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Hip hop music is formulaic. Grab yourself a tasty two or four bars from some dusty old record that has been largely forgotten about, loop it up, add a hefty dose of kicks and snares and you got yourself a platform to wax lyrical about why you’re better than anybody else. Easy. Of course, this perceived simplicity is a fallacy which masks the mastery involved in the production of a truly great jam, and perhaps no group have embodied this as successfully as the mighty A Tribe Called Quest, arguably the greatest crew in the history of the genre. Pinning down exactly what it is that separated Tribe from the competition reaches right into the heart of any argument that attempts to define the nature of quality music in more general terms, a somewhat indulgent and entirely subjective activity that I’ll spare you from in this instance (as if you haven’t heard it all before already). Rather, I wanted this post to focus on two of Tribe’s greatest moments from Midnight Marauders, namely ‘Electric Relaxation’ and ‘Lyrics To Go’, and analyse a feature of these works that tangibly attests the crew’s genius and originality: the three bar loop.
To those of you not as geekily obsessed with production techniques as I am then this concept may seem like no big deal, but it really is something relatively extraordinary and creatively unique amongst hip hop of the period. It is also important to note that it is not this feature itself that provides the jams in question with their classic status. Quite the contrary in fact: it is an innovation that slips into these compositions with such subtlety that you’d be forgiven for having never noticed it before. To the layman (and I don’t mean this to sound derogatory) they are simply some of the dopest slabs of hip hop music ever created, and they deserve to be viewed as such on their own merits. This over-analysis is not intended to detract from this fact, but is instead meant to celebrate the ingenuity and inherent beauty of the music of one of hip hop’s most highly revered collectives. Bottom line? Any excuse to discuss Tribe is a valid one in my book.
In the case of ‘Lyrics To Go’, Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad turn to Minnie Riperton’s classic ‘Inside My Love’ taken from her Adventures In Paradise LP (Epic, 1975). The three bars to note come from the stripped down section beginning at the 3.04 mark, a soothing dose of electric piano accompanied by Minnie’s soaring bird-like voice which act as a lulling contrast to the sweeping strings and drama of the preceding chorus. It’s one of those sections of music that seems to cry out for the sample treatment, hence its inclusion in numerous cuts over the years (most notably for me on the K-Def produced remix of ‘Return Of The Life’ from Tragedy Khadafi’s slammin’ sophomore outing on wax). It’s the perfect match for the trash talking braggin’ verses of Tip and Phife, and it gives their justified assertions of greatness a pleasingly reflective quality.
‘Electric Relaxation’ uses the same three bar concept to an even greater effect: it’s undoubtedly one of Tribe’s finest ever moments. Inspiration here comes from Ronnie Foster’s song ‘Mystic Brew’ which can be found on Two Headed Freap (Blue Note, 1972), an album centred around Foster’s deft displays of musical genius on the keys. It’s double the fun in this case, with both the first three bars and the trio that follow used at various points in Tribe’s beautifully textured composition. As in ‘Lyrics To Go’ the samples are simply left to their own devices here, with no chops or substantial changes in EQ levels in sight: the charm of the original compositions is maintained even though they now find themselves nestled into distinctly different sonic dwellings.
So there you have it: the story of Tribe and the three bar loop. Sounds like a fairytale doesn’t it?