A Tribe Called Quest's 20 Best Songs Ranked

As 'Midnight Marauders' turns 30, we're counting down the influential group's top tracks

BY Riley WallacePublished Nov 9, 2023

For a wide spectrum of musical movements that fall within the lanes of jazz-infused hip-hop, Afrobeats, and, really, anything you cut from the neo-soul cloth, the origin can be traced back to a singular source: A Tribe Called Quest. The sometimes-foursome consisted of prolific producer and MC Q-Tip, the late Phife Dawg, DJ (and co-producer) Ali Shaheed, and — on occasion — Jarobi. For those who get the reference, A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y.

Their catalogue contains at least two albums that many regard as the most critical in hip-hop history, inspiring some of the greatest artists of our time: Kanye West, Pharrell, Scarface, Erykah Badu, Common and Jill Scott, to name a few. Their sophomore LP, The Low End Theory, directly inspired Dr. Dre to craft his 1992 classic The Chronic. Elton John once hailed them as "the seminal hip-hop band of all-time" — a testament to the power of their music.

The group released five albums before disbanding in 1998 after releasing The Love Movement. Though disheartening, it wasn't entirely unexpected; by the time their fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life, came out, there had been rumblings of discontent.
On-and-off reunions took place over the years, with all the group's members pursuing solo endeavours in between. They eventually reconnected for real (A-E-I-O-U and Y) to create what would be their final album, 2016's We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, 18 years after disbanding.

Sadly, it was a bittersweet reunion, as Phife Dawg passed away in his home on March 22, 2016, due to complications from diabetes — a condition the self-proclaimed "funky diabetic" had been battling for much of his career.

Few groups can boast a musical legacy as timeless as Tribe's, or a family tree as revered. They're credited with launching the careers of hip-hop royalty such as Busta Rhymes and the late, legendary producer J Dilla. Ultimately, for those who witnessed their prime, Tribe redefined the potential of the genre; they were a turning point.

As we reach the 30th anniversary of what's arguably the group's greatest album, Midnight Marauders (which came out on November 9, 1993), we're counting down the top 20 songs from their discography.

Long live Phife.

20. "Can I Kick It?"
People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

While it's not the group's best song, it's their staple; most notably, it is the first ATCQ single to feature Phife, as the first two from their debut album — as well as the non-album single "Description of a Fool" — were essentially Tip solo cuts. Aside from Phife making a Simpsons-esque prediction of former New York City mayor David Dinkins's election into office, the song also remains a harsh lesson in the business of sampling. Prominently borrowing from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side'' for the call-and-response classic, Tribe unfortunately neglected to properly clear the sample. Subsequently, they were forced to give the late singer all the profits earned from the track.

19. "Stressed Out" feat. Faith Evans
Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)

The group's fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life, was met with mixed reviews (largely due to the brilliance of the albums that preceded it). "Stressed Out," though, was a clear high note of the project, with a Bad Boy Entertainment-era Faith Evans helping the crew to strike a street-centric note that cautioned about letting your emotions jam you up in the video game of life. Notably, it's the sole official single that featured Consequence (who had a lot of mic time on the LP).

18. "1nce Again" ft. Tammy Lucas
Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)

The Gary Burton-sampling "1nce Again," featuring a smooth chorus by singer Tammy Lucas — daughter of iconic drummer Ray Lucas — was the beginning of a new era for Tribe, defined by the new edge and darker sound of the Ummah (a production group that Tip and Sha built around legendary producer J Dilla). Though the single still holds up, the album was the first time fans could hear the strain in the group, garnering mixed reviews.

17. "The Space Program"
We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)

Every die-hard Tribe fan remembers where they were at midnight on November 11, 2016, when they, semi-wearily, opened Spotify to find the final Tribe Called Quest LP, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, available for streaming — 18 years removed from "The Love Movement." The first song on the LP, "The Space Program" — a self-described "treatise on Black unity" and brilliant commentary on the policies around living space and the dark side of gentrification — feels undeniably like classic Tribe. Released posthumously following Phife's passing, when the five-foot assassin's verse finally comes in, it's hard not to be overwhelmed with emotion.

16. "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo"
People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

To truly grasp the brilliance of "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," one must understand the hip-hop climate at the time of its release as the first official single off of their debut. In a year that witnessed Ice Cube releasing his solo debut, new jack domination and MC Hammer redefining the genre's commercial landscape, Tribe came from left field. Sampling the Chambers Brothers, the song follows Tip and his crew as they cruise a bit too far from Brooklyn, leading the rapper to inadvertently leave his wallet in a Mexican cantina. This track is a playful nod to the classic TV show Sanford and Son, where comedian Red Foxx would often reference El Segundo as a stand-in for any distant place. While it might not be a universal favourite, it's undeniably a critical classic.

