A Tribe Called Quest

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: the first “cool” songs we ever liked.

A Tribe Called Quest, “Bonita Applebum” (1990)

As a rule, I’m allergic to conversations about how no one is making “real music” anymore, or how one generation’s musical passions are broadly superior to another’s. It’s a conversation that takes place often among hip-hop fans, and while it exhausts me to no end, there is one point I have to concede: Hip-hop used to have a sense of humor it now lacks. A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” is a perfect example of hip-hop’s more playful era, the rare case of a rapper asking a woman for sex in a way that doesn’t presume the answer is yes.

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According to lore, “Bonita” is based on an actual girl who attended New York City’s Murray Bergtraum High School For Business Careers alongside the four original Tribe members. The story explains the politeness and deference in Q-Tip’s approach. Tip is downright flowery in his appreciation for Bonita, who presumably has a perfect, fruit-shaped derriere: “If only you could see through your elaborate eyes / Only you and me hon, the love never dies.” It’s a proposition for sex, not a marriage proposal, and Q-Tip never lets Bonita forget that. But he makes his pitch without being overly crass, and he emphasizes safer sex: “Satisfaction, I have the right tactics / And if you need ’em I got crazy prophylactics.”

“Bonita” came out so long ago, the word “prophylactics” was backmasked due to the perceived risk of kids hearing anything about sex other than an abstinence-only message. But even without the benefit of the safer-sex message, Q-Tip did young men a solid by demonstrating that even when you’re asking a woman to “put you on,” there’s no need to be a dick about it. I don’t care to argue about whether that makes “Bonita” musically better or worse than, say, Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song).” But it’s probably the approach more likely to yield sex, as opposed to a black eye.

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