In recent years, Hanif Abdurraqib has been a force. A music essayist, poet and cultural critic, Abdurraqib is wildly prolific, with a vast curiosity. He writes with equal insight on everything from the cultural legacy of Nina Simone and the heartbreak inherent in Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” to the way Serena Williams is policed as a black woman competing in a largely white sport.
Abdurraqib’s new book, “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest,” is ostensibly a biography of the titular hip-hop group. It’s a story of how the Queens-based Tribe, alongside artists like De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, brought a new era of hip-hop to prominence in the early ’90s with jazz-laden tracks and positivity-driven rhymes.
But while the book does serve as a compact biography of Tribe, it’s also a sweeping history of African American music that begins on Southern plantations. It follows “the paths of rhythm” into ragtime, the blues, and their melding into jazz, kicking off a century of black musical innovation that Tribe paid tribute to by resurrecting and repurposing the old sounds to create something new.
Amid this history, a memoir forms. “Go Ahead in the Rain” is in part Abdurraqib’s coming-of-age story, charting his experiences as an awkward teen in the ’90s trying to make sense of the world through music. Much of this comes by way of letters written to Tribe’s main members. Here, Abdurraqib’s background as a poet shines through (the book could even be categorized within the great tradition of the poet’s memoir). In a letter to the group’s disc jockey, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Abdurraqib writes: “I wonder if you listen to things with your eyes closed sometimes, as I do. I am wondering if in the summer, you climb to the rooftops and put on headphones and let a world be built around you, a world better than whatever one you’re currently in.”
In a letter to master of ceremonies Phife Dawg’s mother, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, he writes: “I consider anyone who has lost someone my kin, because I think we are all faced with the same central question of how we go on. How we live the life that best reflects the people who aren’t here and are still counting on us.”
Much of the book deals with the conflicted relationship between Tribe’s two lead masters of ceremonies, Q-Tip and Phife — childhood friends whose personalities were forever at odds. In some of the best sections of the book, Abdurraqib writes about their relationship in terms of family and siblings, whether biological or chosen, and works through his own family experiences. “Anger is a type of geography,” he writes. “The ways out of it expand the more you love a person. The more forgiveness you might be willing to afford each other opens up new and unexpected roads. And so, for some, staying angry at someone you love is a reasonable option. To stay angry at someone you know will forgive your anger is a type of love, or at least it is a type of familiarity that can feel like love.”
Considering the book is a slight 200 pages, it’s a feat that Abdurraqib fits inasmuch as he does. Alongside the Tribe biography and personal narrative, he provides brief histories of sampling in hip-hop, the rise of gangsta rap, the infamous West Coast/East Coast rap feuds, the long-running African American culture publication Jet, the hip-hop magazine The Source, the fatal shooting of bootleg-CD seller Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police, the Grammys’ fraught relationship with rap, and even the final days of Leonard Cohen.
While knowing the music of A Tribe Called Quest certainly aids in enjoyment — as does having at least a peripheral knowledge of hip-hop — it isn’t required. “Go Ahead in the Rain” might appeal most to the music-obsessed, but its audience is wider than its title suggests. At its heart, the book looks at the constant conversation between life and art: how music changes the way we understand and interact with the world, and alters the culture at large.
“Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest” by Hanif Abdurraqib, University of Texas Press, 216 pp., $16.95
Hanif Abdurraqib will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com.