Phife Is Gone, But Tribe Is Back

Tribe is back.

In 1985, a trio of New York high school students and lifelong friends began to form what would become, arguably, one of America’s most talented and influential pioneer hip-hop groups. As a product of the blossoming 1980s hip-hop culture, the group thrived, marching to its own beat. Looking back on their time together in an interview with NPR, temporary group member Jarobi White mentioned that A Tribe Called Quest produced music because they enjoyed it, and, “The money and the fame and all of that stuff, that was all secondary.” Clearly having fun with their small performances as developing musicians, the legendary group officially signed to Jive Records in 1989. Comprised of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (and Jarobi White, ‘89 – ’91), they released their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in April 1990. According to White, the group approached their work with a jazz background in mind, referencing “Stevie, Prince, Thelonious Monk, Mingus and Charlie Parker,” as musical inspirations.

Over the next decade, as A Tribe Called Quest ascended the ranks among music icons, the group released four additional albums to critical acclaim — The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders, Beats, Rhymes and Life, and The Love Movement —  the first three of which each went platinum in only a year or two. The group’s legacy continued on, as they were featured in documentaries (Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest), interviews, and sampled from on hundreds of tracks in the following years.

A Tribe Called Quest had originally split up “for good” in 1998, but reconvened in the spring of 2016 for one last secret project. After appearing on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, the group collected to begin recording one last album. Tragically, in March 2016, original group member Phife Dawg passed away at the early age of 45 due to medical complications with his diabetes. First taking time to reflect on Phife’s lifetime and collect themselves emotionally, the devastated remaining group members then set out to finish what they has started with their dear friend.

Q-Tip’s letter to fans announcing ATCQ’s latest album, which was posted on twitter. Photo credit: atribecalledquest.com

On November 11, 2016, A Tribe Called Quest released We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, completing their musical journey in a culminating work that both features and pays tribute to their lost brother.

Phife Dawg. Photo credit: Fuseboxradio via Flickr.

Inspired to learn more about this legendary group, I took advantage of the timely snow days to explore A Tribe Called Quest’s earliest music up through their latest release. Upon doing so, I found much more than I expected.

As a fan of hip-hop, I had already heard several of their more recognized tunes, such as “Can I Kick It?” and “Electric Relaxation,” but I never made a sincere effort to listen closely. What a mistake. I discovered the clever lyrics, both profound and prophetic, that seemingly bounced on top of the smooth, instrumental-style underlayer of many of their early cuts. Their music also largely featured emcee’s recounting their own personal stories and experiences. These qualities are best shown in “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo.”

We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service sounded noticeably different from mainstream hip-hop. I noticed the group implemented many signature characteristics of their early work, like the layered verses on top of a steady, yet funky, instrumental melody. As hip hop fan Kevin Cross (‘17) describes, the album “meshes classic Tribe and neo-Soul styles, with the help of many interesting featured artists, such as Anderson Paak, Talib Kweli, and Kendrick Lamar.” ATCQ’s latest release addressed topics from the controversiality of gentrification and personal identity to the concept of a home, tolerance for violence, and, of course, the passing of Phife Dawg. The talented wordplay and crafted approach to discussing prominent topics is masterful. Rob Sheehy (‘17) explained that ATCQ’s last album was “very diverse… [ATCQ] goes all over the place, in terms of their message.” Discussing the album with friends, family, and a couple of teachers, Outkast, Public Enemy, and Beastie Boys all found their own way into the conversation as related groups worth checking out.

With Phife’s passing in mind, the album possesses some additional qualities. Bryan Hooten, Upper School Jazz Band director and trombonist with the No BS! Brass Band, describes it as, “more impactful, knowing Phife [was] gone. Tribe’s messages have more clarity and urgency than before.”

So if you’re a fan of A Tribe Called Quest and you have yet to hear their latest album, how can you call yourself a true fan? If you did not claim to be a fan, no one will hold it against you for becoming a late follower of the group (essentially my situation). The album is available on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. I warn you, if you ignore this album and the messages it preaches, you are missing out on an auditory adventure chock-full of positivity, creativity, and musical ingenuity.

Featured image courtesy of atribecalledquest.com.

Watch ATCQ perform “We The People,” from their latest album, live on Saturday Night Live on November 12, 2016. 

About the author

Destana Herring is a senior at Collegiate.