as directed. Exactly like the bodies in my gym and dance studio. Except for my body. I was fleshy and full where the other girls were lean and taut. One day, a girl in my dance class asked why I was wearing two leotards. I was mortified. “It’s a sports bra” I whispered. I didn’t cry. I didn’t tell anyone it hurt. Dancing without a sports bra was not an option. So, I just swallowed the shame.
“In all the years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve yet to meet one girl who likes her body,” says Mary Pipher, PhD in Reviving Ophelia, her groundbreaking research on the selves of adolescent girls. Pipher found the most insidious factor inhibiting the development of happy healthy young women was the loss of their “true selves.” In an attempt to assimilate to the peer group – to belong – girls either sacrifice or never even identify the unique qualities and personality traits that make up their truest self. Instead they create a false version that satisfies the standards of the status quo. For girls, this is most frequently accomplished via physical appearance that reflects culturally approved attractiveness. Attractiveness determined by the white, male gaze. Hip hop, while still problematic, offers a different definition of attractive.
Through hip hop music and Tribe’s prolific rhymes that reflected respect and reverence for women, I begin to access a freedom I didn’t even know I was missing. Their words made me think and their voices made me feel. They were simultaneously smart, angry, sexy, proud, confident and unapologetic. Listening to this music gave me permission to be all those things. I was just on the cusp of who I would become and A Tribe Called Quest helped me figure it out. They taught me I was allowed to have a voice – that I could say NO to the world desires and YES to my own. Every other space I inhabited was governed by rules: School, dance class, gymnastics, my father’s house, the whole damned world. Telling me who I could and couldn’t be. In the community that Tribe created, I could just be myself. And, I was beginning to know who that person was.
It would be two more years before Tribe released a follow up to Low End Theory and I was again the new girl at school. My dad’s relocation to North Carolina for “work” also included a new relationship that had very little space for me so I reunited with my mother and brother in South Florida. Swimming in a sea of tanned female bodies, all with legs and arms exposed, I felt more foreign than I ever had. Shorts? At school? Just when I thought I had some discovery of self, I was again lost in a overwhelming desire to belong. I didn’t know how to dress for the weather or the “culture,” my brother was too young to be a friend and my relationship with my mother was as uncomfortable as ever. Even the radio was unfamiliar. 90’s grunge continued to dominate the mainstream airwaves and hip hop was still reserved to specialty stations, though South Florida/Miami, had it’s own version. It involved a lot more bass, a lot more booty and a lot less consciousness.
Once again, Tribe was my salvation. The first time I heard Midnight Marauders, I was packed six people deep in the back seat of a Suzuki Sidekick. It was my sophomore year in High School, and everyone in the car was a stranger except for Jackie, who was also new and from New York. We became fast friends and in the back seat of this wannabe Jeep, with the warmth of the sun on my face, I heard “Award Tour” for the first time and I was home again. This is what Tribe’s music has always represented to me – a familiar place inside myself. A place that was always accessible through their music and their legacy.
In 1998, after releasing two more less than stellar albums, A Tribe Called Quest broke-up. I was 19 and living in New York City when I heard the news. It was the cover story on The Source magazine that lined the newsstands. I still have the original copy. Some fans were confused. Some were angry. We were all disappointed. It was the end of an era. A golden era. Hip-hop now permeated the airwaves and thanks to Tribe’s guidance we had The Roots, Mos Def, Common, and so many more who built off that legacy, including this girl. This girl who became more than a fan. She became a feminist, a professor, a performer, a writer, and a self-determined, independent woman. A large part in thanks to a couple of fellas who wondered if “So far, I hope you like rap songs.”
And, I do. I love them.
Alicia Swiz is a professor, performer and professional feminist. A Jersey girl in Chicago by way of North Carolina, Alicia holds an MA in Women’s & Gender Studies and a BA in Sociology. She is committed to raising awareness of feminism and women’s issues through humor, candid observation and being really smart.