15. "Dis Generation" feat. Busta Rhymes
We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)

There's something both profoundly beautiful and heart-wrenching about "Dis Generation," which stands as the final single the group released. Fittingly, the song features the original lineup, including Jarobi as well as Busta Rhymes, the latter of whom was a consistent presence throughout the group's catalogue. Serving as a heartfelt ode to the new generation of artists who can rightfully consider themselves akin to ATCQ, the song definitively proves that, even 18 years later and through all the ups and downs, the group's chemistry and youthful zest on the mic remain undiminished; it sounds like pure adulterated love for the art of it all. It doesn't get more hip-hop than that.

14. "Excursions"
The Low End Theory (1991)

Over a plucky bassline borrowed from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Tip goes solo, setting the tone not only for the group's sophomore effort but also for the iteration of ATCQ that would come to define the remainder of their run. From alluding to his Islamic faith ("Stick out the left, then I'll ask for the other hand") to subtly warning about the dangers of studio posturing ("Don't be phoney and expect one not to flex"), the song stood the test of time as the group's unbroken mission statement: to make moves, never fake moves, or fall prey to a hip-hop crime.

13: "If The Papes Come" feat. Baby Bam
"Can I Kick It?" (1990)

Featuring Jungle Brother member Baby Bam, this moody, jazz-tinged, Lou Donaldson-sampling gem didn't make the cut on the group's debut album, though it was included as the B-Side of "Can I Kick It?" What makes it so great is how well it bridges the first and second albums, foreshadowing the darker jazzy vibes to come. It remained a bit of an IYKYK gem until getting a later shine on Tribe comps, notably the must-own The Anthology — albeit without Bam's verse. In hindsight, a Phife verse would have been incredible.

12. "Scenario" feat. Leaders of the New School
The Low End Theory (1991)

The original and its remix are a clear tie. Few songs in hip-hop history have catapulted a career as effectively as "Scenario" did. While the track marked a significant moment for Leaders of the New School, it was even more notable as the catalyst for Busta Rhymes' emergence as a breakout star. Although Leaders of the New School released two albums, Busta's undeniable charisma eventually led to tensions within the group. He continued to collaborate closely with Tribe, even making an appearance on Midnight Marauders before embarking on a successful solo career in 1996. The song's remix, equally as amazing, was also set to be a significant moment for rapper Kid Hood. Tragically, he was killed just three days after recording his verse.

11. "Jazz (We've Got)"
The Low End Theory (1991)

Aside from serving as an easy entry point into the group's mastery of jazz-infused hip-hop, "Jazz (We've Got)" was also what started a short-lived beef between the group and the Teddy Riley-produced outfit Wreckx-n-Effect. In particular, the group took offence to the bar "Me sweat another? I do my own thing / Strictly hardcore tracks, not a new jack swing." While Phife was referencing the genre generally, the group thought he was pointing to their song of the same name. Notably, the song was also originally produced by Pete Rock before being reinterpreted by Q-Tip. Tip directly acknowledged this in the outro, exclaiming, "Pete Rock for the beat ya don't stop."

10. "Hot Sex"
Boomerang: Original Soundtrack Album (1992)

A playful spin on a Lou Donaldson riff — the same riff used four years earlier by Marley Marl for Craig G's seminal classic "Droppin' Science" — "Hot Sex" was a significant moment for the group, appearing on the soundtrack for Eddie Murphy's box office hit Boomerang. It remains one of the higher-energy songs in their discography; not quite as rambunctious as "Scenario," it's a tonal shift from the laid-back, jazzy funk of the second golden era that Midnight Marauders ushered in the following year. Interestingly, Tip wore a peculiar mask in the video to hide facial injuries he sustained from a scuffle with the new jack swing group Wreckx-n-Effect.

9. "Buggin' Out"
The Low End Theory (1991)

A flip of a deliciously obscure Jack DeJohnette sample, "Buggin' Out" served as the B-side to The Low End Theory's second single, "Jazz (We've Got)." It's clear that both Tip and Phife had a chip on their shoulder about the new jack swing R&B that was running the landscape of the day. Notably, he spits, "Smokin' R&B cause they try to do me / Or the best of the pack but they can't do rap," before fantasizing about pulling the plug on the genre on a whole.

