Off the Books: An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib

Will Schube speaks with the critic/poet/Go Ahead in the Rain author about all things A Tribe Called Quest.
By    February 4, 2019

Some of us were kicking it like Phife in the Braves jersey, some of us weren’t even born when The Love Movement came out. But one thing’s for sure: you’d be hard pressed to find a staff of writers who love hip-hop more than us. Support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Hanif Abdurraqib’s new book is about A Tribe Called Quest but it’s also about all the things that radiate from and orbit around this particular group. It’s about fandom and reconciling passion and unbiased criticism. It’s a dazzling act, watching Abdurraqib weave in and out of Tribe’s fabled history, working outside of their historical narrative to more clearly contextualize it. It’s called Go Ahead in the Rain and it’s his second book of criticism (he’s also an accomplished poet).

His first, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us collected essays both published and unpublished. It was a somber and sobering read, a tour of Abdurraqib’s philosophies both political and musical. Go Ahead in the Rain is lighter and unabashedly enamored with its subject. But the way it pulls history into Tribe lends it the same intellectual curiosity and rigor that propelled They Can’t Kill Us. The way Abdurraqib is able to spin any narrative into one about Tribe, and make it seem logical, whole, and permanent, is his greatest strength.

There are sections on N.W.A. and Leonard Cohen. The book begins with Abdurraqib recounting the musical language American slaves created after being forced to the United States. It then segues into the author reckoning with his own Blackness, discouraged from playing the trumpet because his musical teacher told him his lips were too big. From there, his fractured self was unable to approach jazz from a musical perspective, so he found a group that twisted it in a way he found appealing. That’s the fandom. The criticism comes in Abdurraqib’s exacting yet free-associative linking between Tribe’s personal history and the way their origin was inextricably linked with everything around them.

Music doesn’t grow in the abstract. Neither do people.

From there, Abdurraqib builds out. This is what makes him one of the most thoughtful, exciting, and important critics of our time. Everything is given fair weight. If it can take a punch, it’ll find a way into the narrative. If it withers, out it goes. Writing for Abdurraqib is an exercise in shrinking maximalism. What can we include and what can we ignore? What is essential that no one else is thinking about?

That’s why this is a book about Tribe, but it’s also about the ecosystem that allowed for a group like Tribe to exist in the first place. But by its end, Abdurraqib has posited the thesis that Tribe was as integral to establishing up the ecosystem in which they thrived as the ecosystem was to them as a support system. That’s why We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service from 2016 sounds like it exists in both 1994 and 2024. The associations we ascribe to Tribe bend to the group’s will. It’s what makes them all-timers. In showing this, Abdurraqib has proven himself to be an essential voice of the past, present, and future as well. — Will Schube

When did the idea to write this book come about?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I think it was very early 2017, although I had written a series of pieces on Tribe after Phife died, after SNL, and after the Grammy’s. Some of those pieces are living in the book in their natural form. I realized during the writing of these pieces that I was building a narrative arc that could serve the history of Tribe for people who don’t necessarily know Tribe, or people that knew the history but wanted some text to serve them. University of Texas Press approached me in late 2016 with the idea of writing a book about Erykah Badu. They had been starting to revamp their music series, and I wasn’t that interested in the Badu book. This was the next thing I pitched and it worked out.

I think there are probably a lot of artists or groups that you could have written an entire book about. What is it about Tribe in particular that spoke to you?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I could tie Tribe to so many things in my life outside of just their music. It worked for me because I could zoom out and find connective threads between my lived experiences and my love for this group. I decided early on that I didn’t want this to be a straightforward biography because I didn’t want to position myself as an expert. There are unofficial biographies where writers can position themselves as experts, but they have to have really unlimited access and really unlimited archival shit. I could have gotten some access, but I had to do some math in my head to figure out if it was worth it to pursue the work that way, or flip the idea of what I consider a biography to be and push for a book about fans and fandom. In some ways, this book is an examination of what fandom can be and how fandom can rattle around in our lives until everything begins to look like that which we love.

I found the letters you wrote to the members of Tribe to be the centerpiece of the book. How did that idea come about?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I felt very early on that if it wasn’t going to be a straightforward biography with the traditional hardline biographical narrative, then it had to be a narrative that felt personal. What could be more personal than engaging in a one-sided dialogue where I could unfurl all the curiosities and questions that I had with the understanding that I would not get a response? How could I speak to the people in this group and the people around them that I cared about a great deal? The language of the fan is to sometimes want a proximity to the artists they love. I don’t necessarily need that. I wrote this book understanding that I may never be granted an audience with these people—Phife obviously not. Therefore, writing to them with that in mind gave me a type of freedom. I could ask questions with the comfort of not expecting an answer back.

