Few samples in rap history are as important as the Lou Reed riff reappropriated by A Tribe Called Quest. For their classic track ‘Can I Kick It?’, the New York hip hop team looped part of the iconic bassline from Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ to fascinating effect. The languid and sliding bass part gave Q-Tip and Phife Dawg the perfect platform to wax poetic about dropping your pants and doing the jitterbug.
‘Can I Kick It?’ was featured on the group’s first LP, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were still teenagers at the time, as were fellow Tribe members Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. That meant that they weren’t as privy to the way that the music business worked, specifically how much they had to financially give up in order to clear samples.
During a concert appearance before his death in 2016, Phife Dawg railed against Reed and his massive intake of royalties from ‘Can I Kick It?’. “That was on our first album [People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm], and the sample is Lou Reed. Fuck Lou Reed, man!” Phife Dawg claimed. “Fuck him. Because we didn’t see no money from that fuckin’ record yet. Really.”
“Here’s what happened – and I take back saying ‘Fuck Lou Reed,’ because Lou Reed has every right to say ‘Give me my motherfucking money,’” he added. “So Lou Reed could have easily said, ‘Oh yeah, a rap group use my sh*t? Alright.’ No. Anita Baker don’t let nobody use her sh*t, period. […] So Lou Reed, instead of saying no altogether, he was like, ‘Yeah, nice! Give me the motherfucking money.’ Like Smokey in Friday.”
Dawg, real name Malik Izaak Taylor, later admitted that his own ignorance was obvious in his lack of prominence on People’s Instinctive Travels. “I was being ignorant on that first album; that’s why I was only on a couple of tracks,” he admitted in 2007. “I was hardly around. I would have rather hung out with my boys on the street and got my hustle on rather than gone in the studio. I wasn’t even on the contract for the first album. I was thinking me and Jarobi were more like back-ups for Tip and Ali, but Tip and Ali really wanted me to come through and do my thing.”
Eventually, A Tribe Called Quest would get smarter about their sample usage, and Phife Dawg would become more dedicated to the recording process, as evidenced by his increased presence on the group’s follow-up, 1991’s The Low End Theory. In order to get to that place, however, Tribe had to learn a brutal lesson about royalties and the music business from none other than Lou Reed.
Check out ‘Can I Kick It?’ down below.