In the late summer of 2015 I was asked to pen liner notes for a new collection of A Tribe Called Quest’s greatest hits and underrated gems, and I was beyond happy. I am not merely a fan;I am a relentless advocate of this group as one of the most important ever. When the crew stopped making music, broke up, came back together, split again, reunited, and had their career and lives documented, nakedly, in the unforgettable Michael Rapaport film Beats, Rhymes & Life, I never stopped believing they would eventually forgive and heal. Tribe’s music has always been a part of my life, so it was a no-brainer to describe their gigantic footprints for the liner notes.
I went to a Stussy store in Soho, New York City to see the four original members at an autograph signing a week or two after I’d received the assignment. I peeped that Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were not sitting next to each other. I observed how Phife had aged dramatically, how exhausted he appeared, the result of his life-long wrestling match with diabetes. But his jovial personality was ever-present as a thick column of multi-colored millennials nudged and pushed through the door and down the block to get a glimpse of Tribe, their hip-hop heroes. Most of these millennials had not been born when Tribe’s first album was produced in 1990. It didn’t matter.
Little did I know this would be the last time I would see hip-hop’s Fab Four together in person. We know that Phife died, unexpectedly, tragically, in March of this year. My liner notes had already been written and just sat, silently, for months. But when I learned that there had been one final project, that music had been recorded and a new album of new music completed, I decided to publish these liner notes as my personal tribute to A Tribe Called Quest, as an homage to Phife Dawg, exactly as it was written for that greatest hits album that never happened—
I don't really mind if it's over your head/Cuz the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead
So pay attention, it's not hard to decipher/And after the horns, you can check out the Phifer
—Q-Tip, “Jazz (We’ve Got)”
Back in the day, when George H.W. Bush was president and the crack epidemic was deferring and devastating dreams in urban America, four young lads birthed from the loins of New York City—Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi from Queens and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from Brooklyn—struck b-boy poses in Afrocentric garb, determined to make a way out of no way.
They were baptized A Tribe Called Quest, and the crew, a mash-up between Sun Ra’s spacey imagination and Miles Davis’ sonic experimentations, were beamed smack dab into the middle of hip-hop’s “golden era.” Roughly covering the years 1985 through the late 1990s–from Run-DMC to Tupac, Biggie, and Jay-Z—that period was animated, dynamic, and as necessary as the glory days of rock and roll in the 1950s, and the Motown Sound and British Invasion of the 1960s.
And just as New Orleans incubated jazz and its innovators like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong generations before, New York boroughs like The Bronx and Queens hatched a cultural revolution heard ’round the world, with little more than microphones and crafty wordplay, turntables, spray paint and magic markers, cardboard or linoleum to dance on, and the vinyl record collections of their parents.
Yes, hip-hop America was created from practically nothing, on the heels of Dr. King’s assassination and the Civil Rights Movement, in the midst of the neglect and decay of New York, yet magically propelled by the fearless agitprop genius of its children like the members of A Tribe Called Quest.
At the time the golden era had bumrushed the show, the culture was routinely producing major rap acts and musical game-changers like Public Enemy, N.W.A, Salt N Pepa, Queen Latifah, the Geto Boys, and MC Lyte. Such was the diversity inside hip-hop’s golden era that Tribe belonged to the artsy, funkadelic wing known as the Native Tongues, whose membership featured De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and U.K.-import Monie Love.
Self-emancipated from any restrictions as they recalibrated bohemia with working-class Black pride and Beat Generation poetic explorations, A Tribe Called Quest, in one surrealist brushstroke after another, spit humorous lectures, life meditations, and social commentary into ripe ear holes on how cool it was to be intelligent, whimsical, silly, a sports fan, a lover of love and sex; but they were also brain-digging pop culture archeologists able to reference cartoons, history, politics, and TV sitcoms in a single bound; and the members of Tribe were unapologetic music geeks who knew and sampled obscure jazz masters like Weldon Irvine (“Award Tour”) and Grant Green (“Vibes and Stuff”) while also verbally bouncing off the beat-making wall of their Japanese peer Towa Tei (“Find A Way”).
Tribe’s two front men, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, were not just the vocal leaders, but had known each other since they were tiny toddlers in Queens. Phife and Jarobi met as teens in that same Q-borough and shared a love of basketball and hip-hop, while Tip and deejay/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad crossed paths at The Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Manhattan.
Although Jarobi would depart for a culinary career after Tribe’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Tip often referred to him “as the soul of our group.” In subsequent years Jarobi would rejoin the squad for reunion shows, the spiritual glue that has kept this band of brothers rolling into the 21st century.
But A Tribe Called Quest was new millennium before it existed. Be it Q-Tip’s prophetic, nasal chants that snapped in our minds a selfie nicknamed The Abstract (“Mr. Incognito”), or the hyped up rude boy rumblings and braggadocio of Phife AKA The Funky Diabetic (“Oh My God”), Tribe represented for both the boyz n the hood and the college boys on the
the group is American artistic royalty, its street-level dissertations as mandatory as the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays of August Wilson
yard with a breezy effortlessness, while also keeping it seductive and mad real for the ladies (“Electric Relaxation”).
Possessed with that bottomless, ancestral vision and inventive nimbleness that negated the fact they were mere 20-somethings, A Tribe Called Quest generated five albums in eight years (plus numerous remixes, demos, and movie soundtrack cuts), impacting along the way major musical trailblazers like Pharrell Williams, The Beastie Boys, Beck, Outkast, The Roots, Common, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, and Kanye West.
Tribe is not simply one of the great collectives in hip-hop history, the group is American artistic royalty, its street-level dissertations as mandatory as the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays of August Wilson. The crew’s influence is far-reaching, global, multi-cultural, multi-generational, a rhythm nation as revolutionary and triumphant as the Beach Boys majestic milestone Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ landmark Sergeant Pepper. No doubt Tip and Phife are hip-hop’s Lennon and McCartney, standing eyeball to eyeball, swapping vocabularies, intentionally and matter-of-factly stepping on each other’s utterances, a rites-of-passage kinship born in the tradition of African griots, Caribbean toasters, Southern bluesmen, street corner preachers, and homies on the block talkin’ ish and blowin’ melodic musings into the wind.
That they chose to make jazz the root and tree stump for their art meant Tribe could do what Miles did in his journey: brazenly maneuver from straight ahead jazz to rock, funk, and soul fusions. Be it those bumpy jazz riffs over a breakbeat (“Same Ol’ Thing”), stripped down acid jams (“1nce Again”), or R&B in its raw essence (“Stressed Out”), A Tribe Called Quest, divested of the African garb of their early career and now wearing the uniform of the everyday homeboy, deftly defied pre-packaged stereotypes of the Black man-child. Tribe be Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, yes, but Tribe also be Dylan Thomas, Alan Ginsberg, and bebop, too: free, loose, wildly unpredictable.
That they could be all of this, and still also give us the greatest rap posse cut ever (“Scenario”), teach a master class on storytelling (“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”), manipulate metaphors to express their love for women and a certain body part (“Bonita Applebum”), and slyly reconstruct the call-and-response tradition of the Black church (“Can I Kick It?”) says, loudly, that A Tribe Called Quest were far, far ahead of the game, and far, far ahead of their time.
Kevin Powell is a writer, activist, public speaker, and pop culture historian. He produced the very first exhibit on the history of hip-hop for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kevin was also a founding staff member at Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine, where he interviewed and wrote extensively about rap legend Tupac Shakur. He is the author or editor of 12 books, including his latest, 'The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood.'