Music by VICE

A Tribe Called Quest's Final Blessing

In a lifetime of looking forward to new music from Tribe, 'We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service' was an unexpected gift.

by sdq
Nov 22 2016, 3:33pm

Word began circulating in August, with an off-the-cuff hint from L.A. Reid. A new Tribe Called Quest album would be coming out before the end of the year.

My mind went to Jimi Hendrix and his dozen posthumous projects. I hoped it wasn't one of those damn "Best Of" albums. By the end of October it was all over social media. The cover art popped up on IG and ping-ponged around with the same question being asked: Will Phife be on this album? When I saw the answer was a resounding, "yes," Phife was there, it was like '88 all over again—I was eagerly anticipating A Tribe Called Quest release.

And it felt good.

For the next couple weeks I waited, excited. I downloaded We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service the instant it came out, texting back and forth with my brother. What would a Tribe album after all these years even sound like? I was hoping for more Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders and less Beats, Rhymes, & Life or Love Movement. The first four songs seemed like more of the latter than the former. Q-Tip's influence was heavy. Then the fifth song, "Dis Generation," snapped me out of my pedestrian listening:                     

Q-Tip: In the box with the capital G, balling the beat
Phife: Status, Chris Paul and John Wall in the league / Grabbin' mics till the knuckles'll bleed,
Q-Tip: 'cause I believe
Phife and Tip: The potent and the quote will have ya geek
Phife: like speed / If rationale is naturale, then we'll weave / It's all edges and peaks / Settin' picks, we on a permanent steez

As always, Q-Tip and Phife complemented each other perfectly, Tip the abstract one and Phife the more street-oriented sports fanatic. The first minute continued like this, and then it was back and forth between Tip and Jarobi. Suddenly I wasn't just excited because of the promise of something new; I felt blessed to be listening at all. I remembered falling in love with Tribe in the first place.

The emotion of anticipation has all but been eliminated and, with the modern listener, transformed. Instead of anticipating a release, listeners now expect one. That turns the tables on the fan/artist relationship. Where the fan once was appreciative of receiving anything at all, now the fan believes that the artist owes them something.

Back in 1988 when we heard Q-tip's voice for the first time on the Jungle Brother's Straight Out The Jungle album cut "Black is Black"—"Now this is Q-tip from A Tribe Called Quest"—it was common to hear the voice of an MC or their group, get excited about them, and never hear from or about them again. In some cases, we would hear a name—the Violators, for example—not know who they were, comb the credits of every release that we had in our possession, and never learn anything more about them.

Q-Tip was on two cuts on Straight Out the Jungle: "Black is Black" and "The Promo." The former was cool, and Q-Tip's voice was addictive, but it was the latter that made me want to hear more from him. Aside from the fact that it was a harder track, in those 50 seconds we learned that A Tribe Called Quest was Q-Tip and his DJ, Ali and that we should expect something from them in April ("a month after March, two before June").

My junior year in high school began as LA gangs flourished in Denver. Drive-bys and gang fights became the norm. You were either in a gang, played sports, or were a complete outcast. That was me and my brothers—complete outcast. We called ourselves "Da Fellas" (which was a School Daze homage), and we loved the Jungle Brothers. Their music was a blend of black pride, partying, and straight hip-hop. They were cool to us, and what high school teen doesn't want to be cool?

It was November of 1988, and to know that an album with a similar vibe would be out five months later was a gift that we rarely received. This was, after all, a world before the internet or any viable hip-hop magazines. We found out an album was being released by seeing a music video or, if the label put up money, we saw the promotional posters in our local record store, Russell's Records and Tapes. Russell's was the black-owned record shop in Park Hill that we bought all of our records and tapes from, and before there was a Blockbuster, it's where we rented our movies also.

April came and went. No Tribe album. But Q-Tip appeared on De La Soul's debut 3 Feet High and Rising, released in March of '89. And on what may be only the third posse cut ever ("Uptown is Kickin' It" and "The Symphony" being the first and second, respectively), the "Buddy" remix, we don't just hear from Q-Tip, we also have: the first appearance of the Five Foot Assassin, Phife Dawg, Queen Latifah—who was blowing up the airwaves with "Princess of the Posse" and "Wrath of my Madness"—singing, The Jungle Brothers represent, and another sista, Monie Love, all the way from London. (In one of the greatest snubs in the early days of rap, Phife is cut out of the video all together. Some say for length's sake, as the remix was a little over 7 minutes, but still…). In sum, we would eventually learn, these people represented the Native Tongues movement, a collective that shunned many of the trends of the time and focused on black consciousness.

In the late 80s and early 90s crack cocaine was sweeping the nation. Money was flowing, and New York rappers mirrored that life. Hip-hop style was defined by fat gold chains and Dapper Dan custom clothing. The Native Tongues artists rejected that, each in their own way. The Jungle Brothers, the first group out, had a more outward expression of black pride, and De La Soul were the quirky ones, with a playfulness and zaniness that was unheard of in rap at the time. A Tribe Called Quest was more everyday black person, which we soon discovered when they finally released a video, "Left My Wallet in El Segundo." As we'd expected, Tribe, in their dress and their expression, were in the same place that we were. We, too, were trying to find ourselves in a world between what people assumed the hip-hop fan was like, being conscious, and being our natural selves, what people now call nerddom. When the album finally did come out in April (albeit a year later than promised) it was what I expected, too: Reflective, eclectic, and filled with left-field samples.

