When A Tribe Called Quest took the stage at the Roxy Theatre last Saturday, it signaled the welcome return to Atlanta by one of hip-hop's most acclaimed groups. Reunited for a short club tour sponsored by Salem cigarettes, Tribe is rumored to be working on its first album since breaking up after 1998's The Love Movement.
Saturday night's concert, which began just after 11, was a one-hour-and-10-minute greatest hits show, starting with "Buggin' Out" from 1991's The Low End Theory. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad manned his turntables (and a CD player) from a high platform at the rear of the stage while Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Tribe part-timer Jarobi roamed the stage with microphones in hand. They didn't play any new material, nor utter a peep about a new album. But it hardly mattered to the crowd, most of whom looked like they were college-aged during the group's early '90s heyday. They were there to hear old favorites, and the show was a nostalgia-fest, plain and simple.
Nostalgia's not such a bad thing, though, when your first three albums -- 1990's Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, and 1993's Midnight Marauders -- regularly end up on critics' shortlists as some of the best and most innovative hip-hop ever made. No strangers to innovative hip-hop themselves, both members of OutKast recently referred to Midnight Marauders as the last hip-hop album that was great from beginning to end.
From the beginning, the group's uncanny knack for using wildy eclectic samples was fully formed. "Can I Kick It?" derives its instantly recognizable bass hook from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," and the absurdist road story "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" marries a square, hip-hop beat to flamenco guitars.
Lyrically, what set Tribe apart from their rap contemporaries was a playful, dry wit. They could be hilarious without being mean or drifting into Fresh Prince-like goofiness. You hear this on songs such as "Bonita Applebum," on which rapper Q-Tip issues a string of sometimes sweet, sometimes ridiculous come-ons such as, "I'd like to kiss you where some brothers won't."
On Saturday, the group seemed almost overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Songs were yelled instead of rapped, and even then it wasn't always easy to hear the vocalists over the chanting crowd. Though the group has reunited, at least for the tour, there still seemed to be some tension if you looked for it. Noticeably absent was any sort of banter or communication between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. While both of them whispered to and laughed with Muhammad and Jarobi, the two men hardly looked at one another. It was only during the extended and exhilarating a cappella ending of The Love Movement's "Find a Way" that the two even stood near each other for more than a second.
The show's low point came about halfway through when Muhammad and Phife Dawg each performed tracks from their solo albums. They fell flat. Phife Dawg's rhymes were received coolly, and Muhammad's rigid, almost pious raps just seemed out of place in an evening that was supposed to be celebratory. The guest appearance by Diamond D also failed to excite the crowd much.
Sensing the lull, Q-Tip told the audience that a Tribe show was something akin to a roller coaster. The solo tracks and guest appearances were part of the climb up the track. The rest of the show, he promised, would be the thrilling, downhill ride.
The threesome launched into 1993's energetic "Sucka Nigga," a sing-along that explores their mixed feelings about the n-word. The crowd, a black and white mix, began jumping, dancing and swinging their arms for the remainder of the show (taking notes became difficult because people all around kept bouncing into me).
The night's climax was a medley of two of Tribe's sexiest tracks, "Bonita Applebum" and "Electric Relaxation." Although people were singing along to every word at this point, the crowd got especially hyped for Phife Dawg's oft-quoted, equal opportunity "Electric Relaxation" line: "I like 'em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican and Haitian."
For an encore, Tribe offered the legendary posse cut "Scenario," the song that helped make Busta Rhymes a star. On this night, Jarobi performed Busta's cameo. The group finished up with the swirling "Award Tour," then invited everyone to the Mark for Phife's birthday after-party.
Overall, the show was satisfying because it was nice to hear so many classics again. The show offered zero evidence that the reunion will lead to any new material, however, let alone songs that approach the high standards set by the group's previous work. Fans will have to just cross their fingers and wait. In the meantime, a little nostalgia isn't such a bad thing.