To call oneself a ‘90s hip-hop head without listening to A Tribe Called Quest is outright sacrilege.
The cohort consisting of rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dawg and DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad with occasional support from MC Jarobi White were innovators of a playful, intellectual, socially-conscious brand of hip-hop in the age when Gangsta Rap was in ascendancy.
It’s all too easy to wax nostalgic on the Tribe’s finest moments.
There was the off-kilter sampling of Lou Reed’s bass riff from “Walk on the Wild Side” in one of their early singles, “Can I Kick It?” Phife Dawg’s adroit narrative lamentations of how “she finally played me / But yo, I’d find another / ‘Cause I got the crazy game / And yo, I’m smooth like butter.” The endless exuberance and flashy-panache-y wordplay on “Award Tour.”
The Tribe’s influence on ‘90s hip-hop soundscapes is difficult to overestimate. Their first three albums received universal acclaim, and during the days of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Ready to Die, they proved it was possible to find success in rap without confining one’s lyrical content to horror stories from the ‘hood.
Everyone from Kanye to Chano who’s dared to rap without gangsta posturing owes a debt to A Tribe Called Quest.
Let that much suffice to establish the Tribe’s legacy for the purposes of this write-up. You could write volumes about their albums The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders alone, but I don’t have that luxury at present.
The rap group disbanded in 1998 after the release of their fifth album, The Love Movement. Q-Tip, Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad continued pursuing creative endeavors throughout the 2000s, while Jarobi White launched a culinary career.
Up until March of this year, there wasn’t much Tribe-related news to be had. I got the update from a hostel in Madrid; Phife Dawg, the “five-foot assassin” and consummate “funky diabetic,” died of complications from his years-long struggle with diabetes.
For all intents and purposes, the sonic jazz-rap journeys of A Tribe Called Quest were finished.
Or so I thought. As it turns out, the Tribe had been plotting a comeback release for some time. Phife laid down some verses for the album before his passing, while Q-Tip and Shaheed Muhammad rallied together Jarobi White, Jack White, Busta Rhymes, Consequence and Elton John, among others.
The resulting work, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, is dark and jittery amid our current political situation, but preserves the Tribe’s penchant for adventurous lyrics and esoteric, far-out production.
Album opener “The Space Program” features production that would be at home on Cudi’s Man on the Moon II, while Q-Tip and Jarobi White deliver fast and furious flows that sound like a transmission from Saturn. The Tribe employs their deft, analytical lyrics to bemoan our political reality on “We the People...,” with Q-Tip lamenting on the hook: “All of you black folks, you must go … Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.”
Shaheed Muhammad showcases his continued omnivorous taste in samples on “Solid Wall of Sound,” which loops Elton John’s vocals from “Bennie and the Jets” against rapid-fire exchanges between Q-Tip, Phife and Busta Rhymes to spacey, stellar effect, before actually bringing Elton John onto the track at the end.
The Tribe are at their most jovial on “Dis Generation,” which features Surf Rock riffs from Jack White while Q-Tip lavishes praise upon MCs who’ve come of age since the Tribe went on hiatus: “Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole / Gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul.”
The rest of the album features Phife at his utmost “five-foot assassin” and “Trini gladiator,” exchanging razor-sharp lines with Q-Tip on “Black Spasmodic.” There are tributes to the late, great, “funky diabetic” on “Lost Somebody” and “The Donald,” on which the Tribe aims to reclaim the title of our nefarious president-elect in order to honor Phife.
Overall, A Tribe Called Quest’s final album is somber in the wake of our recent presidential election and the untimely death of Phife Dawg. But it delivers the same pulse and ethos that we’ve come to love this band for since “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and “Excursions.”
“Excursions.” That’s the key word. From People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm through to We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest has always striven to take listeners along engaging, rap-based narrative journeys.
Our final voyage with the Tribe is wrought with pathos and a tense conflict of ideas, but it never ceases to be at once adventurous and profound.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest on Facebook.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.