1. A Tribe Called Quest f/ Leaders of the New School - “Scenario”
Face it, you know every word to this song and can recite it in a coma backwards. You’ve played it a million times in your lifetime. Whenever you purchase a new iPod, you make sure to sync at least one playlist that features it. You’ve debated with your friends over whether Phife, Dinco, or Busta had the best verse. When this song comes on at a bar or a house party you forget that you’re an adult and turn right back into an adolescent rap nerd. You have pretended at some point that you could die happily never hearing “Scenario” again, but here you are again, rapping along to it while you read this blurb. “Oblighetto” plus Jimi Hendrix drums equals win.
2. De La Soul f/ Queen Latifah, Monie Love, The Jungle Brothers, & A Tribe Called Quest - “Buddy (Native Tongues Decision)”
The album version of “Buddy” is a great song in and of itself, but the “Heartbeat”-sampling remix is the definitive Native Tongues posse cut. It’s a song that is essentially about chasing tail in nightclubs, but the real draw is to hear the entire Native Tongue crew rapping together and having the time of their lives.
3. Black Sheep - “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)”
"The Choice Is Yours" is Black Sheep’s "Me Myself and I." They will forever be known as the group that made the "this-or-that engine-engine-number-nine song." Fortunately, such pigeonholing comes with royalty checks for television advertisements and new opportunities to tour and release music. Plus the song is a classic banger, and thus can never really get played out, and that’s the main take-home message of the song anyhow. Play this and rap along enthusiastically.
4. A Tribe Called Quest - “Check the Rhime”
"Check the Rhime" converted all and any doubters who expected Tribe to fall off after their first album. Part back-and-forth rhyme cipher and part celebration of their lower-middle-class Queens roots, "Check the Rhime" boasts a great sample from Average White Band’s "Love Your Life" and one of Phife’s most inspired verses. Q-Tip’s verse is purposely understated but effective, and it contains a nice little jab at MC Hammer.
5. De La Soul - “Plug Tunin’ (12” Version)”
On first listen “Plug Tunin’” probably sounds muted, even placid, but in actuality it is a massive, genre-changing record. Pos and Dave debut their “Plug style of speak,” a form of rapping that sounds easygoing and almost talky, but is also filled with dense metaphors and odd word choices. As a song on a demo tape, “Plug Tunin’” caught the attention of DJ and fellow North Amityville, Long Island, resident Prince Paul, convincing him that De La Soul were not the average local rap crew. As a 12” single, it ushered in the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” and foretold the death of Kangol-and-Pumas superficial shout-rap.
6. A Tribe Called Quest - “Jazz (We’ve Got)”
It’s a shame that Tribe are pigeonholed as forerunners of “jazz rap,” because their influences and sample sources run the gamut of genres. However, it cannot be denied that they consciously cultivated the notion that their complex, melodic, bassy take on hip-hop was a direct descendant of jazz, broadly defined. Rumor has it that Pete Rock found the horn sample from Lucky Thompson’s “Green Dolphin Street” and Q-Tip ran with the idea. Whatever the case, this is a beautiful, somber song, the kind you cannot picture anyone else other than Q-Tip and Phife flowing over. Songs like this more or less relegated staccato rap to the “old school” and inspired a new generation of producers to sharpen their skills and think bigger.
7. Jungle Brothers f/ Q-Tip - “The Promo”
"The Promo" is as raw as it gets. Mike G, Baby Bam, and Q-Tip just keep rhyming as if in a lunchroom cipher, thoughts and words spilling out in all directions. There are probably hundreds of mid-’90s underground tracks that attempt to capture the mood of this record, but very few artists have the finesse to make something like this sound so appealing. The tangents are not overdone and the emphasis is on style, not on wowing everyone with Latinate vocabulary; Native Tongue made rhyme clinics feel less like indulgent jam sessions and more like block parties. "In Time" is an alternate version that appeared on a few Jungle Brothers B-sides; Q-Tip sounds more pensive as he discusses topics like religious faith and mankind’s fall from grace.
8. A Tribe Called Quest - “Bonita Applebum”
"Bonita Applebum" is one of Tribe’s most daring and recognizable songs. It is something of an oddity in that it is a song devoted primarily to the vulnerability and idealism that runs rampant in young love (or inspired lust, really), but the drums are some of the hardest ever recorded. Where nearly every other rapper before him might have attacked the track with a macho Big Daddy Kane style, Q-Tip speaks calmly and freely, sounding just awkward enough to project a tinge of adolescent insecurity, but just smooth enough to seal the deal.
9. De La Soul - “Breakadawn”
"Breakadawn" is one of De La Soul’s most beautiful, elaborate songs; one gets the feeling that they were listening to a lot of Pete Rock & CL Smooth while recording Buhloone Mind State. The pairing of the Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson samples is so classy and ingenious that it seems almost obvious from the perspective afforded by hindsight. After the group put their D.A.I.S.Y. image to rest with De La Soul Is Dead, nobody knew what to expect from their third album. When it hit the airwaves, it was clear that the trio was intent on developing their sound without conceding to any prevailing trends. “Breakadawn” was a gem amidst a sea of Onyx impersonators with shouted choruses and nondescript attempts at “grimy” rapping, and it remains a fan favorite to this very day. Pos and Dave ride the beat like consummate professionals with flows so good you won’t even notice that you barely have any idea what they’re talking about.
10. A Tribe Called Quest - “Electric Relation”
"Bonita Applebum" is Tribe’s classic romantic record; "Electric Relaxation" is a little nastier, but just classy enough to throw on a Valentine Day’s playlist. Ronnie Foster’s "Mystic Brew" gets transformed into the backdrop that inspires Phife to utter some of his most famous lines, including "I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, and Haitian" and the punny "Bust off on your couch now you got Seaman’s furniture." Q-Tip opts for the smooth and debonair role, forthright but respectful. This will be a fixture at "grown and sexy" parties for some time to come, but unlike most of the other selections, this one isn’t too slick or over the top.