In 1994, while in the process of trying to secure a deal for Slum Village, Yancey bumped into one of his musical heroes, Jonathan “Q-Tip” Davis of A Tribe Called Quest. “I gave Tip a tape, and the same day he called back,” Yancey told Chairman Mao for a 1996 “Next” profile inVIBE magazine. “He was like ‘Who did these beats?’ After that shit just took off.”
Until that time, Tip handled the lion’s share of Tribe’s production, but his referral of Jay Dee to the Pharcyde had been such a success that he decided to include the Detroit producer in a new collective called the Ummah. “At the time there were a lot of production crews,” Tip explained in an interview. “There was the Goodfellas, the Trackmasters etc. We just wanted to get our shit out like that, so we tried to form the Ummah and tried to get that shit poppin’.”
Ummah is an Arabic word meaning community, brotherhood, or tribe. At the time Tip had just taken his shahada, a declaration of Sunni Muslim faith, and got Ali into Islam as well. “We were making salat [prayer] in the studio,” he told Spin in 1999. “It just became a seriousness whereas prior, there was a lightheartedness to Tribe. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, and then I think I was guilty of taking myself way too seriously.” Tip and Phife were at odds, Tribe fans could sense something wrong with the creative chemistry on the group’s 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life. As the new recruit to the camp, Jay Dee (and guest rapper Consequence) took much of the blame for messing up the group’s vibe.
In retrospect the Ummah’s production introduced a new complexity and polish to Tribe’s sound, as heard on tracks like “1nce Again” and “Word Play.” Still it would be fair to say that the Ummah did its best work for outside clients, starting with Busta Rhymes whose solo debut,The Coming, boasted several of the crew’s beats—included an amazing unreleased Biggie collab. Jay Dee’s remixes of Busta’s first single, “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check,” made Bussa Buss a believer—he would continue to work with the Detroit producer throughout his career. Ditto for De La Soul, who first discovered Yancey’s talents as part of the Ummah.
The group’s most infamous project was a coulda shoulda woulda situation in which they made a track for Janet Jackson—whom Tip met on the set of the film Poetic Justice—that became “Got Till It’s Gone,” which did not credit any of them. (Whether that was a bite or a straight-up jack move is a matter of debate.) The Ummah’s last major project was Q-Tip’s solo debut, Amplified. The album resulted in some chart success but further confusion about who did what.“With Ummah, just because I was the face, people would automatically assume sometimes…that I produced it or that I did the beat when it was Dilla,” Tip said later. “Dilla wanted to make sure that he got known for what he did. So I can empathize with where Dilla was at because I was at the same place, you know? I think it was a great idea to represent a unit. But from poor management to not really understanding the ramifications of it, it didn’t work to that great idea necessarily. Still, in all, I think we all were able to make some good music.”