N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest display the comparative method prominently through their multidimensional influences on one another, guiding their opposite coasts in development of the genre.
In the late 70s and early 80s, hip hop was focused on street aspects of graffiti and breakdance combined with the rising stardom of various DJs and emcees. Starting in the late 80s, however, hip hop split itself into two very different paths of genre development, characterized by the rap groups N.W.A on the West Coast and A Tribe Called Quest on the East Coast.
With the release of Straight Outta Compton in 1988, N.W.A launched the country into a ‘turf war’ concerning rap music, as the East Coast had never been exposed to these hip hop forces transforming to fit the mold of West Coast ideologies. The outcome was “gangsta rap,” a subgenre of hip hop focused on popular conceptions of ‘keeping it real’ through lyricism and image preservation, driven by a steady moral of staying loyal to the streets.
In contrast, the hip hop of the Bronx expanded throughout the East Coast with an Afrocentric ‘political didacticism’ that responded to the struggles of black communities with a call for “an intellectual program that would…recover and reclaim the lost ancient roots of African glory, and recenter African thought and experience in the production of knowledge and self” (Chang 264).
As the media played up the “Coast Wars” in hip hop, the black middle class was an important and conflicted audience for both subgenres; although they condemned the sexual and violent themes evident in gangsta rap, they also related to the rappers’ motivations of ‘getting paid’ for hard work. A question soon arose across the nation: who deserves to speak of black grievances — the working class or the successful intellects? A critical comparison of the overlapping work of N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest reveals the shortcomings of this intriguing question.
Take for instance the production employed in “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest and “Gangsta Gangsta” by N.W.A. Both songs employ live instrumentation, a trait uncommon in other rap works of the ‘Golden Era,’ yet both groups were commonly influenced by the methods of rap pioneers like The Sugarhill Gang and DJ Shadow. The hard-hitting drums are practically the same in both songs, and the deep bass line, while slightly warmer and more subdued in “Scenario,” is a prominent influence of West Coast production on the East Coast. “Gangsta Gangsta” sounds a crisper, more live treble than “Scenario,” but both songs are clearly derived from the early synth-based samples of 1980s hip hop DJs.
N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest display the comparative method prominently through their multidimensional influences on one another, guiding their opposite coasts in development of the genre. A Tribe Called Quest is typically viewed as more political through their Afrocentric symbolism pledging allegiance to the “young nation, groovy sensation” (“Scenario”) of Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation and the colors of African flags. However, N.W.A. is just as political in their clashing against American neoliberalism and the resulting inequalities further splitting black communities nationwide, rapping, “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality” (“Gangsta Gangsta”).
Beyond politics, the rap groups represent the neverending flow of hip hop’s motives and shared musical thoughts. In an interview with Stop the Breaks, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest recalled, “It was listening to N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton that inspired us to make The Low End Theory, and years later I spoke to Dr. Dre [of N.W.A.] and he told me that hearing The Low End Theory inspired him to make [his album] The Chronic. That’s what music does.”
A Tribe Called Quest. “Scenario.” The Low End Theory, Jive Records, 1991.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Print.
Nguyen, Hao. Stop The Breaks, Independent Music Grind, 2013, https://www.stopthebreaks.com/. Accessed 30 Oct. 2018.
N.W.A. “Gangsta Gangsta.” Straight Outta Compton, Ruthless Records, 1988.