Before reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s third book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, my knowledge of A Tribe Called Quest was superficial. I knew that they were one of the big hip-hop groups from the early 1990s, and that they hailed from my old neighborhood of St. Albans, Queens. After reading Go Ahead in the Rain, a book about the group and the burgeoning years of hip-hop interlaced with Abdurraqib’s personal accounts of coming of age during that time, I’ve gained more than a newfound respect for the members of Tribe and the hip-hop community—I’ve also gained the realization that Tribe’s music is very necessary, especially in our current landscape.
Hanif has written extensively, about music and otherwise, before Go Ahead in the Rain. His debut full-length collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was published by Button Poetry in 2016, and his poems and essays have been featured in publications such as the New York Times, Pitchfork, Muzzle, PEN American, the New Yorker, and here at The Rumpus. His essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released by Two Dollar Radio in 2017. Hanif’s second collection of poetry, A Fortune for Your Disaster, is forthcoming from Tin House on September 3 and is the August Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection!
Hanif has a way of making you care deeply for the artists he’s writing about. You can even find musical influences in his poems, such as “The Author Explains good kid, m.A.A.d. City to His White Friend While Driving Through Southeast Ohio” and “Ode to Britney Spears, Ending in a Flood.” Music drives him and his work, and this is clearly demonstrated in Go Ahead in the Rain, and in an even more concentrated form. Drawing from his own experiences and peppered with personal letters to the members themselves, Hanif creates an immersive experience for readers to forge a connection to and love for hip-hop.
Hanif and I communicated recently through email about the new book, how Tribe influenced the hip-hop landscape and him, and what he’d like to see more from music biographies.
The Rumpus: Go Ahead in the Rain is part music biography, part memoir. Was this your intention when you started writing this, or did it start off as one thing and progressed naturally from there?
Hanif Abdurraqib: My intention was always to separate from the standard form of the music biography. I think to pull that off well, a person has to have unlimited access—not just to the artists, but to footage, photos, stories. I could have slowly obtained all of that, but I was not overly interested in positioning myself as the expert who got to tell Tribe’s story. Three of the four core members are still alive, and still somewhat active in various realms of music and storytelling, and I have high hopes that they will get to tell their own stories in some format or another. I wasn’t interested in being correct as much as I was interested in dissecting this particular fandom that I’d lived through, and the permissions it gave me. I did want to tie all of these things to history, or to the entirety of the ecosystem I saw Tribe existing in. But I wanted to make it very clear that I was operating largely within the spectrum of my own interior, and nothing else.
Rumpus: This is the second music biography I’ve ever read, but I felt very invested in Go Ahead in the Rain. Aside from the genre and the era of the subject, what do you think sets apart some music biographical works from the rest? I feel that there has to be something more than that personal connection because I had next to no connection with Tribe aside from us being from the same neighborhood.
Abdurraqib: I think the best biographies position the writer very clearly as a fan. A fan with a strong desire to honor the subjects of the writing, no matter what path it takes to get there. I personally wasn’t trying to sell anyone on A Tribe Called Quest as much as I was trying to find as many ways to tell people that I wanted to share with them something that meant a lot to me, in hopes that it might lead them down their own path.
Rumpus: I agree, and you make your love for A Tribe Called Quest very clear throughout. How much of an impact would you say that the group had on you as a writer and a poet?
Abdurraqib: Their use of sampling, particularly in their early records, has had a bigger impact on me as a writer and editor than anything else. Some of those old Tribe songs had twelve, thirteen, sixteen samples in them. The poem, particularly, is at its best for me when—on top of whatever else I’m attempting—I can pull together unique language for the greater good of a single sound. To sample that heavily is, in some ways, to ask what of your original self you are willing to sacrifice for the sake of a newer and better invention. I most loved those early Tribe records because they were operating with the idea that with enough disparate sounds, they could make a fresher single sound. That’s writing. That’s editing.
Rumpus: In the book, you said that A Tribe Called Quest appealed to the old and the younger generations, and I feel like Go Ahead in the Rain follows in that same vein. I’m not a huge fan of the hip-hop genre, but I found myself forming a much deeper respect for it as I read on. Are you hoping that your readers walk away with that same level of respect as well?
