Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
Released in the spring of 1990, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm has admittedly gained more respect as time has passed. But it still resides in the shadows of its two immediate successors (1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders), relegated to a role akin to the forgotten first child within the broader context of A Tribe Called Quest’s recorded output. Which is perplexing, at least to my ears. For while the album may be understated relative to its more universally lauded counterparts, it is exceptional in its own right, and one of the most imaginative debut albums ever recorded, hip-hop or otherwise.
Harboring neither grand schemes nor lofty delusions of crossover pop grandeur, Tribe’s debut didn’t purport to be anything other than what it is: a cleverly unorthodox and sonically inventive celebration of life, love, and music. Following in the creative footsteps of Jungle Brothers’ Straight Out the Jungle (1988) and Done by the Forces of Nature (1989), as well as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), People’s Instinctive Travels embodied and expanded upon the Native Tongues collective’s trademark virtues of playfulness, positivity, and pride. Equal measures whimsy and wit, the album exudes an unparalleled bohemian cool, Afrocentric sophistication, and admirable humility, all of which combine for an irresistibly vibrant and soul-affirming listening experience.
Sonically, the album is an intoxicating mélange of melodic sounds and expertly incorporated samples, primarily culled from 1970s jazz, soul and funk records, which together provide the perfect canvas for Q-Tip and the late great Phife Dawg to flex their skills. Clocking in just shy of eight minutes and riding along a sweet Grover Washington, Jr. sample (“Loran’s Dance”), the album’s first track “Push It Along” is an epic way for Tribe to introduce themselves. I’ve always loved Q-Tip’s opening verse, which formally announces Tribe’s noble musical vision and humble disposition: “Q-Tip is my title, I don’t think that it’s vital / For me to be your idol, but dig this recital / If you can’t envision a brother who ain’t dissing / Slinging this and that, cause this and that was missing / Instead, it’s been injected, the Tribe has been perfected / Oh yes, it’s been selected, the art makes it protected / Afrocentric living, Africans be givin’ / A lot to the cause ’cause the cause has been risen.”
Other highlights abound. A document of an impromptu road trip gone awry, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo was Tribe’s first-ever single and video that cemented their unconventional approach to songcraft and penchant for compelling storytelling. “Bonita Applebum,” the album’s second and arguably most recognizable single, is Q-Tip’s endearing plea to the object of his infatuation, articulated over a fantastic sample of RAMP‘s “Daylight.” The combination of Q-Tip & Phife’s inspired rhymes, the playful call-and-response chorus, and ingenious lifting of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Dr. Lonnie Smith‘s “Spinning Wheel” on “Can I Kick It?” coalesce for one unforgettable track.
A wonderful ode to an idyllic day spent in the comfort of close friends, it’s damn near impossible to resist bopping your head and tapping your feet to “After Hours,” a feel-good anthem that samples Sly & The Family Stone and Richard Pryor. A tough call, but my personal favorite happens to be “Footprints,” an addictive groove with Q-Tip’s fervent rhymes gliding across a harmonious mix of samples courtesy of Donald Byrd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Stevie Wonder, and Public Enemy.
Pound for pound and song for song, Tribe’s debut is a timeless classic, and one of the most consistently and comprehensively enjoyable albums I’ve ever had the luxury of hearing. The album is a filler-free zone, with no throwaways or fluff to be heard anywhere. Each of the fourteen tracks possesses its own unique sticking power, whether it induces your head to nod, your brain to quake, or your butt to shake.