“A Tribe Called Quest” jumped back into popular culture this past week, appearing on SNL and releasing their latest and apparently, last album, “We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service”. The iconic 90’s rap trio consists of Q- Tip, Phife Dawg and DJ/Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Tragically, Phife Dawg (Malik Izaak Taylor) passed away in March of this past year but the Queens born group had already begun recording on what would be their final work. Although not finished when Phife passed away, Q Tip said that Phife had “left the group with a blueprint of what we had to do”. It has been 17 years since their last album “The Love Movement” had hit the shelves and as the world has changed dramatically over their hiatus, Tribe remains a musical entity in a creative realm all its own. With Tribe back on the scene we’re going to take a look at their catalog and overall impact on not only hip hop but the culture at large.
“Boy this track really has a lot of flavor
When it comes to rhythms, Quest is your savior
Follow us for the funky behavior
Make a note on the rhythm we gave ya”
– Phife Dawg, Can I Kick It, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
Q Tip and Phife grew up together in Queens, New York and their chemistry was almost immediate. The Malcom Gladwell book “Outliers” comes to mind when discussing the origins of Tribe. The book has become famous for its 10,000 hours of practice to master a trade theory but one of the other main positions of “Outliers” is that in order for someone to be truly great they have to exist at precisely the right time and place. Phife and Q Tip were born into a hip hop hotbed, a “coming of age” of when New York was alive with B-Boys and MCs. Originating at just the right time, and possessing their considerable talents and prodigious work ethic you have the blueprint to genius according to Gladwell.
The duo rapped under the name “Crush Connection” before switching to A Tribe Called Quest when Muhammad joined on. Their first album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”, was released in April of 1990 and featured their iconic single “Can I Kick It?”. It was clear that they were ahead of their time; some critics loved it, but hip hop was thought of as primarily a vehicle for dancing at the time. This resulted in people not knowing what to do with the groups light hearted, cerebral lyrics and slow bass lines.
That are waitin in my path, I overstep the critters
Give your ass the willies and your moms’ll get the jitters”
After touring with De La Soul and developing a deeply loyal fan base, ATCQ struck gold with their sophomore effort in 1991, “The Low End Theory”. It received universal acclaim and is considered to be one of the best hip hop albums of all time. It was revolutionary to the genre for a few different reasons. It started hip hop’s love of using jazz samples, one that exists to this day and the influence can be heard across rap’s diverse landscape. The other aspect that has become a calling card for the group is the conversational interplay on songs between Phife and Q Tip. Throughout “The Low End Theory” the listener experiences the two lyrically tagging each other out like some of the greatest professional wrestling tag teams the world has ever seen. Instead of waiting for each other’s verses to end, Q Tip and Phife jump in from line to line and the listener gets the feeling of hearing two old friends having a private conversation. The wonderful and irreverent Shea Serrano describes it best in his must own “The Hip Hop Yearbook”, describing the song “Check The Rhime”. Serrano says, “You may have never set foot in Queens, New York, but this song took your spirit there, right to Linden Boulevard, where you found yourself in that cipher with Tip and Phife as they ran through their fly routine.”
The album was followed up with “Midnight Marauders” an incredibly mature musical effort that only pushed the boundaries of beat makings but also pushed the group into a more socially conscious stratosphere. The group rapped about Mandela, respecting women and the use of the n-word. “Midnight Marauders” pushed them so far into the mainstream that they were the only rap group to perform at 1994’s Lollapalooza. This wasn’t the only opportunity the Tribe received as they were each individually finding success outside of the Tribe. The group had entered into the world of Hollywood in 1992, appearing on Boomerang’s soundtrack. The pictures kept calling and eventually Q Tip starred across Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur in John Singelton’s “Poetic Justice”. Phife Dawg was featured on many tracks throughout the mid 1990’s and Muhammad had been tapped to work on projects of some of the biggest acts of the time.
“It’s time to go left and not right
Gotta get it together forever
Gotta get it together for brothers
Gotta get it together for sisters”
-Phife Dawg & Q Tip, The Space Program, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
“Beats, Rhymes and Life”, the group’s 4th project still reached platinum status, but cracks in the group began to surface. Q Tip and Muhammad had a different vision for the direction of the group and Phife had begun to feel as though it wasn’t what he wanted to do anymore. The group had fully crossed over into the mainstream with their single “Same Ol’ Thing”, being featured on the Men in Black soundtrack. Over the course of just 7 years they went from unknowns happy to open for De La Soul, to being featured on of the biggest budgeted movie’s of all time’s soundtrack. A few years later “The Love Movement” debuted and the group announced at the time, that it would be their last release. If this is beginning to sound like an episode of VH1 “Behind the Music” its because creative endeavors so often do end this way. Tribe’s beauty has always been their complexity and growth, and the forces behind it simply drifted apart. Like many of the best narratives, Tribe has a positive creative ending.
The only positive thing about losing a musical legend is that you’re reminded of the great work that he or she has done. When Phife Dawg passed earlier this year, it resonated with so many different people across the world that it became obvious that the impact of Tribe was undeniable. It wasn’t until August, nearly 6 months after his passing, that it was announced that a new album was going to be released. In today’s climate its easy to be skeptical about a posthumous release and many hip hop fans were worried that this was some sort of cash grab. These fears turned out to be foolish, “Thank You 4 Your Service” is a masterpiece that highlights the very best of A Tribe Called Quest. The music itself is inventive and true to the style that made them one of the biggest rap groups ever. At the same time it evolved with the times and sounds fresh. The interplay in the lyrics is there and the contrast between playfulness and thoughtfulness is classic Tribe.
So often the actual product falls short of expectations. That’s why the payoff of this album feels particularly amazing. Almost 17 Years have passed between the last project and that time off feels justified with what has been given to us. Our cofounder and certified hip hop head Dean Andriotis, puts it best when discussing “Thank You 4 Your Service”…“Tribe managed to update their sound without sacrificing their lyrical fiber. They actually got better with time. They literally challenged listeners and artists to be better, and they led by example.”