Part of the reason why you’re able to be okay with not getting an answer back is because you have this outlet in the first place. A more traditional fan doesn’t have that mode of expression.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Absolutely. I always think about the way fandom works and fans engage, particularly on the internet. The other day I tweeted a very mild take about how the new Eminem verse on the Boogie record is not that good. For hours people were arguing in my mentions about rhyme schemes and how people just don’t understand Eminem. On its face, that’s foolish. It’s comical. Like a J. Cole fan saying if you don’t like J. Cole it’s because you’re not smart enough to like J. Cole. But this is what happens in an economy when liking things is a replacement for a personality. In some ways, that’s the logical conclusion of rampant fandom. Like, “My love for this thing is my personality, so if you don’t like them as I do, it’s because you’re not as smart as I am.” It’s about building a superiority out of something you love. I understand that. I might sigh or roll my eyes, but I understand where it comes from and understand why it exists. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but I understand it.

With this book, I wanted to start at the ground level and say that it’s okay to love a group and within loving that group understand that they’re flawed because they’re people like you are. To see one’s reflection in the music they love is to see the flaw in the music they love; to see a flaw in themselves.

Some of the pieces from your old book were previously written. What is the main difference between writing and organizing a book of collected criticism versus writing a book with a focused subject?

Hanif Abdurraqib: It was way harder to make this one. When you’re writing single pieces of criticism, you’re done with a piece and then you’re done. You set it down and then you’re on the path to something else. You build one world and then you close the doors. This book was hard because you’re operating in the same world and building atop things you’ve already built, in having to find multiple entry points into adjacent narratives. I embraced that challenge but it was a challenge nevertheless. It was really hard for me to figure out how to talk about The Source magazine cover where Tribe broke up without giving a history of Black magazines. I had to build an entire ecosystem the week that the last Tribe album came out. There were so many moving parts to that stretch of time. I had moments where I thought I was losing the original thread. It was harder, but I really loved the challenge.

How do you keep an eye on that? You give a brief history of The Bomb Squad. There are all these things that once on the page, are essential to Tribe, but aren’t necessarily the strongest link when thinking about them. How do you make sure you’re not going too far off track, and conversely, not focusing enough on the surrounding supporting evidence?

Hanif Abdurraqib: It’s a trial and error thing and it’s about trusting what I know. I know that I, personally, can not truly talk about Tribe or immerse myself in talking about Tribe without talking about the world that they lived in that made them unique. That includes the Bomb Squad, that includes Jet Magazine, Otis Redding, and Leonard Cohen. They’re a group that—whether or not they want to be—has been really concentrated on lineage; building a sonic lineage from their past into their future. It relies on a lot of trust in me. I know what I know. I know I can’t discuss Tribe without discussing the entire ecosystem around their existence and around what they were able to do. I have to honor that ecosystem and write as if that ecosystem is irreplacable.

It didn’t all come together seamlessly. It’s trial and error. There was a whole chapter about Q-Tip and the Dixie Chicks that didn’t make it in because it pulled way too far from the central narrative. At the time I wrote it I thought it was the thing that tied yet another thread. But sometimes when you’re attempting too many threads, all that comes out of it is a tangled mess of knots. Identifying the mess of knots is just as important as attempting to tie the thread.

Something that really impresses me about you is how you seem to give everything a fair chance and a fair shake. Especially with music. That lends itself to how interesting and varied your music taste is. Where does that diversity in taste come from?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I grew up in a household where a lot of different music was played. My parents had vast and varied record collections. I had older siblings. For any music fan, it’s a real blessing to be the youngest sibling in a family that has an interest in music. You have a small pathway organically built for you and you figure the rest out on your own. My brother listened to metal, my sister listened to grunge and indie, rap was always playing in our house, jazz and soul were always around. That’s all I really needed to build my own path once I could figure out how to get music on my own; when I was old enough to get CDs from the library or make my own playlists off the radio. To me, giving something a fair shake is the work of the critic. This doesn’t mean I listen to everything, there’s stuff I know I’m not gonna be interested in, but if I’m curious, I’m gonna give it a fair shake.

Not to keep going back to Eminem, but one of the weirdest responses I kept getting was like, “Why would you waste your time with that verse if you thought it was bad?” Like, “What do you mean? I listened to it and then decided it was bad.” I wasn’t like, “This is bad, I’m going to listen to it.” Eminem is an artist who’s still earned a listen. He’s earned my 50 seconds or whatever it takes to get through one of his verses. It’s hard for people to understand that, to understand that criticism is not just an act of disdain or anger. I arrive at something critically because I’m interested in it. I listen to a lot of stuff all the time. My world is populated by music at all times. So I don’t have time to listen to stuff I’m not interested in. If I am interested, I’m gonna give it the fairest shake I can but I think at the end of that fair shake the listener has to be honest with themselves about what they’ve taken in.

Did you approach this book as a critic or as a fan?

Hanif Abdurraqib: Somewhere in the middle. It was hard for me because I have a deep love of Tribe and biases that I can’t maneuver around. I wanted to be honest about those biases because they show up in the work. I approached it as a fan first. That’s the nature of the work. I don’t think there’s a way I could have figured myself out of approaching it that way. But, the amount of research the book required and the amount of history in it required a critical eye. It’s impossible to separate the bits of criticism from the book, but I definitely approached it as a fan first.

That has to be one of the main struggles. Showing what Tribe means to you while still coming at it from a fairly objective and historical perspective.

