Hanif Abdurraqib’s relationship with A Tribe Called Quest is one that avid music fans will recognize in an instant. Apart from his credentials as a bona fide Tribe fan, Abdurraqib is an accomplished author, poet and music critic. His criticism has been published by the New York Times, MTV News and other outlets, and his recent long-form published works include a poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, and an essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (which made Paste’s list of 20 Best Nonfiction Books of 2017).
Instead of writing a traditional music biography or memoir, the Columbus, Ohio native decided to take readers through a unique journey that blurs the line between fandom and criticism. Abdurraqib loves A Tribe Called Quest in such a holistic and whole-hearted manner—he grew up with Tribe and associates important moments of his life with the legendary group’s music. His new book and New York Times best-seller, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, is a poetic salute to what Abdurraqib considers to be the greatest rap group of all-time.
His ruminative approach to writing is inspiring, and he weaves narratives together like a master artisan. From the American slave codes and Leonard Cohen to the New York Knicks and the Grammys’ relationship to hip-hop, Abdurraqib not only lays a foundation for how A Tribe Called Quest came to be—he also emphasizes a world where nothing is ever in a vacuum.
“A lot of my interest and curiosity are overlapping or adjacent,” explains Abdurraqib in a phone interview. “I have to write with the trust that the people reading will follow me.”
Abdurraqib grew up in a family that loved music. His parents loved jazz music and he even tried his hand at trumpet, before realizing it wasn’t for him and having to reluctantly inform his father. But he found a connection with his parents in Tribe. “This was the jazz I had been looking for,” writes Abdurraqib, “When I put my trumpet into its case for the last time and tucked it into a closet somewhere, I played The Low End Theory for months on end, wondering if I’d ever stop.”
Abdurraqib talks about the need for a crew and the way Tribe had become another necessary crew he joined at a formative time in his life. He writes of the connective tissue between his own circle of friends and Tribe, “Like Phife Dawg, we were small and of dark skin, and we knew that our wit could be weaponized in tense moments.”
While it’s now considered very on trend for rap and hip-hop artists to position themselves as members of an alternative crowd of misfits, Tribe were one of the first groups to occupy that space. “Tribe was able to create a wide enough lane for outsiders in rap music to follow and now there are enough outsiders or ‘weird’ rappers who are actually very popular,” says Abdurraqib. “In that way, I don’t know if the aesthetics of being an outsider can be commodified, but if they can, that’s kind of happened. Now even the people who imagine themselves as outsiders are very much on the inside.”
One of Tribe’s first music videos, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” sees the group pile in a blue Cadillac for a ride through the desert before they stop at a gas station for a bite to eat. Q-Tip gets distracted by an attractive server at the diner, causing him to lose his wallet. Abdurraqib has an eerily similar story. He left his wallet at a gas station while driving through a Texas desert and after retrieving it, he gunned it out of there before anyone from that small conservative town became too suspicious of a guy who looked different from the typical townsfolk. After flooring it out of the gas station, Abdurraqib chuckled, realizing there was a Tribe song for this. But Abdurraqib has connections with Tribe that run even deeper.
Abdurraqib’s unique approach to eulogizing adds another personal and poetic layer to his writing. In several sections of the book, he addresses letters to Q-Tip and Phife Dawg directly, and one is even addressed to Phife Dawg’s mother Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. When Phife died, Abdurraqib immediately thought of Boyce-Taylor (an accomplished poet in her own right), who like Abdurraqib’s mother, was also a writer. Abdurraquib writes in his letter to Boyce-Taylor, “I was raised by a woman who wrote, and I don’t know if that means anything other than the fact that I saw language as a way to get free at an early age…I am saying that I love words, and I have long appreciated what you do with them. And all of this time I was listening to [Phife] rap, I was hearing your fingerprints.”
Abdurraqib’s writing is so generously thoughtful—he threads the needle with just as much care as his mother put into his cherished, sole pair of hand-me-down dress pants that he would eventually wear to her funeral.
With Go Ahead in the Rain, Abdurraqib doesn’t need critical distance. He makes everything feel relevant, and he doesn’t swerve into the more self-congratulatory music writing that dives so far into the weeds without reserving room for the joy and heartache that springs from the music.
“When the entry points are as personal as the entry points in this book were, it is unfair for a writer to classify themselves as an expert,” says Abdurraqib, “and so a lot of my work wasn’t to be the voice on A Tribe Called Quest, but it was to be the voice of a fan experience and what it is to deeply love a group of people who you’ll never actually know.”
While he goes back and forth between Midnight Marauders and The Low End Theory when asked about his favorite Tribe album, Abdurraqib had quite a transformative experience with the group’s final album, 2016’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.
“In revisiting it through the writing of this book, I realized that I had consumed the album in such a moment. It was the week of the election and the week of Leonard Cohen’s death, and the way that album came out in that moment and carried through to the inauguration, up until the Grammys, that was such a real moment for a lot of Americans, myself included, trying to unspool all of the emotions at once. I think that album was a huge lighthouse for me because there was so much anger on it and it was a permission slip, in some ways, for me to feel a type of unbridled anger and understand that anger does not need to be separate from also feeling grief,” says Abdurraqib.
“It was a closure to a narrative arc that matched my lived life as a rap fan. It gave me the chance to say, I grew up my whole life with A Tribe Called Quest. I lived my whole life being soundtracked by this group that I love a lot. They offered one final thing for me to lay that to rest. I think that, if anything, my love for them grew because the closure was more defined.”
Abdurraqib brings this kind of contextual appreciation to his own music criticism. “The role of the critic for me isn’t to define the tastes of others. The role is perhaps to seek from listening, a meaning that might draw people closer to it. Or to seek something underneath the music that makes the music more interesting or more appealing or more approachable. The role of the critic is not just to address new music, but to also approach the music with a type of reverence to understand how the past feeds into the present.”
From the baggy-clothed young kid who shied away from eye contact and listened to Tribe obsessively on his Walkman to the now established poet and music critic who writes with just as much meticulousness and stimulating wordplay as Q-Tip himself, Abdurraqib’s curiosity and appreciation for music that matters still burns brightly.
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest is available now via University of Texas Press. Purchase the book here.