Lennon and McCartney; Morrissey and Marr; the Gallagher brothers. Some of the most iconic pop music ever made has been predicated by immense partnerships. Looking back at A Tribe Called Quest’s body of work, it’s clear that MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg undoubtedly deserve their place within that pantheon. Along with DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and MC Jarobi White (who only lent his voice for their first and last albums), they spearheaded a revolution of forward-thinking, intellectual hip-hop during the Nineties, and cultivated an influence that has gripped generations of rappers and producers since. OutKast’s experimental playfulness; Kendrick Lamar’s compelling lyricism; Madlib’s sample-heavy beats. None of this would’ve arguably been possible if it weren’t for A Tribe Called Quest.
Q-Tip (Kabaal Ibn John Fareed) and Phife (Malik Izaak
Taylor) had already forged a relationship before Tribe’s formation, having
grown up together in Queens, New York. Q-Tip performed as MC Love Child, and
recruited Muhammad as his part-time DJ. Phife, or Crush Connection as he was
formerly known, frequently collaborated with the duo, and eventually joined the
group on a permanent basis once Jarobi became a member. The group’s name spawned
from Q-Tip’s appearance on the Jungle Brothers’ 1988 track ‘The Promo’, on
which he spits about coming “from A Tribe
Called Quest”. Although he had never featured on a record prior to ‘The Promo’, Q-Tip’s verse was as
confident an introduction as you’re ever likely to hear, and came at a time
when the hip-hop landscape was beginning to evolve once more.
READ MORE: De La Soul // ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ at 30 years old
Hip-hop transformed into a musical and cultural
tour-de-force during the 1980s. It wasn’t confined to house parties anymore; it
had spread beyond the Bronx where it originated and was drawing in audiences on
a much wider scale than ever before. It also became more stylistically diverse.
Run-D.M.C., decked out in their Adidas shoes, gold chains and fedoras, took the
fashion of the streets to the mainstream, and pulled hip-hop away from its funk
and disco roots with their hard-hitting beats and efficacious rapping. Public
Enemy were using their voices to hold the powers that be accountable over a
furious collage of noise, while N.W.A. drew from their own experiences of
racism and police brutality, riling up white, suburban middle-class America in
A Tribe Called Quest, as well as the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and the rest of the Native Tongues collective that they were each a part of, represented another sea change as the decade drew to a close. The group didn’t last long, but their eclectic palette of sounds were no less era-defining. Embracing their youthful positivity and wearing their Afrocentrism on their sleeves, the Native Tongues balanced socially-aware lyrics with colourful, sample-laden instrumentals that incorporated segments from jazz, soul and funk songs. Each member carved their own niche, but it was Tribe who left the most enduring legacy, and enjoyed the most commercial success to boot. Driven by Q-Tip’s ambition, they pioneered jazz-rap during a classic three-album run (1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, 1991’s The Low End Theory, and 1993’s Midnight Marauders), with Tip and Phife forming an unparalleled chemistry on the mic. Whether they were light-heartedly bragging about their rapping proficiency, expanding your mind with some thought-provoking commentary, or simply setting out to make you dance and have fun, A Tribe Called Quest had you covered.
Cracks within the group started to surface around the
release of their fourth album Beats, Rhymes And
Life. By 1996, Tribe’s dynamic had drastically changed. Q-Tip, who was
now working with other artists more freely, had converted to Islam, which
greatly affected his relationship with his partner in rhyme. Phife meanwhile
had moved from New York to Atlanta, with the making of Midnight Marauders and the rigours of touring physically draining
him. Tip and Phife’s personalities had always contrasted – the former an
ambitious perfectionist (occasionally to his detriment), the latter equally
skilled but sometimes stubborn and difficult to work with – but the distance
between the pair had grown. The internal difficulties contributed with their
artistic decline, and by 1998, A Tribe Called Quest announced that they would
be no more, a month before The Love Movement
was set for release.
Each member of A Tribe Called Quest embarked on new projects thereafter. Q-Tip (unsurprisingly) fared the greatest after Tribe’s break-up; each of his three solo records received critical acclaim, and his collaboration with The Chemical Brothers (‘Galvanise’) earned him his first Grammy Award in 2006. Phife released his first and only solo album Ventilation: Da LP in 2000, on which he didn’t hesitate to hide his resentment towards Tip as well as Tribe’s label Jive Records. Rapping with a rediscovered intensity, he blasted Tip for his increasingly commercial music, and accused Jive of neglecting and tearing Tribe apart. Then there was Muhammad, who emphasised his production credentials as one-third of Lucy Pearl, an R&B group that also consisted of Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Raphael Saadiq and En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson. Unfortunately, the group only had one album to their name, and split up after just three years together.
Tribe reformed in 2006 and played several high-profile
live shows, but a new album seemed like a distant possibility. Nine years
later, they were back in the studio, reinvigorated after performing on ‘The
Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’. But just four months into recording,
tragedy struck. Phife sadly succumbed to the diabetes he’d been suffering with
since he was 19 – a loss that deeply shocked and saddened the hip-hop world. Now
without one of his closest friends, Q-Tip was left to complete the album, aided
by collaborators both old and new. We
Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was finally unveiled to the
world on 11th November 2016, with Q-Tip announcing it was to be
Tribe’s last album. Having parted ways under bitter circumstances the first
time around, it was thankfully the swansong they so richly deserved.
Funny, political, and lovingly drenched in nostalgia, We Got It From Here… reaffirmed
everything that made A Tribe Called Quest such legendary bastions of hip-hop.
Despite their affinity for the past, it also showed just how good they were at
freshening up their sound, a quality which lent itself to one of the most
timeless back catalogues ever assembled in hip-hop.
Speaking of that timeless back catalogue, feel free to check out our
Spotify playlist below, and have a read of our journey through each of A
Tribe Called Quest’s six albums on the next page!
Influenced: Wu-Tang Clan, OutKast, Gang Starr, Nas, Fugees, Mos Def, Busta
Rhymes, DJ Shadow, Jurassic 5, Common, The Chemical Brothers, Gorillaz, Madlib,
Roots Manuva, Kendrick Lamar, Loyle Carner
Influenced by: James Brown, Ron Carter, Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Beastie Boys
Tags: A Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, artist profile, Introduction to, Jarobi White, Matty Watkin, Phife Dawg, playlist, Q-Tip
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