The Quest is on…

One of the strangest ironies for me as a Teacher of English is my perennial inability to actually finish a book more than about three to four times in a calendar year. Most of my days and evenings are consumed with school-related stuff and I don’t give over enough time to engage in ‘reading for pleasure’. Although, in the current climate of self-isolation, I have managed to start realigning my priorities and I am reading more, as well as often. This, in itself, is liberating and inspiring.

And thus, it happened, this morning. I finished off a volume started in the depths of a not so freezing winter and I wanted to briefly share my thoughts on ‘Go Ahead In the Rain – notes to A Tribe Called Quest’ by Hanif Addurraqib. Divided neatly into twelve chapters, Hanif sets out an enduring tale of love for his favourite hip hop group. Published in 2019, this volume is composed of part biographical detail set against personal and often soulful reflections upon his lifetime affection for a quartet that heavily influenced his musical listening over three decades.

Including open letters penned for individual members, the format is disarmingly honest and emotive without ever becoming hagiographic in approach. Most of all, however, Hanif dwells on the magic of the music that often became obscured by the rifts and divisions between the two frontmen, Phife Dawg and Q Tip. This is music created by brilliant minds, using samples from five different tracks to compose a single drum track, forming architecture ‘based on extending the sounds laid by other hands‘.

Hanif proclaims the history of hip hop on the East Coast of America, through a travelogue incorporating the sounds and voices of different influencers within the burgeoning Native Tongues movement: Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep and De La Soul to name but four. Hanif describes the mindset in this way : ‘To be aware that your presence in a space is political is to sometimes assume and take on the responsibilities that come with that presence, whether or not you feel as though you should have to.‘ This generates a sense of responsibility, a feeling of community, a desire for change through clear expression of thoughts and ideas, seeking a way forward, a way to progress. I remember those times myself when I was falling deeply in love with the myriad levels of connection that rap and hip hop were throwing into my headspace. All I heard was a celebration of possibilities.

I wasn’t aware of the developing tensions between Tip and Phife, which Hanif details with enormous sensitivity and a growing sense of dread. He does this with skill and aplomb, charting the meteoric rise and fall of the Tribe over seven short years, from being feted and producing some of the most influential albums of the mid 1990s to disappearing into relative obscurity before rising from the still glowing ashes with a fist pump of a swan song, released just as Trump took malicious hold of the Presidency.

Sadly, those tensions altered the rhythm, put the skids on that meteoric rise, projected an ending before it was warranted. Adopting a fan’s persona allows Hanif to display honest, naked emotion and palpable regret, not only at the group splitting due to creative differences between Phife and Tip but at the subsequent, all too early demise of Phife himself due to complications with diabetes. Yet the tone is eternally hopeful, never self-pitying ; in fact, it remains celebratory and defiant till the bittersweet end.

Hanif is a fan, a true fan and this shines through, golden and undaunted through every sentence, a perfect homage to an almost perfect hip hop group who could not quite make it all the way but deserved to. Whether or not you are a fan of the music itself, this tale, true indeed, leaves the reader feeling inspired and energised, eager to explore new avenues of sounds, just like the Tribe did and still do.

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