8. "Lyrics to Go"
Midnight Marauders (1993)

This lyrical standout from Midnight Marauders is made even more spectacular by its mind-melting instrumental. Q-Tip was renowned for experimenting with his production techniques. On "Lyrics to Go," the abstract one harnesses a very specific portion of Minnie Riperton's signature whistle register from "Inside My Love," weaving the note throughout the track.

7. "Sucka Nigga"
Midnight Marauders (1993)

A flip of Jack Wilkins' "Red Clay," Tip went solo for "Sucka Nigga," which features one of the deepest, most blissful basslines on Midnight Marauders. His penmanship is exquisite as he delves into the use of the N-word, from its origins in the Deep South to its eventual embedding in the vernacular of everyday Black men. The term has transitioned from a term of endearment to a staple in hip-hop lyrics. The verse is "so phat, it's reminiscent of a whale" — so captivating, in fact, that you hardly notice he delivers it twice in a row.

6. "Find a Way"
The Love Movement (1998)

"Find a Way" serves as the centrepiece of The Love Movement, which was the last album the group released before an 18-year hiatus. While the album's production was handled by the Ummah, "Find a Way" has the distinction of being the final A Tribe Called Quest single to feature production from the late J Dilla. Playfully drawing from Towa Tei's "Technova (Folknova)," Tip and Phife lyrically explore the complexities of a romantic relationship, questioning if escalating the situation is truly worthwhile. While the acclaim of earlier albums may have skewed the reception of The Love Movement, this song remains an undeniable bop, and one hell of a beat by Dilla.

5. "Oh My God" feat. Busta Rhymes
Midnight Marauders (1993)

"Oh My God" stands as one of the hardest-hitting tracks on Midnight Marauders. While it seamlessly integrates with the rest of the album, its Lee Morgan-sampled bassline, horns sourced from Kool & the Gang, and neck-snapping drums — courtesy of the Whatnauts' "Why Can't People Be Colors Too?" — make it especially distinctive. It's a quintessential representation of prime ATCQ and resides among the best of East Coast golden-era hip-hop. Elevated by an energetic chorus repetition from Busta Rhymes, both Tip and Phife are on point, with Phife in particular delivering the line, "When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic?" It's haunting in hindsight. This track was featured in the controversial cult classic film Kids, during the Washington Park sequence.

4. "Check the Rhime"
The Low End Theory (1991)

This single was a coming-out party for Phife, setting the stage for how he came to be revered for the rest of his career. Coming out of the gate, ATCQ were highly acclaimed as a breath of fresh air, though the group's pen work wasn't always balanced. "Check the Rhime" was a shift: while the debut album worked overtime proving Tip's lyrical prowess, their sophomore saw his partner steal the show. As the first single from The Low End Theory, "Check the Rhime" firmly established the duo's god-tier chemistry, with Phife in particular packing in all his naysayers with a "funky introduction of how nice" he truly was on the mic.

3. "Award Tour" feat. Trugoy the Dove
Midnight Marauders (1993)

Forever the hip-hop scientist, Tip long studied how sound can affect crowds. As he tells it, upon seeing a club crowd react to the bassline of Jade's hit single "Don't Walk Away," he knew he needed to sample it. Mixed in a metaphorical cauldron with Weldon Irvine's "We Gettin' Down," among other things, the resulting single was "Award Tour," featuring the late Trugoy the Dove on the chorus. The first single from Midnight Marauders, dropping a few weeks ahead of the LP, the song was the group's highest-charting moment on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 47. It remains a high point.

2. "Bonita Applebum"
People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

Flipping the Roy Ayers-produced "Daylight" — a chef's kiss-worthy groove that appeared on RAMP's only group project — Tip went solo for this enduring slice of bliss. One of his earliest songs, it was first demoed in 1985, when he was just 15 years old. After reading a Miles Davis interview, Tip learned to play with "space" and re-recorded the song for the group's debut album. In its final form, the timeless track plays out as a playful one-sided conversation between Tip and a female love interest.

1. "Electric Relaxation"
Midnight Marauders (1993)

"Electric Relaxation" is as close as the group got to creating a perfect song — a song that, 30 years later, continues to sound better with every listen. A clever flip of Ronnie Foster's "Mystic Brew," the track not only served as the theme song for the first two seasons of the WB hit sitcom The Wayans Bros., but it also contained possibly the most cleverly hyper-local reference ever, with Phife giving a playfully lewd nod to Long-Island chain Seaman's Furniture.

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