The Meaning Behind “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” by A Tribe Called Quest

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continues to dip into the classic era of hip-hop with its nominations. This year, A Tribe Called Quest received a nom. They’ve enjoyed a prolific, impressive career as one of rap’s most inventive outfits. And it pretty much all began with a wild, hilarious saga called “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.”

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Why were these Queens, New York natives singing about a West Coast outpost? What did Fred Sanford have to do with it? And how did the Tribe’s leader Q-Tip create much of their debut album using primitive dubbing techniques? Let’s answer all these questions and more, as we jump in the Dodge Dart and head back to the origins of this seminal rap band.

Q with the Answers

The story of A Tribe Called Quest begins with Q-Tip, their driving artistic force. Born Jonathan Davis (he later changed his legal name to Kamaal Fareed in the ’90s), Q-Tip’s interest in hip-hop began at a young age and blossomed when he became friends in high school with two eventual members of The Jungle Brothers. He produced a couple songs for them, while also developing his own rapping skills.

Q-Tip’s production style grew out of an early form of sampling known as pause beats. The idea was to take a boom box where you could play one cassette and record onto another. To get a sample to run throughout a full track, it would require a painstaking process of button-pushing again and again. That’s how Tip made the early demo recordings that would eventually form the basis for their 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.

Other members of A Tribe Called Quest who contributed to the album were Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who did some scratching and programming, and MCs Phife Dawg and Jarobi White. But that debut was mostly Q-Tip’s baby, and, as such, it reflected his sensibilities: thoughtful, playful, and musically diverse and inventive.

How Did They Find El Segundo?

“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” largely served as the group’s introduction to the world, in large part because of a memorable video that earned them plenty of airtime on Yo! MTV Raps. The song came to Q-Tip, who shared the writing credit with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, when he remembered some of Redd Foxx’s comedic genius on the sitcom Sanford and Son.

Foxx would “always be like, ‘Esther! I’ma leave you in El Segundo if you …,’” Q-Tip remembered on the podcast Drink Champs. “He always made El Segundo references on that s–t.”

The Meaning of “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”

Over a repeated sample of the opening of The Chambers Brothers’ song “Funky,” Q-Tip tells a story of a road trip with a kind of hallucinatory vibe hanging around it. The plot: Tip and Ali take advantage of the former’s parents being away to hit the road, only they drive way too far and end up in the titular destination all the way across the country from where they began. After a stop for fast food, where they’re distracted by a beautiful waitress, they embark on their return, and it’s only then that Q-Tip realizes what he’s left behind.

That kind of aw-shucks story was somewhat unusual for the rap world in 1990, when battle raps and gangster posturing were all the rage. But that’s what helped set the Tribe apart. Q-Tip’s nimble way with the language gave the song an undeniably catchy quality: Drove down the belt, got on the Conduit / Came to a toll, and paid and went through it. And just as a jazz musician surprises you with the phrasing of their notes, so too could he deviate from the norm when it came to his rhymes. Note the lines where punch / hunch / lunch appear, but never quite where you expect them.

In the end, A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” trippy as it may have been, felt a lot more like real life than many of the other in-your-face rap statements being made at the time. The characters have some laughs and endure some frustrations, deal with irony, and end up back where they started without anything gained except an incredible story. Wrapped up in an engaging musical bow, the song proved an excellent launching pad for one of the finest catalogs in the history of hip-hop.

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Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images

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