Courtesy of some kind words by my Internet Friend and fellow Franklin High School alumni Larry Mizell Jr, I'm finally going to get around to explaining my perhaps overcooked affinity for local Seattle rap collective, Tribal Productions.
A quick disclaimer, which also should serve as part of the reason I'm writing this. We're talking about music created and released locally before the advent of The Internet, so good luck finding an exhaustive compilation of material about any of the groups or the people involved anywhere else (I'm working on it). Furthermore, and this has more to do with a later part of the story, but at the time of the release of Tribal's most complete effort, Do The Math, Seattle's major media outlets were still giving a collective Moon Man shoulder shrug towards Hip-Hop in general and Seattle Hip-Hop in particular.
For example, in 1994 you had a torrent of releases of modern Hip-Hop classics that may not ever be equaled, and I highly doubt there were more than 2 songs played from any of these albums during the prime time drive time audience hours. As such, you relied on trusted sources like local magazine The Flavor, KCMU's Rap Attack show on Sunday nights and basic word of mouth and independent record stores to get an idea of what was out locally.
That being said, don't excuse me if I get any of the details wrong. Let me know. I'm all for making this the most complete and accurate history of this specific period of Seattle Hip-Hop there is, which means this will be a work in progress that is likely going to require more information that what I presently have.
Tribal Productions was comprised, Wu-Tang esque, of a multitude of other acts: Ghetto Chilldren (emphasis on chill with two L's), Sinsemillia, Narcotik, Phat Mob, Infinite, Sho Nuff, T.H.C., Union of Opposites, The Crew Clockwise, and probable more individual associations and groups that I'm not even aware of.
The first Tribal Productions album release (that I'm aware of) was the tape only Untranslated Perscriptions, put out in 1995, my senior year of high school. I was loaned a copy of the Untranslated tape from a friend, who passed it along as being "put out from some guys down at Garfield. It's dope". Shortly thereafter, I purchased my own copy down at Music Menu.
Previous to my introduction to Tribal Productions, I was still forehead deep in Hip-Hop culture - I absolutely consumed all of it I could get my hands on. The Source Magazine, Flavor Magazine, 4080 Magazine, Rap Pages, Rap City, YO! MTV Raps, KCMU's Rap Attack show. I mean everything. Hip-hop music was my life. That being said, nothing had previously come into my orbit that was from *here*. Obviously, Sir Mix-A-Lot was already a local and national force with the emergence of Posse on Broadway, prior to selling a bajillion copies of Baby Got Back, but this was different. Tribal Productions was compromised of guys my age, going to school just blocks away from where I was, and were putting out music that was actually really fucking good.
The one overriding quality that has always been at the forefront for me of that first Untranslated Prescriptions tape was just how fucking earnest it is, which is a quality that you still rarely find today in Hip-Hop. I'm not sure any other place could have produced songs like this. These are Seattle stories. In terms of the music as much as there is a Tribe Called Quest / Boot Camp Clik influence, there are elements of funk and deep soul that are undeniably West Coast textured. Genre definition notwithstanding, this is classic Hip-Hop production - timeless samples and fantastically chopped up drum breaks.
Pertaining to the lyrics, the Untranslated tape is an audio document of a group of young men's collective experiences living in a corner of the nation that was (and occasionally remains) largely ignored by the masses. While some consumers are unable to rationalize something that isn't East Coast, West Coast or Down South, this classic Seattle Hip-Hop stands outside these contrived definitions, proudly representing The Other.
I suppose the moment that I went from being a fan to being an advocate was in the aftermath of the 1998 release of "Do The Math". To my 21 year old brain, the idea that an album chock full of songs whose immense quality was so goddamn self evident (Who's Listening, Traffic, Equlibrium being the most towering examples) to me could not take the next step and become more than a regional release meant something was broken, because otherwise the math did not add up (pun definitely intended).
Amidst this period of decline, there was Tribal's Do The Math, producing music that contained the same spirit but with an even more varied amount of perspectives and voices.
Perhaps that variation that I find appealing, coming from a collective that represented a true kaleidoscope of perspectives, is was led to Do the Math not taking the next step outside of our region. Perhaps it was simply an economic problem of trying to distribute and manufacture music in a time when there were substantial costs to do so independently. I'm not the person best equipped to posit as to the why or how of it, and I'm not sure that it matters that much.
What does matter is that time marches on, and what was for a time the hot new release is no longer. The impression however remains, which is why I think it's important that this particular time of our city's Hip Hop history needs proper documentation. Tribal Productions, among a number of other groups that came out of this city that I'm not as personally familiar with, is a keystone piece of the foundation of what Seattle Hip Hop was and is to this day. While you can listen to any number of the excellent voices that are currently coming out of this city and hear the reverberations of what Tribal put out - here and here and more individual examples than I can link to in one sentences in good conscious - I wholeheartedly believe that proper acknowledgement is deserved and necessary. Hence, my advocacy.
By and large I don't know exactly how the various members of Tribal remember this time or their legacy. I think the fact that Vitamin D, Topspin, C-Note and others of the original Tribal members continue to be involved in making music is not only fantastic in and of itself, but also stands as a testament to the quality of the collective that these men have managed to make music a Job in 2010, which is not an easy road to travel.
The truth of it is that a significant part of the reason why I feel that acknowledgement is necessary for the guys in Tribal is actually about me. What continues to turn me from fan to advocate, here at the age of 33, is that I remember.
I remember the first time I hear the Untranslated tape, and wrapped up within the beauty of that music is the pride, naivete, ignorance and innocence of being 17 years old and comparatively untarnished by the press of adulthood. I wouldn't trade my place in life now for anything in the world, but that doesn't mean that I can't acknowledge the joy of being young.
I remember Tribal Productions because I remember myself.
All the photos here courtesy of DJ Topspin's facebook page. Topspin was gracious enough to sit down with me for a couple hours this summer and talk history. As both a fan and as a person trying to document this work, it provided invaluable insight into some of the history of Tribal Productions that I didn't know and is incredibly appreciated.
A final reiteration that if I've gotten a detail wrong in the above post, let me know.
Also, an aside to mention that there are plenty of groups that existed in and around Seattle that someone could argue laid the foundation for Tribal Productions to exist. I'm just not that person. I don't have the knowledge or the connection. This is a story I feel compelled to tell because it's music I know and love. Do you feel like there is another story to be told? Then tell it! Or send me what you have and the music that was made and I'll tell it.
Special shout out goes to Jake One, who continues to keep Tribal Productions music in our collective consciousness. Not only in the form of his excellent two part interview with Mike Clark, former co-host of the KCMU Rap Attack show, that appeared on the Cocaine Blunts blog here, but also in the form of his excellent Town Biz Mixtape released earlier this year. Jake clearly knows this music and this history better than I do, and the fact that someone with his national and international reach still keeps it 206 like that definitely means something.
Couple reference links. Here is a short piece published by the Seattle Times in 1993 about the Ghetto Chilldren, along with 6 In The Clip, E-Dawg and Greg B.
Another Seattle Times piece, this one from 1994 and has the interviewer doing some of the worst transcription work I've ever seen. Sincimilla? C'mon son.