Abdurraqib: I’m really hoping that readers can walk away understanding that my biggest attempts were to examine fandom and how to go about loving a group of people who you don’t know and may never know. What it is to love people who don’t owe you anything, and still support them with that knowledge. I also found myself searching for a way to honor the group while they were still here, and having a very touchable moment. When Phife died, I felt an odd type of anguish, because he meant so much to me. And I didn’t find my way to honoring him enough when he was here. I am thinking about this more intently now. I’m thinking about Little Richard, or Loretta Lynn, or Ms. Patti LaBelle. I want to shout my affections from the rooftops while those affections might still carry towards their living ears. Elegy as something beyond eulogy. I had the time and the space to write a sprawling love letter to a group with most of its members still living, and what a privilege that is. I don’t know if I want readers to walk away feeling as in love with Tribe as I am. That would be a nice bonus, but I mostly hope that upon putting down this book, a reader crafts their own love letter to someone living.
Rumpus: You mention other acts that collaborated with Tribe. Some of them I know of, like Busta Rhymes and Queen Latifah, and there are others who I hear less about, like De La Soul. In a way, does Go Ahead in the Rain also serve as a gateway to these other artists and their work?
Abdurraqib: I certainly hope so. In honoring the entire ecosystem around Tribe, it was important to honor all of the musical parts most loudly.
Rumpus: One of the other things that I remember about this era, and you mention it in the book briefly, was the Grammy boycott led by the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff. Do you think that the attitude towards hip-hop has changed since then for the better?
Abdurraqib: Not among the Grammy institution, no. But I also think that’s fine and not entirely necessary, though I am a bit more cynical about the Grammys than most.
Rumpus: Is there any other musician or group that you’d like to write about? I’d definitely like to read more about the early years of hip-hop and the other artists from this period.
Abdurraqib: Sure, there are many—but I hope the book sits firmly in a continued lineage of multiple voices writing about this era of hip-hop from multiple angles.
Rumpus: What particular angles would you like to see discussed more often?
Abdurraqib: Largely I want unrepresented and marginalized voices writing more about their personal experiences through the lens of the music.
Rumpus: I never really considered that until you brought it up. I would like to see more of that, too, which has been my issue with music biographies for the most part.
What was the process like in writing the sections about the group and the events that transpired during this time? I imagine that some research had to be done, but also some revisiting of your own memories, since you followed the group so closely as a kid.
Abdurraqib: Yeah, it was a lot of research, diving back into old interviews and videos. That was actually my favorite part. I can trick myself into procrastination through research, especially when the research is building some excitement for the work and so it was great to revisit and unearth and kind of get my hands delightfully dirty in the digging. It was also somewhat heartbreaking to have to be honest about the fact that things weren’t always as I remembered them. But that’s a part of the process.
Rumpus: There are a couple of chapters in the book when you directly address the members of the group, and the moments that struck me most were those addressed to Phife. There’s a lot of emotion behind them. It makes me wonder, did you have a chance to reach out to the rest of the group during or after writing this book?
Abdurraqib: I didn’t, and I kind of didn’t want to. Once my vision for the book started, I realized that I wasn’t necessarily writing it for the group. We did have to get permissions for the poems from Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Phife’s mother, who is an excellent poet. But beyond that, I wanted to set out on the journey without necessarily having to adhere to the emotional space that I’d be in if I had to interact with the group. I felt like that would open some different doors, and close the ones that I most wanted to get into. Leading with the emotional and understand that path doesn’t always lead to definitive answers.
Rumpus: What do you hope will be the biggest takeaway from Go Ahead in the Rain for readers who come across it?
Abdurraqib: I hope it can be a blueprint for how someone can push themselves closer to an honest affection, or a shared relationship with anything or anyone they love.
Rumpus: This isn’t the first time you’ve written about music. Your previous book, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, explored your relationship with music on a broader level, while Go Ahead in the Rain focuses on specific group. Are there any other acts from your teen years that you’d like to dive into some more?
Abdurraqib: I’m sure there are, yes. I do think that much of my work is revolving around considering how useful extracting memory can be, when paired with a type of rigorous honesty about those memories.
Rumpus: Do you have any specific hopes for the careers of the remaining Tribe members? I think you made it clear that Thank You 4 Your Service was their last album, but you also mentioned that Q-Tip had a pretty successful solo career.
Abdurraqib: My biggest hope for the remaining members is that they can live the rest of their lives satisfied with what they’ve given. So much of what they built still echoes in the architecture of contemporary rap music, and I hope that is somewhat satisfying for them. It must be something, to hear yourself everywhere.
Photograph of Hanif Abdurraqib © Andy Cenci.