Hanif Abdurraqib: How great is it that there’s some middle ground there? The work of the fan isn’t to worship aimlessly. The work of the fan is to love an artist so much that you want to push them to grow. You want them to grow even if that means them growing in a direction different from the one you found them on. Sometimes being a fan is not to follow. It’s to follow an artist to a certain point and then knowing when you have to get off the ride.

I think about Fall Out Boy often. Early in their career I was so tethered to them, and then it hit a point where I realized they were no longer making music for me and that was fine. My work as a fan was to get out of the way and be an influence and a joy to the people they were making music for. There was no animosity or frustration there. That was just the nature of loving that band. I think about all the ways fandom and worship get mistaken for each other, and I don’t know who that serves. It doesn’t always serve the artist and it doesn’t always serve the listeners. There’s some middle ground between rampant excitement and using that excitement to push an artist to get better.

I think Beyoncé fans have undoubtedly pushed her in directions of growth. Sure, some of Beyoncé’s growth is organic because she seems to be a curious artist who has a lot of resources, but Beyoncé fans have played a role in her growth. There’s not this stagnant nature where her fans are like, “Okay, we got this album that’s kinda like the last album and we gotta love it because we’re here already.” I’m using very big artists as example because they’re the ones who can be the most comfortable.

Was writing this book fun for you? The last book is somewhat painful to read, it’s very intense and can be very depressing. Did you enjoy this process?

Hanif Abdurraqib: It was emotionally easier but more difficult to figure out. I did not know what I was doing. Figuring out the book was harder but it was an emotionally easier task by far. It was more fun to research, too. That aspect was a little bit more exciting. As was the historical aspect. The only was it was more difficult was the actual figuring out what to write.

Was the introduction, about slaves being taken to America and developing Black musical language the way you always planned to start the book?

Hanif Abdurraqib: Yes. I had to write a sample chapter and that was what I wrote. In writing a sample chapter I wanted to put the personal stakes up front. It made sense that I’d be writing about my own history with jazz and my own musical failures and how in those failures I found my way to A Tribe Called Quest.

I feel like if any of my favorite bands released a comeback album 20 years later I’d be more skeptical than excited. What was your reaction when you first heard the news that We Got It From Here… was going to be released?

Hanif Abdurraqib: When they said they were coming out with a new album, I wasn’t that skeptical. I was only skeptical about Phife and how his usage on the album would look. I think it’s been hard for me to revisit the album because it’s so uniquely tied to the time it came out. That album came out the week of the election and it had that run that felt very tethered to its political moment. It was an album of pretty raw anger. It’s been hard for me to go back to that album and not visualize the absolute mess of 2016. In some ways, 2016 was the year that I think reframed the world. The way politics are discussed, the way cynicism has grown—especially within myself—the way the world moves … those seeds were planted in 2016. That album was very much of a specific time but I also remember being so impressed by how that album sounds like any era. If it came out in 1994 it still would have sounded of its era. It dawned on me that Tribe was ahead of their time in the way we traditionally say, but it really came into fruition on that project.

I really liked the section of the book in which you discussed Native Tongues and how those loose collectives don’t really exist anymore. Why do you think that is?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I don’t know. To be fair, if I could go back I would examine what the use of those loose collectives actually were in the first place. Going back and researching them, I realized that Native Tongues have been romanticized. Their run was really short as a collective. They didn’t do a ton of stuff together. Not all of them, at least. Soulquarians were a little bit better in that way, but I’m also wondering if there’s a use for this kind of loose collective. There’s a difference between a loose collective and people that are contractually tied through the same record label. Young Money’s a collective, I guess, but they kinda gotta be there.

You can’t have that collective for a very long time anymore before some A&R scoops you up.

Hanif Abdurraqib: That’s part of it too. The machinery of ego is a bit different, too. That’s what split the Native Tongues in some ways. Rap music moves so quickly now, and an artist can go from unknown to superstar. I think even rap groups themselves have a hard time. Like Migos, very early on it was just determined that Quavo was the one. It’s hard for rap groups to be harmonious. Perhaps there are too many outside forces.

Who are some up-and-coming rappers you’re liking right now?

Hanif Abdurraqib: [Long pause] Huhhhhhh. Let’s do rappers. Lemme think. My first instinct … I like Rico Nasty, I like Drakeo, Saba, Tierra Whack. Oh, I like Buddy a lot too.

What do you like about Drakeo? He’s a big staple on this site.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Drakeo is doing something I’ve always loved in rap that I write about in my book. This idea of rap as reporting, where the narrative becomes a type of firm reporting technique. Also, I think Drakeo is extremely haunting. He’s figured out a way to have this visceral honesty that jumps off of the record and becomes a whole atmosphere of haunting. It seems very organic. He’s not trying for that, it’s just how he arrives. I’m interested in him because there’s something happening there in his narrative structure that’s really valuable to the genre.

Is there anything you hope people take away from this book either about Tribe or your writing? What would you be proud of people understanding?

Hanif Abdurraqib: There are many different ways to love the songs you love. Hopefully every reader can find a way to honor those songs in the moment while the people who made them are still.

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