A Tribe Called Quest's Soundtrack to the Resistance
It was the night after the doomsday election, and the renowned hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest had turned back the clock to throw an old-school industry jam like the ones urban record labels used to do in the Bill Clinton Nineties. At MoMA P.S.1 — located in the Tribe's home borough of Queens, where rappers Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi White first met when they were Linden Boulevard boys attending the same Seventh-Day Adventist church — a dense crowd gathered to sip custom cocktails named after vintage Tribe tracks like "Bonita Applebum" and "Electric Relaxation" and listen to the group's first album in eighteen years, We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service.
A few hours beforehand, chilling in the backstage area, dressed stylishly in jeans, black shirt, and a crisp peacoat, Q-Tip looks sharp. Smiling broadly, he greets old friends with brotherly hugs and chats with a few fans who work at the museum. This will be a night tinged with celebration and sadness. In March, Phife Dawg passed away from complications resulting from diabetes. He was 45.
So while there's a buzz of excitement as Tip gets ready to preview tracks he's been working on for a year, there's something else as well. Tip has yesterday's election results on his mind, like every other New Yorker wandering the streets mumbling, "I can't believe Trump won." He talks about the way Trump "was able to rile up disgruntled, disenfranchised white males, and their white wives and kids, bringing them to rallies talking about 'the good old days.' You study history and all the great countries have their great time and then go out of favor.
"With Trump being elected president, we have to look at where we are with race in this country," Tip says. "Not just a conversation, but actions that are going to instill knowledge and healing. I wish we could be really solutions-oriented in our conversation before there is more bloodshed on the streets."
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It's almost hard to believe that the same brothers who were damn near hippies in their youth — sporting dashikis in the late Eighties alongside De La Soul as part of the Afrocentric Native Tongues posse — could now be viewed as aural agitators making music in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Public Enemy. But that's just what the crowd at P.S.1 finds, once the sound system starts cracking with the first tracks from We Got It From Here.
If you've been sleeping, this is the record to get you woke. The first song, "The Space Program," is a catchy anti-Afrofuturist cut that declares, "Ain't no space program for niggas." The second track, the single "We the People," has the kind of beat ATCQ pioneered two decades ago — laid-back and thundering at the same moment — but it's charged with more urgency and fire than they've ever displayed before. It talks of the "fog and the smog of news media" and "false narratives." The chorus, sung by Tip, lays bare the chilling reality of a Trump rally: "All you black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/And all you poor folks, you must go."
Tip's longtime friend Gary Harris, who blogs about the music industry at Insideplaya and works alongside Tip at Beats 1 show Abstract Radio on Apple Music, describes We Got It From Here as "very Black Lives Matter." Think of these sixteen tracks as part of a musical movement that addresses politics in ways both direct and subtle, a movement that has been very much a part of Tip's life over the past two years, during which time he's worked on not just We Got It From Here, but two other crucial releases infused with the spirit of BLM: D'Angelo's third album, Black Messiah, and Solange's recent A Seat at the Table. Tip co-produced "Ain't That Easy" and "Sugah Daddy" for D'Angelo, and co-produced and appears on Solange's "Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)," a love groove that imagines the bedroom as a temporary refuge from the "war outside these walls."
You could say the records Tip has been working on are both a broadcast system and a sanctuary — an alert and a relief. Though he has a more modest view. "We make music, beat on drums, and make raps," he says. "This record definitely has a certain spirit attached that is something else that is interesting. For now, we're going to pray and hope for the best."
They were friends from childhood. Phife Dawg (born Malik Isaac Taylor) attended grammar school with Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis). Jarobi White lived near Phife's grandmother's house in St. Albans, Queens. In 1979, when the boys were still in grade school, "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang changed their lives.
"That was what kicked it off," Phife's mother, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, says. "After that, the idea started to get bigger in his head. He always had a lot of dreams, and one of them was that he and Q-Tip could do it too."
Five or six years after "Rapper's Delight," local Queens street-corner kids like Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J transformed from homegrown talents into international superstars, which only encouraged Phife and his friends — now including DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. "His father and I let him go to the studio with Q-Tip, Jarobi, and Ali, because we knew it was better than him being in the streets," Boyce-Taylor says.
