Sunday, Feb. 24, 2 p.m., free
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest is a book about music, but it’s far from your standard music biography.
In part, that’s because its author, Hanif Abdurraqib, is an accomplished poet as well as a widely published music journalist and cultural critic. He writes about music with the same controlled lyricism and fine antenna for the vibrations of race in America as is found in his first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, a voice he develops further in his second collection, due out from Tin House Books this fall.
Abdurraqib’s new University of Texas Press book about the seminal Queens-bred hip-hop group blends personal narrative, musical reportage, cultural analysis, and letters penned to members of the group in order to open windows into the author’s life and explain why Tribe matters, from early classics like The Low End Theory through their era-ending breakup on the cover of The Source, and onward, through future victories, tragedies, and reunions. The book is also a compelling snapshot of a nineties rap industry in transition from the golden age to gangster rap to the shiny-suit era.
On Sunday, Abdurraqib closes out the revamped North Carolina Book Festival (see sidebar below) at Kings with a reading at 2:45 p.m., preceded by a panel discussion on Tribe featuring Mark Anthony Neal, Natalie Bullock Brown, and David Menconi. We recently reached Abdurraqib by phone to discuss blending poetry and criticism, why music deserves to be taken seriously, and coming to terms with Q-Tip going pop.
INDY: I think a lot of people who wouldn’t usually seek out a music biography will respond to your A Tribe Called Quest book, and your essays in general, because they’re so much about lyricism and storytelling, and your personal history is woven into the music history. How did you come to synthesize poetry and criticism this way?
HANIF ABDURRAQIB: In short, I believe that criticism deserves the most beautiful writing possible. I think the way the writer approaches criticism should at least be poetic in nature, or take on traits of beauty, with the searching, curious instinct that poems have, and the whimsical, magical nature that poems are trying to achieve. I take music incredibly seriously, and therefore, I want to represent that seriousness in my work.
What is it about music that makes it worth taking seriously?
I’ve seen my friends’ lives be saved because of music. I’ve seen people throw themselves into music when they didn’t have much else. I see music continuing to do that with generation after generation. For me, music deserves to be honored, taken seriously, and critically engaged with so that it can continue to improve.
Tribe is clearly a group you have a close personal connection with, but there must have been other artists who meant as much to you. What made Tribe the right group to take on in a book-length love letter?
A lot of people ask me, “Why Tribe?” And I think a better question is, “Why not Tribe?” Tribe deserves monuments in their honor, and they have yet to have a text written about them that has held up or resonated. I wanted to give it a shot, and it made me realize I had a strong desire to write about Tribe while some of the members were still alive. In doing that, I hoped that someone else would be inspired to write a book about a band they love who’s still here, not wait until they’re gone.
Have you continually listened to Tribe throughout your life, or was this a process of coming back to something? Has your relationship to these songs evolved?
To revisit it for this book, the music took on a different mode for me, but that’s just the nature of re-listening to something as an adult and wanting to write about it. But yeah, Tribe has been a part of my soundtrack for my entire life. Of course, my relationship to the songs has evolved, partially because I know more about music, so things like the instrumental accompaniment, I’ve been able to asses more as I get older. More than that, I’ve come to really appreciate Q-Tip’s voice as an instrument and what he’s able to do.
Did you learn anything new about Tribe, or did your perspective on them change?
I don’t know if there was anything brand new, but there are always new lessons to be gleaned from already-known information. So, new perspective? Sure. Getting to hear, for example, how important J Dilla was to the crafting of Beats, Rhymes and Life and how that was the album that allowed J to start to flourish—those kinds of things were really great to figure out.
The book’s also a great snapshot of the rap industry in the nineties: the days before sampling laws were passed, the shift to gangster rap, and Tribe’s breakup on the cover of The Source in ‘98, which had a real era-ending feeling. And then Q-Tip comes out with the very poppy “Vivrant Thing” the next year. What do you find fascinating about the music industry of that era, and how did you feel about “Vivrant Thing” when it came out?
It was the moment when rap shifted to attempting to be a really large commercial entity. The product became more desirable after deaths of Biggie and Tupac, and there’s something interesting there about how violence is always attractive in America. I’m interested in the conversations that arose from that shift, which in some ways created the landscape we have in rap now.
I didn’t like “Vivrant Thing” at the time. I like it a lot more now. I write about this a little in the book: I have a lot of weird resentments about Tribe breaking up. I was frustrated and felt as though it was Q-Tip’s fault, though, of course, it was the culmination of a number of things. It would have been a hard time for me to love any Q-Tip solo song. It’s a great single.
You already have another book slated for publication on Random House in 2020, right?
Yeah, it’s a book about black performance in America, from dance to athletics to things like playing cards. Music is involved, too. And my new book of poems comes out in November. It’s entirely different than my first book of poems, which came out a couple of years ago. Largely, it’s about searching for a better relationship with oneself after all outside relationships begin to crumble. It comes out on Tin House Books.
Are there any writers you know or are excited to meet at the festival?
I know Eduardo Corral [and] Sandra Cisneros a bit. Tyree Daye is someone I haven’t met in person, but I’m bringing him to Columbus for a reading, so it will be great to meet him. David Menconi helps run the University of Texas music series my book came out on. Alan Shapiro is someone whose work I love a great deal. So yeah, I’m excited to immerse myself while I’m there.
WHERE’S THE N.C. BOOK FESTIVAL BEEN?
The North Carolina Book Festival
Thursday, Feb. 21–Sunday, Feb. 24
Various venues, Raleigh
The North Carolina Book Festival was never that consistent to begin with. It was supposed to rotate between N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Duke University. It was supposed to take place every two years. As simple as that premise sounds, it never really worked. The gap between festivals, for one, could stretch between two or four years, or sometimes even six. To confuse matters more, it didn’t even always go by the same name.
“That made it hard to build momentum,” says Chris Tonelli. “Typically, institutions were reinventing the wheel.”
When the N.C. Book Festival relaunches this weekend in Raleigh, however, it’s no longer under an academic aegis. After 2014’s most recent iteration, new co-directors Tonelli and Jason Jefferies bought the name. Their intention? To pivot the festival into the literary equivalent of destination events like Hopscotch, the American Dance Festival, or Full Frame. And it’s going to be annual now, with smaller quarterly events worked in, to maintain momentum.
“Having [been event coordinator for] the last festival in 2014, I saw both the hunger in the region for an event like this and the advantages of having continuity,” says Jefferies. “We would have sponsors asking about the following year and authors who would say, ‘Oh, I can’t come this year, but I can come next year.’ There’s no answer for that when there is no next year.”
Notably, too, the reimagined N.C. Book Festival is a hybrid beast, with events at literary bastions like NCSU’s Hunt Library and Quail Ridge Books (Tonelli and Jefferies’s employers, respectively), but also hip downtown spots like Kings, Crank Arm Brewing, and CAM Raleigh.
This isn’t completely new, Jefferies says, pointing out that the 2014 festival availed itself of downtown music venues, but it’s an approach the new co-directors have wholly embraced. While the N.C. Book Festival’s history can be traced back to the nineties, it’s their baby now. And what may seem like a reinvention (or at least redesign) of the wheel from the outside feels like a fresh start to Tonelli.
“The original model wasn’t our model,” he says. “So it wasn’t like we decided to do a thing and then decided to do a different thing.” —Corbie Hill