The Tribe Flies High Like a Dove
On a recent Friday evening, the hip-hop journalist Elliott Wilson had gathered Q-Tip and Jarobi White, two members of A Tribe Called Quest, along with the rapper Busta Rhymes and the producer Consequence, two recent Tribe collaborators, onstage at Webster Hall, a club in the East Village. The event was part of #CRWN, an interview program hosted by Wilson, the founder of the Web site Rap Radar and a former editor-in-chief of XXL; the show is recorded in front of a live audience and later broadcast on the music-streaming service Tidal. All five men were seated on tufted red-velvet chairs.
A week earlier, A Tribe Called Quest had released “We Got It from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service,” its first new album in eighteen years. That same week, the group was the musical guest on an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” hosted by Dave Chappelle—the first to air after the election. At Webster Hall, Q-Tip, who was wearing shiny leather pants and a leopard-print coat, described it as “the blackest ‘S.N.L.’ ever”—or at least, he suggested, the blackest since 1975, when Richard Pryor and Gil Scott-Heron appeared on the show together. Early estimates indicated that “We Got It from Here” was about to début at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. (It did.) The mood in the room was appreciative, grateful: here, at least, were developments that felt redemptive.
Nobody was expecting A Tribe Called Quest to announce a new album in 2016. Last spring, Phife Dawg, one of the group’s founding members, died, at age forty-five, of complications related to his diabetes. The group had been on some kind of vague but seemingly interminable hiatus since 1999, just after the release of its fifth LP, “The Love Movement.” Its members reunited periodically for live performances, but there were complicated and long-standing interpersonal tensions between Q-Tip and Phife. The band’s influence might have been permanently threaded through the pop charts, but a true return seemed unlikely.
The glimpses, though, had been tantalizing. In late 2015, the original lineup—Q-Tip, Phife, White, and the d.j. and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad—appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of their début album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.” They performed a single from that album, “Can I Kick It?,” with the Roots, Fallon’s house band and a hip-hop institution on its own. In the footage, Fallon, who is famously excitable, appears to be quivering with anticipation as he introduces them. (After the performance, when Q-Tip disappears from the stage, Fallon hollers “Oh, my God!” five times.)
“Can I Kick It?” samples the spindly, loping bass line from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and bits of “What a Waste,” by the British new-wave act Ian Dury and the Blockheads; “Spinning Wheel,” by the jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith; “Dance of the Knights,” by the Russian pianist and composer Sergei Prokofiev; and “Sunshower,” by the swing-influenced disco outfit Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. This sort of caste-free cross-pollination seems unremarkable now, in an era in which everything is instantly available and unmoored in time, but in the early nineteen-nineties Tribe’s eclectic and carnivorous sampling felt bold, almost obscene. It is, at least, a metaphor for the group’s ideological mission—a reiteration of the idea that the generous intermingling of cultures yields beauty and understanding. “Can I Kick It?” is a docile song that opens with a self-ratifying call and response: “Can I kick it? Yes, you can.” Q-Tip’s voice—nasal, mousy, bookish—is steadying. He remains disinterested in the histrionics that plague less confident m.c.s.
For years, there was a mumbled consensus that A Tribe Called Quest, with its socially conscious lyrics and avaricious sampling, was hip-hop for college-educated white people who were frightened by Ice Cube. This is a reductive and unproductive idea, of course, but it is probably somewhat true—though the group also inspired plenty of young black artists, too. (“Tip’s kind of like the father of all of us, like me, Kanye, Pharrell,” André 3000, one half of the Atlanta-based duo OutKast, recently told the Times.)
The two highest-charting rap songs in 1990—the year that A Tribe Called Quest released its début—were Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” In Los Angeles and Miami, groups like N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew were making artful and provocative records—building a vehement case for rap as a reimagining of folk music, a medium for populist unease, distrust, and insurgency—but for most casual American listeners hip-hop was a novelty genre. You either built a clever, hyper-verbal, honking pop song around a familiar hook or you seethed.
A Tribe Called Quest suggested a different path. The group’s gentler, more cerebral approach borrowed plainly from the spirituality and rhythms of jazz, and, along with De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and Jungle Brothers, Tribe became the nucleus of a New York City-based collective known as Native Tongues. The movement was deeply Afrocentric, preoccupied by obscure samples sourced from rare vinyl, and resistant to violence and misogyny as lyrical themes.
The electricity of last year’s “Tonight Show” performance is what facilitated the recording of new material. “We were talking so much shit that night. It was crazy—it was a great night,” Q-Tip recalled. Tribe reconciled, and the group, along with a cabal of guests—including Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, André 3000, Elton John, Kanye West, Anderson Paak, and Talib Kweli—retreated to Q-Tip’s New Jersey home, where he keeps a professional studio. He was insistent that the work be done there, collaboratively. Verses would not be phoned in. A giggly, domestic warmth is palpable on some tracks; this is a place artists get to only when they have been alone in a basement for too many hours, stabbing at cartons of congealing takeout. But Phife, who was receiving dialysis treatments, might have been weakened by the work. “He basically gave his life to make this album,” Jarobi White said.
“We Got It from Here” is a record about trying to be a better person: to engage with the world in deeper, more mindful, and more loving ways. This has been a theme for A Tribe Called Quest since the group’s outset. Recorded several months before the election, the album feels farseeing if not prophetic in its accounting of current affairs. “The world is crazy and I cannot sleep,” Q-Tip announces on “Melatonin.” (His advice? “Pop melatonin like they Swedish Fish.”) On “We the People . . . ,” he offers a plainspoken entreaty for solidarity and understanding: “When we get hungry, we eat the same fucking food—the ramen noodle.” The chorus, meanwhile, is a recounting of a nightmarish America, in which Mexicans, black folks, poor folks—all must go. “Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways,” Q-Tip sings.
At the #CRWN taping, the election results were still on Q-Tip’s mind. He described the surge of protesters thronging Fifth Avenue, stomping uptown toward Trump Tower during the group’s “S.N.L.” performance. “I think people voted for him out of anger—from a lack, from not-having,” Q-Tip said. “For people to look at this record, the timing—even if it’s not doing anything other than making them feel better—that’s beyond all of us.” There was also a sense that the album had been palliative for the group itself, in more personal ways. The members were able to offer a posthumous gift to their friend. It was Phife’s birthday that week. “Phife is looking down and laughing his ass off at all this shit,” Q-Tip said.