A Tribe Called Quest @ Festival Hall, Melbourne (12/08/2010)

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It’s been over twenty years since A Tribe Called Quest won hearts and blew minds to redefine hip hop as we know it with their intellect, artistic integrity and quirky jazz style. Appealing not just to the hip hop faithful, the Tribe earned the genre respect from many of those who hadn’t yet paid hip hop much mind as a serious art form. When the Tribe announced their first ever Australian tour two decades later, some may have wondered – can they still kick it?

As if there was ever any serious doubt. The support line-up alone saw those huddling into Festival Hall on a cold Thursday night get plenty of bang for their buck even before the Tribe got onstage. Following on from Aussie funk act The Bamboos was Keith Thornton – or the artist formerly known as – well – many things, though for the moment – Kool Keith seems to be his moniker of choice. Sporting a rather strange sparkly white wig, the former member of Ultramagnetic MCs and founding father of New York’s new-school saw Melbourne get well schooled in his toilet-humoured yet bizarrely brilliant style. Warming up the crowd more than a few degrees was De La Soul’s Maseo, effortlessly spinning underground, jazz and gangster rap classics like only hip hop royalty of his caliber can. It really was as though everybody’s hip hop Christmases had come at once.

Booming cheers rang out as The Tribe were summonsed on stage by Maseo, Ali Shaheed Muhammad took position at the turntables, setting Q-Tip and Phife on course with opening track for the night, Steve Biko (Stir it Up). The tribute to an activist from South Africa’s apartheid era was a reminder of just how long The Tribe have been around. It was a reminder, too, of the brilliance of The Tribe’s juxtaposition of lyrics: deep, meaningful and dark with samples that can simultaneously bring a big smile to your face – guaranteed.

At times, Q-Tip seemed like a man possessed as he strode up and down the stage with lyrics flowing out of him with supernatural precision, as though he were some sort of spirit medium channeling the very same intensity that rocketed The Tribe to notoriety back in the day. Or maybe it’s just that Q-Tip has not faded one single shade of grey, even after all this time. Neither has Phife for that matter; cheekily gyrating around like an exotic dancer as The Tribe switched pace with The Chase Part II. Commanding the crowd to put the peace sign up, The Tribe kicked on with Sucka Nigga as Q-Tip treated the crowd to a live rendition of the most incisive analysis on the use of the word to have ever been written.

Midway through the show there was a moment when it seemed The Tribe couldn’t possibly keep up the pace. And just then, that legendary Lou Reed _Walk On The Wild Side* riff rang out. And who bounded onstage? The original Tribe’s long lost fourth member, Jarobi White for Can I Kick It. Returning to the fold a few years back after leaving The Tribe to start culinary school in 1991, White plated it up on the mike like a master chef. After having a crack at a random bit of beat-boxing, Q-Tip then shook things up by singing a story of a lovely lady (who was not Jan Brady) but the one and only Bonita Applebum. Following with Electric Relaxation and Buggin’ Out, with its salaciously sexy double bass sample, this was clearly ‘Business Time’.

Making their apologies for having to end the show, The Tribe marched off stage – though we knew they couldn’t really have meant it. The shouts for an encore started before they even got behind the curtain. And sure enough,Q-Tip, Phife, Ali and White returned to the stage after a few minutes to play a handful of tracks including 1nce Again – the perfect choice. With the encore over and the lights set to flicker back on, The Tribe really had some of us fooled for a second. Just when we started to twig that we hadn’t yet heard Award Tour, The Tribe beat us to it, jumping onstage for a second encore. Straddling a speaker on the far left hand side of the stage Q-Tip flailed his arms about where he toppled into the crowd in a state of extreme excitement. Somehow making his way through the adoring swarm, Q-Tip reached up out of the crowd towards the seated area, making those of us stuck behind Festy Hall’s charming chicken wire feel just that little bit more special.

Those who missed The Tribe this time around better hope these still fresh princes of 90s hip hop make it out here once again and again and again. Q-Tip, Phife and the crew they brought with them are the kind of hip hop vintage that just gets better with age.