Thursday, July 8, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #47 A Tribe Called Quest - People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

One of the reasons I love the 33 1/3 series so much is because of the diverse points of view that the series embraces. Books in the series have ranged from cultural studies, to historiography, to journalistic reporting, to criticism, to fiction, to the extremely personal. With this in mind, perhaps one of the more consistent ways to judge each 33 1/3 book is to look at how fully it commits to its premise. That is to say, most of the series's strongest books are those which work one specific angle from start to finish. Or, alternately, work from such a broad stance that we're getting a survey of the conversations and themes surrounding an album. Those that either stay broad, or stick to a single approach are, almost unanimously, the strongest books in the series. When books don't commit, what we end up with is a hodge podge of thoughts and ideas: here's thirty pages of band history, forty pages on recording the album, a ten page song-by-song analysis, three pages on the cover art, fifteen pages on critical reception, ten pages on cultural criticism etc... etc... And while good ideas and interesting material can arise from such a layout, the end result often times ends up feeling like the author didn't have as much to say as he or she initially thought, and so is scrambling to fill pages with any old bit of information.

Now, after that lengthy introduction, I need to be direct in saying that Shawn Taylor's entry into the 33 1/3 series, covering A Tribe Called Quest's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm does not stick to a single approach, and is a thoroughly unfocused entry in the 33 1/3 series. That being said, despite these apparent flaws, Taylor's volume is one of the more enjoyable entries into the 33 1/3 series because the warmth of his prose and his obvious passion for ATCQ and their work burns on every single page.

Taylor's book opens in strong fashion, throwing readers into a deftly handled mixture of cultural studies and memoir. In the book's opening chapters, Taylor weaves together elements of his childhood and teen years--including his mother's abusive relationship, his Oscar Wao like nerddom, his run in with a bully, his punk phase, and his introduction to hip hop--with hip hop history lessons, cultural geography lessons, and urban theory. Through these open sections, Taylor's prose is full of sharp ideas and lyrical execution: "Aside from giving us a new version of what a city could be, [Tribe] also gave us a means of locomotion: the rhythm--the engine that ran the psychosomatic megapolis--was our train, bike, cab and bus ride through the body metroplex." The first third, or so, of Taylor's book is driven by the marriage of memoir with these types of insights, and makes for a wholly engaging read.

Then something peculiar happens--Taylor gives the book's lengthy middle section over to walking through his personal 3 step test that he developed for albums when he was a teen. The "Three Trials" as Taylor calls them, involve listening to an album three times, focusing on a different facet of his own reaction with each listen, laid out as such: 1. Body, 2. Mind, 3. Spirit and Emotion. What follows, then, first, Taylor's own teenage writings as he subjected People's Instinctive Travels... to these tests, followed by an updated turn through the trials. Surprisingly, the teen version of the trials is a surprising and fun read. It reminds us that, even though many of us choose to study and write about pop music deep into life, there is something urgent in pop music that speaks to the young in ways that we don't always remember. Taylor's teenage self responds to Tribe's music with an immediacy and rawness that was refreshing, if at times a bit cumbersome to read. What is even more surprising, then, is that the the book finally starts to falter when grown up Shawn Taylor steps in to record an updated version of the trials.

It is here, in Taylor's redux of the trials that his volume gets a bit tired and dull. His insights get bogged down in the banal, and he begins making brief references to remixes that seem unnecessary. By the end of grown up Taylor's second trial, we're exhausted, having run through the album five times already, making pit stops at, often times, the same songs, over, and over again. But then something a little bit magical happens with grown-up Taylor's third trial--he gets on a train and rides into San Francisco, meets up with some young street toughs and introduces them to Tribe's music. While the scene should, realistically, read like an overly sentimental cross between Dangerous Minds and Boyz n the Hood, Taylor's self-deprecating sense of humor, self-critique, and raw enthusiasm give the scene a freshness that the book needs as it draws to a close.

Oh, and then there's a wholly unnecessary interview with Bob Powers--an engineer who worked on People's...--which is surprisingly uninformative and feels utterly tacked on. It would have been a short book, but Taylor would have been better off to let this book end where it wanted to end, with Taylor on his way home after his encounter with the urban teens:

I look at the city as it speeds by below, slowly rocking and swaying to the music, thinking about the first time that I ever heard Tip tell the tales of the city, not any particular city, but the one that the listener finds him or herself in at any given moment. Those stories were a social fact of my life . . . those boys that I hung out with [had] their description for the fools in their neighborhood. Hell, any one of them could be that fool, and thinking about this is like mainlining melancholy. My story is their story, theirs is mine and we are all on a quest.
Nostalgia sucks.

Apparently, books about pop music are a lot like albums--if you know when to end them, they're better off. Still, even with a slow bit in the middle, and a tacked on ending, Taylor's People's Instinctive Travels... is, while not one of the strongest, a very enjoyable entry into the 33 1/3 series.

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