*Photo Credit: Kate Sweeney
Hanif Abdurraqib’s book from 2019, Go Ahead In The Rain, is only sort of a book. The cover alone presents conflicting ideas on how to define the collection of words, emotions, and stories inside. The leading text on the cover, “This is the third book by Hanif Abdurraqib,” is straight forward enough. The second clause reads “A love letter to a group, a sound, and an era.” Okay, so it’s a love letter in the form of a book, interesting. Then there’s the third clause that reveals the official title and sub-title: “Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest.” So, now we’re told these are notes as well. Book, love letter, notes. Within the pages nestled beneath the intriguing cover, Abdurraqib delivers a transcendent post-modern tribute to his personal heroes and the members of his favorite hip hop group: A Tribe Called Quest.
Go Ahead In The Rain is an extremely personal account of Abdurraqib’s relationship with his beloved hip hop group. It reads like a diary, a memoir, a tribute, and a history lesson all in one. Above all else though, the whole concept of the book is built around the idea of a love letter. Go Ahead In The Rain is Abdurraqib’s expression of how much a Tribe’s music has meant to his personal growth and identity, and how much he loves them for that. This goes beyond fandom and into the realm of sincere, philosophical gratitude. That’s surely a heartfelt love letter, not any old book.
Some chapters in the love letter break from prose and are explicitly presented in letter form, with various passages addressed to Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and even one to the late Phife Dawg’s mother, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. These chapters take on a more conversational tone, with Abdurraqib digging into imagined relationships with his heroes: he questions some of their decisions, asks them about their feelings, shows signs of support and solidarity, and tells them he loves them. He brings up topics ranging from the beating of Rodney King to Bill Buckner’s error that cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series. Abdurraqib also shares more intimate stories about kissing a girl he actually liked for the first time and how he felt clenching his to fight back against a bully in grade school. He shares these personal stories and anecdotes to bridge the gap between himself and his heroes; to express in words how their music empowered him. These letters make up only a small portion of Go Ahead In The Rain, but they are the connective tissue that illuminate Abdurraqib’s beautiful literary vision.
The book is also educational in the way it succinctly recounts the history of both A Tribe Called Quest and hip hop more broadly. One of the most fascinating topics covered here is Abdurraqib’s recap of the controversial and tumultuous history of sampling. He delves into this topic from a couple different angles. The first being how fundamental jazz-sampling was to the Tribe’s pioneering sound. Sampling was a huge part of hip hop from the beginning, but most early samples were concentrated around funk, soul, rock, and other contemporary hip hop records. So when Tribe’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm, came out in 1990, dripping with jazz, it was totally unique.
The second lens through which Abdurraqib dissects the history sampling is a legal and economic one. Since a lot of people in the late 80’s and early 90’s thought hip hop was just a fad, nobody cared to take legal action against hip hop artists sampling their records. That’s what made 1987-1992 the ‘golden age’ for hip hop sampling, as Abdurraqib puts it. But things changed when some big lawsuits hit in the early 90’s, including one against Biz Markie for his song Alone Again, and another major one against De La Soul. These lawsuits shifted the paradigm. No longer was it a free-for-all out there: record labels were demanding their share. The new requirement to clear samples was burdensome and expensive, which ended up forcing artists to rely more heavily on a mix of soul and funk samples. Why? Simply because those were way cheaper and easier to sample than jazz and rock at the time.
While the love letter spends a lot of time on Tribe’s golden age (the group’s impeccable 3 album run in the early ’90’s when Abdurraqib fell in love with them) and hip hop’s early history, it does zoom out as well. Instead of drowning us in nostalgia, which honestly wouldn’t be the worst thing ever, Abdurraqib jumps ahead to the time of Tribe’s 2016 album We Got It From Here… and their corresponding Grammy performance. Here, Abdurraqib delves into the current state of the genre, and his diplomatic take on mumble-rap. He makes it clear that for him and others he talks with, it gets harder and harder to define what ‘real’ hip hop as the genre keeps evolving. It’s during these final pages, and in the context of the modern rap landscape, that he makes his closing argument: that whatever ‘real’ means in hip hop, Tribe is real. There’s no real hip hop if A Tribe Called Quest isn’t a part of it. Everything leading up to that claim works to showcase just how ‘real’ of an impact Tribe has had on Abdurraqib’s personal journey.
In the brief Acknowledgments section on the last page of the book, Hanif Abdurraqib confirms what the last ~200 pages suggest: this love letter is a tribute to Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor. Throughout, Abdurraqib consistently shows empathy for Phife Dawg, the 5-foot assassin, perennial under dog, and overshadowed second fiddle to Q-Tip. While the author has unequivocal and enormous respect for Q-Tip’s vision and talent, it’s Phife Dawg’s spirit that captures him.