The sound and spirit they developed in the studio emerged as an alternative to the harder hip-hop of the late Eighties/early Nineties — the first records from the Native Tongues collective arrived shortly after N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton. Q-Tip made his first appearance, in 1988, on the Jungle Brothers' track "Black Is Black," which he followed up in 1990 with a verse on De La Soul's bouncy single "Buddy." ATCQ were thought of as nonthreatening teenage bohemians who merely wanted to have fun on their own terms.
But they were also musical obsessives who would move the sound of hip-hop in new directions. On their 1990 debut for Jive Records, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Tribe built their sound on jazzy loops sampled from records on the CTI and Blue Note labels that Q-Tip had copped from his late father's extensive collection. While most of their peers were still flipping the sounds of James Brown's funky drummers and basslines from the P-Funk catalog, Tribe were bouncing to less traveled beats.
"They single-handedly put hip-hop on their backs and brought it to another level," recalls former Jive CEO Barry Weiss. Although Jive's roster would later include the Backstreet Boys, *NSync, and Britney Spears, in the late Eighties the label was an r&b/hip-hop powerhouse, with Billy Ocean, Kool Moe Dee, and Boogie Down Productions among its stars. "When Tribe's second album, Low End Theory, came into the office, that was when Phife really emerged as a force to be reckoned with," Weiss says. "He blew up when we put out the single 'Check the Rhime' — that record exploded. There was a great yin and yang between him and Tip. Phife helped keep the group grounded. But, music-wise, no one sounded like Tribe."
"Before Tribe or Gang Starr, hip-hop was kind of stiff," Muhammad explained to crate-diggers' bible Wax Poetics in 2010. "I don't mean stiff in a bad way, but the music we created just had a different kind of movement and flow to it. Be it the basslines, chord structures, or the different time signatures, the music always moved."
Q-Tip was constantly on the hunt for ways of changing up that movement. "There were times when I would walk into a record store and see Tip sitting on the floor with his glasses on, going through albums, looking for beats," says Pete Rock, the superstar producer who rose to fame around the same time as ATCQ. "I was like, 'This guy is serious.' Being around them made me step up and become even more serious than I was."
It made everyone else more serious about their music as well. Tribe would become the premier hip-hop auteurs of their generation with the game-changing Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993). "Those albums gave birth to neo-everything," says Kierna Mayo, the former editor-in-chief of Ebony, now at the digital network Interactive One, who has known Tip and Ali since their high school days at Murry Bergtraum High School in Lower Manhattan back in the Eighties. "That entire class of D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, and Lauryn Hill — and moving on to André 3000, Kanye West, and Talib Kweli — everything that is left of everything begins with Tribe." (Fittingly, West, Kweli, and André all make cameos on We Got It From Here.)
If Tip's obsession was sound, Phife's was slightly different. "With Phife, we connected with sports," says Rock. Calling himself the "five-foot assassin" as well as "a funky diabetic" (he'd been battling the disease since age nineteen), Phife was the everyman of the group. Anyone who knew him will tell you rapping and sports were his main passions. "As much as the Knicks didn't win, he was a fan to the end," says his mother. A poet and actress, she exposed her young son to the world of theater and verse, but it was his daddy and uncle who unleashed the sports beast. "The only thing he didn't watch, sports-related, was hockey."
But soon a new passion emerged for Phife: After Midnight Marauders, Phife got married and moved to Atlanta. "He became more of a family man with his wife and son," his mother says. "He was married for eighteen years." Tribe went on to make two more records — Beats, Rhymes, and Life, in 1996, and The Love Movement, in 1998 — but as so often happens, what began as a labor of love turned into a source of anxiety. "It started being more about how successful a record was, how many spins it got at radio, and all that stupid shit that jades you," says Q-Tip. The group announced its split just before the release of The Love Movement. Though they continued to tour, there was a new dimension to their family vibe: They now fought like brothers. The 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest caught them squabbling, though when they put it aside onstage the results were as impressive as ever.
Last November, Tribe reunited on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of People's Instinctive Travels. "When we did that show, that was the starting point," Q-Tip says. "I knew if we were connecting with that kind of energy in a performance, it would be easy to go back to the studio."
