The author of this review has created a Spotify playlist to accompany her words about Go Ahead In the Rain. You can listen here. Enjoy!
Go Ahead In the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest by poet, essayist, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib lives up to its title. It is indeed a love letter to a group, a sound, an era. I’m convinced that few people in the world can write about music with as much love and intimacy as Abdurraqib does. The manner in which Abdurraqib writes about A Tribe Called Quest’s 30-year career, from their first album to their very last music video is akin to devotion, elevating ATCQ to Godly status. Through his narration we inevitably see them as he does, “the greatest rap group of all time.” But to describe this book purely within the confines of musical criticism would be deceptive. Partly autobiographical, partly non-fiction, partly historical, this genre-bending book also moves beyond the confines of its subject. It is a book about America. It is a book about survival. It is a book that looks at all of the ways in which music interacts with the world.
The book begins before the birth of ATCQ. It begins with the sound of music, “lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning there was drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language dropped and a new one learned.” From the very first chapter, Abdurraqib does something he will do throughout the book—interweave ATCQ’s career with history and with personal experience. Abdurraqib does this seamlessly, and often reading this book is like reading a quilt or a puzzle with several individual, interconnected pieces that depict one large image. He strays from the traditional mode of writing musical histories, and constantly connects biography with autobiography. For example, in the early 1990s ATCQ formed part of Native Tongues, a rap collective whose members were the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah, among others. Abdurraquib calls the collective a crew. When Abdurraquib was in middle school he was also part of a crew, which he describes as a group of acceptable nerds and witty weirdos who listened to good music. Later, when describing Native Tongues, Abdurraquib writes, “The thing about Native Tongues is that they were like my crew, or potentially your crew…beyond that it is a group of friends telling each other that their ideas are valuable, that someone will believe in them.” It is this side by side—the personal and the musical—that makes this book so striking.
In the very first chapter, Abdurraqib writes about his complicated history with jazz as a child—something he could never be good at because “For the best jazz players, the instrument is an extension of the body. I never allowed myself to understand this part. The trumpet was a beautiful instrument to me, and I did not imagine myself to be beautiful.” His ability to weave in his personal experience is never without consequence. It is always to illuminate, to amplify the significance of ATCQ. The Low End Theory, the group’s second album, is described by Abdurraqib as “almost being a jazz album.” Therefore, from the very beginning, readers understand that, for Abdurraqib, to love ATCQ was (and is) to be given permission to love oneself. “This is the story of A Tribe Called Quest, proficient in many arts but none greater than the art of resurrections—a group that faced the past until the present became too enticing for them to ignore. Of how I found myself beautiful enough for jazz music, but only in their image and nowhere else.”
Abdurraqib writes through the group’s entire career, beginning with their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The early group’s young members were a group of friends from Queens: MC Q-Tip, MC Phife Dawg, and MC Ali Shaheed Muhammad. “Tribe’s sound didn’t just shift the direction of hip-hop; it offered alternative windows into the world of sampling, cadence, and language.” The album was largely spearheaded by a young and ambitious Q-Tip, who was “was trying to build a sound that would carry him for an entire career.” The book follows the group to its final album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. While Abdurraqib carves out the timeline of the group’s career, he simultaneously describes the evolution of hip-hop: from its early predecessors—DJ Grandsmaster Caz and Disco Wiz, to the impact of N.W.A, to the emergence of a distinct West Coast sound through Death Row Records, to the fracturing of West and East coast rappers. By laying out the genre’s history, Abdurraqib is able to contextualize ATCQ’s position within the larger rap landscape. Readers are able to understand what set(s) them apart. “I imagine the low end to be a bassline that rattles your teeth, too. But I also consider the low end to be the smell of someone you once loved coming back to you. Someone who sang along to Aretha, or Minnie, or Otis. Someone who loved you once and then loved nothing.”
Abdurraqib gives us a book that is intimate and expansive. “Whenever there is a black person murdered at the hands of police and then also a video of it, there is a lot to process: anger, fear, resentment, anxiety. But with Sterling, I was also processing what happens when music is ripped from a community in that fashion; when the person you rely on for a soundtrack bleeds out on a street at thirty-seven years old, long before age might take them in a more peaceful fashion.” It is a book speckled with large truths. Abdurraquib also includes various letters written to the core members of ATCQ: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. After Phife Dawg, whose given name is Malik Izaak Taylor, passed away due to complications with diabetes, Abdurraqib writes a letter to Taylor’s mother, Ms. Cheryl-Boyce Taylor, who is also a poet. He writes about the parallels between their lives. “You are not obligated to believe this, of course, but I imagine there are ways in which specific types of loss make kin out of folks who are not kin.” His mother, who was also a writer, passed away when Abdurraqib was a child. “I am here, instead, to say thank you for raising a writer. I was raised by a woman who wrote, and I don’t know if that means anything other than the fact that I saw language as a way to get free at an early age.” Abdurraquib has a stunning ability to break apart the meaning of music and move it beyond an aesthetic. It is a way of existing, of surviving. “You raised a literary figure—someone who knew his way around verse and punch line and clever turn of phrase. At the heart of his writing and yours was the same driving force: themes of the vast black interior—hair texture, and skin color, inner and outer strife, and the small joys that must be unlocked to survive it all.”
Abdurraquib does not talk about rap, but rather is in conversation with it, often, spilling out from the body, from the heart. “I’ve been thinking about how the art of the sample is also the art of breathing life into someone who doesn’t have a life anymore.” To read this book is to appreciate a musical legacy. It is to understand the breadth of a musical genre.
As much as this book is about love, it is also about grief. It is a book that mourns—and it mourns deeply. Around the same time that Phife Dawg passed away, ATCQ was recording their final album. By the time the last album is released, the country is living in the midst of the early Trump administration. It is impossible to fully appreciate ATCQ without understanding what their final album did—
“It’s the voice of America turned in on itself, the voice that many of us pretended was at a distance until it was a consistent and low drone, until it had begun activating the most violent among us, from the highest office in the country. It’s jarring, to hear a sentiment made that plain in a week when the country vomited on its own shirt and then looked around and asked who made the mess.”
Abdurraqib is a writer who lays everything out. Even when doing so means contradicting a whole book. Go Ahead in the Rain is, in so many ways, about the greatness of ATCQ, of art, but the book would not be whole if it didn’t confess that in the harshest of times, “music still feels tiny and disposable.” That is one of Abdurraqib’s greatest strengths: his honesty, and it’s what makes this book so great. It admits music’s failures and limitations, it pinpoints the exact moments our most cherished artists have failed us—“they made the album the genre wanted, not the album they wanted to see in the genre”—when the music we love is not enough to make us feel better—“I am not OK, and even if I were to find the time to be OK, there are too many people I love who are not OK.” But Abdurraquib also reminds us that art is made by people like us, who feel, and love, and hurt. He teaches us to look beneath the superficial. He teaches us that music is more than sound. Go Ahead in the Rain is a book that complicates the meaning of art and stretches out understanding of music.
“Sometimes, it is a perfect album that arrives just in time to build a small community around you. To briefly hold a hand over your eyes and make a new and welcoming darkness of the world outside, even when it is on fire.”