My freshman year at Clark Atlanta, "Bonita Applebaum (Hootie Mix)" was in everyone's headset, blasted out of every speaker, and played at every party. Tribe had earned a strong following, but no one was expecting what would come next. From the very first seconds of the negative image, stop motion, Polaroid shots in Tribe's newest video, we knew we were looking at something special. And the song... what hasn't been written about "Check the Rhime"? Phife blows up the spot. This was the summer of '91. I was home that summer, and me and my brother hit up Russell's so much—asking questions about the release date, asking if they were going to give the promotional posters away, just being a straight nuisance—we were almost banned.

Finally after months of anticipation, Low End Theory came out, and it was a sensation everywhere, from the Atlanta University Center to USA Today. It played a pivotal role in ushering in the jazz-sampled sound that would rule New York rap for the next few years and was enough of a hearty album that fans felt satiated. If Tribe had never put out another album, we would have been satisfied with this classic. Witnessing Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali at this stage—post Black medallions, still conscious, pre-hardcore—was a reflection of where we were. We were becoming comfortable in our skin and finding our voices.

Sadly, an era was coming to an end. The next album, Midnight Marauders, is my personal favorite, exceeding the first two with no duds. (To this day, a common debate is which is better, Low End or Midnight. Imagine how intense it was then.) But the same day that Midnight Marauders was released, November 9, 1993, Wu-Tang Clan bum-rushed the industry with Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), and rap began to take on a darker, more violent sound.  The type of music that Tribe made eventually became obsolete.

I looked forward to Beats, Rhymes, and Life, but something seemed off when I heard it. In my estimation, it was neither the Dilla beats nor Consequence's presence. It was the chemistry. Having an all-Q-Tip song was normal. So was having an all-Phife song. But to have a song where the two barely exchanged verses... and guests' voices were prominent... that was off. The Love Movement was a formality, where it felt like they were going through the motions. When Tribe announced that they were breaking up, no one was really surprised. We were relieved. These albums came for me as the idealism of college made way for real life. Nothing seemed to fit anymore, although revisiting these albums again in later years did make me appreciate them more.

Fast forward to 2011. Tribe had been touring on the Rock the Bells tour and were releasing a documentary, which seemed like a lead-in to a new album. But that film, Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest not only verified our beliefs about the last two albums, it dashed any hopes of there every being a true reunion. A performance? That was a novelty. I was as excited as the next fan when Tribe performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, but I didn't expect anything to come of it. Apparently, though, they began planning a new album that night. And then eight months ago, Phife passed away. It was unthinkable. It was like losing a family member.

It had always seemed like we would never hear another cohesive Tribe album, and Phife's passing seemed to confirm that. There had been discord since Q-Tip had first begun to bring in a wider range of features and production (Consequence can't have an interview without being asked if he ruined the group or not).

"Dis Generation" brought me back to a time before any of that seemed relevant.

It's a classic yet updated Tribe cut, with back-and-forth rhyming. You have a sample from the year of all years, 1976, an Argentine band no less; you have Musical Youth, you have true Tribe-age. "Movin Backwards"? Man, that's just cheating. Anderson .Paak is setting fire to anything that he's putting his vocals on this year. He evokes the spirit of greats like Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, so when he says simple lines like, "How am I supposed to know how home feels, I ain't even on my home field," he evokes feelings of loss and thoughts of our people being enslaved and brought here to America in chains. And while Q-Tip is abstract, his saying "submitting myself to prayers these days, we walking backwards it's only for stage," made me think about the deeper meaning of the whole project.

This is A Tribe Called Quest's most political album to date. It's timely. The fact that I get more on each listen shows me that We Got It From Here is not timely alone, it's timeless. Once again, Tribe spoke for us.

As the reality of a Trump presidency began to materialize, so did the conversation about where we could go. Many of us black folk were evoking Nas's character in Belly, Sincere, claiming we were going to move to Africa in the event of Trump being elected. Enter: "The Space Program." Tribe conceptualizes this idea and uses space as an analogy and what a hook, "there ain't a space program for niggas, yeah you stuck here nigga." How prophetic. Trump has been elected, and there's been no great migration. "We The People" touches on so many themes it could be a barbershop conversation. We have gentrification, the threat of Trump deporting the "undesirables," gender inequality. This is grown folk stuff here. And that's the thing. When we were younger, identity was a top priority. Songs like "Sucka Nigga" that tackled the debate on if we should or shouldn't use that word was something that was up for discussion in a post-African medallion, "Neo-nigga" era. And, while that is still important, the threat of our civil liberties being infringed on jumps to the forefront.

So, any time I see A Tribe Called Quest after this, I just recognize it as a blessing. SNL: a blessing. The We Got It From Here pop-up shop: a blessing. Collaborations with Andre 3000, Elton John, Busta Rhymes once again: blessings, all. I couldn't have expected any of this. But I do anticipate recordings that never were released, scrapped ideas, Phife's EP and album (!) to someday surface. I do anticipate this album and this moment becoming a part of my memories like all the other Tribe albums. I anticipate one day calling We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service a classic. And it's all a blessing.

sdq is director, editor, and hip-hop investigator for over 30 years. Find more of his work on Medium.