"I thought the nigga was bullshitting about doing another album, but the next day he was still with it," Busta Rhymes recalled at the P.S.1 listening party. (Rhymes — who made appearances on the Tribe classics "Scenario" and "Oh My God" — has now officially joined Tribe as a part of the crew.) Phife, too, believed it was just wishful thinking. "He thought they might be able to make a five-song EP and that would be it," his mother laughs. "He never thought they'd have enough for a whole album."
But over a year's time, the Tribesmen worked as a team at Tip's studio, the AbLab, in New Jersey. (Ab is short for Abstract, one of Q-Tip's many monikers.) Designed with his longtime engineer Blair Wells, the studio is filled with analog equipment, including a tape machine that once belonged to Frank Zappa and preamps used on records made by Jimi Hendrix, the Ramones, and Blondie. "That studio was Tip's dream project, and it took years to complete," says Consequence, Q-Tip's cousin and a rapper who appears along with Busta on the We Got It From Here track "Mobius." "I remember when that place was just wood."
Tip, known for woodshedding with music, drew inspiration from an unlikely source. "I began listening to a lot of Stooges and early Iggy Pop solo albums," he says. "I just love it. I think you can hear the rock in our record too." He and Phife spoke at length about how to maintain Tribe's heritage without getting trapped by it. "We knew we had to keep the thread but also push it forward," says Tip. "With the beats, he was always quick to be like thumbs-up, thumbs-down. He was usually right dead on."
Phife's manager, Dion "Rasta Roots" Liverpool, was with the rapper during every trip he made to the AbLab. "We'd fly up and stay at a hotel near Q-Tip's house," says Roots from his home in Atlanta. Phife needed dialysis three times a week to control his diabetes. He spent the rest of his time constructing We Got It From Here.
"Every evening he'd go down to the house, and he and Tip would spend hours in there vibing and coming up with lines," Roots says. "Seeing them together in the studio joking, coming up with ideas, disagreeing, vibing, and trading vocals, it was pretty incredible. It was like watching a unicorn."
"That shit was so much fun," says Tip. "We were like kids again."
But just four months after Tip and Phife were reunited, on March 22, 2016, Phife died at his home. "I had seen him a few weeks before, so I was in total shock," says Pos from De La Soul, who has known the Tribe since they were all teenagers. "When it happened, we made our way to Tip's house in New Jersey. We cried together, hung out, and just celebrated our brother. It felt good knowing that Q-Tip and Phife had been in segue with one another and knocked out some great stuff. After all those years, Tip and Phife were finally in a good place with each other."
The day after the November 11 release of We Got It From Here, A Tribe Called Quest were the musical guest on an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Dave Chappelle. Introducing "We the People" under a banner bearing Phife's scowling mug, Q-Tip modified the hip-hop exhortation to throw your hands in the air. "If you looking at us, stand up, touch someone next to you," he told the viewing audience. "One fist in the air." Then, with his arm raised in a Black Power salute, he added, "We are all one. We are the people."
The following Monday, Q-Tip reflected on the performance and how the political message of Tribe's new album had hit home. "When you are a citizen of this country and you see what's afoot, you could either not deal with it or deal with it," he said. "Our choice was the latter. But we also made a choice not to be heavy-handed, to still keep it in our own tongue. We certainly had good expectations, but none of us expected it would be like this."
He paused and his thoughts went back to the state of things. "It's a trying moment. It's one of a heightened sense of desperation and unknowing. Climate collapsing, war, real shifts domestically with the past election. It's the polar opposite of what we've experienced the last eight years toward what we're looking forward to for the next four. All that has made people look at this record as a constellation, and it's humbling. We don't take this lightly."
Tip said that a Tribe tour wasn't likely but wasn't impossible. "It's hard to think of that without Phife," he added. "But you can never say never." In any case, the message would continue.
"I'm glad we are having this moment, but we are looking forward to others — whether it be Lauryn or André or Nas or D'Angelo — continuing to add dialogue and add their voices," he said. "Hip-hop is freedom. It's expression, it's revolutionary, it's evolved. It's bombastic. It's a place for us to thrive. A place to express."
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