Music News Remembering the Greats

Master Engineers Bob Power and Shane Faber Reflect on 30th Anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s Debut

Looking at back at A Tribe Called Quest's debut 30 years later.

The reverence for 90s Hip-Hop has been strong in the culture since the decade’s conclusion. Today’s artists and producers regularly look back to this decade for samples and biopics. However, much of the attention tends to start at the middle of the decade when many universally recognized all-time greats began to hit their stride (BIG, Nas, Snoop, Scarface etc.). Today marks a much different milestone as we go back 30 years to the alpha mark of 1990 to acknowledge one of the best debuts in the genre’s history — People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.

Two integral studio sources in bringing this classic to life were veteran engineers Bob Power and Shane Faber. In this exclusive BeatsBoxingMayhem interview, the two men recount their experiences in helping the upstart ATCQ members forever change Hip-Hop’s musical landscape.

Having multiple high-level engineers on this project always stood out to me as the difference-maker compared to other Hip-Hop albums of this era. What was the process in making sure the group’s jazz-infused sound remained cohesive?

Bob Power: I think the biggest thing is that their artistic stamp was so unique. Having remastered the first album for an anniversary release, I know that the record was notall that sonically that consistent. That’s due in part to the musical conception being so far-reaching and broad, and in part because so many different engineers were involved. (Writer’s Note: Bob Coulter and Tim Latham also handled engineering duties on the album.)

Shane Faber: I met Bob Power when my band, Bad Sneakers was recording demos at Calliope in 1986. After I left the band, he encouraged me to come up to NY. Chris Irwin, the owner of Calliope, offered me a job and I started engineering sessions from day 1. Bob Coulter was another of the staff engineers at Calliope. We did it all, it was just us, the equipment and the customer in the room. We had to manage the whole session, keeping things moving, figuring out how to cut up samples and collect the cash. We all shared tricks and tips and we were always handing off sessions with different artists to each other. We each had certain tricks we used, mine was creating old sounding loops that weren’t actually off anyone’s record. 

Although Hip-Hop was still very young, the sound was really changing with this project and the Native Tongues movement. Did Tip and company come in with a clear vision, or did you provide a good amount of guidance with your production and band background?

Shane Faber: Q-Tip and Tribe always had a vision of what they wanted their sound to be. I especially dug it because a lot of their musical choices were jazz based. I just tried to support their ideas and get them on tape the way they were hearing things. I was always tuned into pitch and how the samples might be retuned here and there. But I offered suggestions to all the groups I worked with, sometimes they listened, sometimes they said yes, sometimes no. It was a very creative and collaborative time at Calliope [Studios] during this period, minimal egos. 

Would this album turned out the same way if it were recorded anywhere else but Calliope Studios? From my research, it feels like the overall atmosphere greatly contributed to the final product.

Power: Hard to say. I think the atmosphere, for the most part, was due to the band, their personal ethic, and what was going on in the Hip-Hop scene in NYC at the time – the end of the first wave and beginning of the second wave of Hip-Hop. It just so happens that a lot of the Native Tongues movement came through that studio. One thing I know for sure is that the entire staff at the studio treated the band and crew as artists worthy of respect, which was not always apparent in NYC studios at the time. I feel that this was in part a conscious or unconscious racism at work, yet my more optimistic side feels that a lot of studios and engineers simply didn’t know what to make of a young group of kids who walked, talked, and dressed like no one they’d ever seen before.

Faber: ​I worked on records from De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, BizMarkie, Queen Latifah and Jungle Brothers during my time at Calliope. “Just a Friend” would not have been recorded without my convincing Biz to let me replay it. The actual recording sample was impossible to cut up and loop. I dusted up an old upright piano sound, re-played it and added record noise. The rest is Hip-Hop history. 

Tribe didn’t waste any time in the studio. They had all the loops worked out, walked in the door and handed me a record, put the needle down and get it into the SP1200, loop it up and lay it down. They worked fast and got a lot down. Most of the groups during this period had tiny budgets. Calliope charged $24 dollars/hr after midnight for 8 hour blocks of time, with an engineer, an SP1200, an Akai S-950 and 24 tracks. 

Ali Shaheed was the only group member with a “traditional” music background in being able to play instruments. Even today, he’s probably the most underrated member. Talk about how his musicianship impacted the recording sessions.

Faber: I don’t remember if Ali actually played anything on the first record, but he did seem to be more involved in the sample loop selections. Tribe always had very musical, jazz flavored loops floating over powerful simple beats. It was a really cool combination, very different than most other Hip-Hop recordings at the time. I have a degree in Jazz Music; I loved it.

We know Prince Paul, Latifah, The Jungle Brothers and others would pop up at the Tribe sessions. Of those friends, who do you think had the biggest influence of Tribe’s approach?

Power: Hard for me to say – on the production level, I was mostly dealing with Ali and Tip. Yet they had an abiding respect for just about everyone who walked through the door.

Faber: To be honest, ​I’m not sure how they influenced each other. However, I can say they all knew each other, interacted by attending each other’s sessions occasionally and were constantly competing musically and lyrically to one-up each other. 

Classic albums like this sometimes have moments where everyone is like “Wow, we actually made this!” after certain songs are finished. Did you have any moments like this and at any point did you realize you were helping to craft a seminal work?

Faber: I wish I could say I did, but no. At the time I did realize though, that this branch of Hip-Hop, not intentionally, was producing some very musical and lyrical material that could expand the audience… and it did, didn’t it?!  

Power: Hahahaha…ALL of it. No one who wasn’t there can understand, but the technology was so incredibly primitive at that time, and sampling time (via hardware samplers) was so short (memory was expensive, and many manufacturers did not have the foresight to design with memory upgrades available), it’s really a miracle that the record is so multi-faceted. As well, we were on 24 track tape, which really became 22 track (with allowances for time code). So when you hear the breadth and scope of the record, it’s amazing.

Keep up with Bob Power and Shane Faber’s work at their respective websites: http://www.bobpower.com/ and http://www.jeepjazz.com/JeepJazzMusic/MusicIndex.html

People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is available on all streaming platforms.

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