A Tribe Called Quest: The Time They Nearly Kicked It
by Thomas Golianopoulos
There are some great moments in the new documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest: Q-Tip revealing the drums he sampled for “Can I Kick It?”; Black Thought of The Roots clowning Tribe’s early fashions (“They were wearing some real questionable-type shit,” he said, referring to their dashikis); and Busta Rhymes’s smile when reminiscing over “Lyrics to Go,” his favorite Tribe song. There is also a slew of rare archival footage from the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. (Check out the mullet on Dennis Miller!) Even though the documentary occasionally sinks into VH-1 “Behind the Music” territory, the director Michael Rapaport did a fine job chronicling the group’s history, its dynamic and what made them so loved. He got lucky too, filming during the group’s tense 2008 reunion tour.
A Tribe Called Quest (or ATCQ, or Tribe, as some call them) broke up after a quick, steep decline in fall 1998, on the eve of their fifth and final album, The Love Movement. Their first three albums — People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (a.k.a. The Playful Debut), The Low End Theory (The Cohesive Jazzy One) and Midnight Marauders (My Second Favorite Rap Album Ever) — were all excellent and fun. It started coming apart on 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life (The Glum, Lifeless One). Part of the problem was the unraveling relationship between lifelong friends Q-Tip and Phife.
Sometime in 1993 after finishing Midnight Marauders, Phife moved to Atlanta. The musical chemistry was gone. From there, it got rockier — chief amongst his gripes, Phife says that Q-Tip disbanded Tribe. He and Ali had no choice but to go along with it. The documentary caught the collapse of the friendship as it foundered during the later tour. A collapse that, as I learned watching the documentary, I had played a role in.
A few months back, a colleague, who’d seen an early screening of the film, told me that there was a scene about a Q-Tip interview in Spin. I pressed him for details but he didn’t remember. He told me to just see the movie. A few weeks after that, I sat in a screening room at the Sony building on 5th Ave.
The movie gets a little depressing when chronicling the 2008 reunion tour. At the time, Phife was in poor health, undergoing dialysis three times a week for Type 1 diabetes and lethargic from low blood pressure. During an August 9th show in southern California, he even leaned on Jarobi, the numinous founding member who split in the early 1990’s, while performing “Find a Way.” That’s when Q-Tip adlibbed “Look alive, look at Phife Dawg.” It reads badly but didn’t come across as an insult, at least to this viewer. Phife, however, took offense and an argument erupted days later before a August 16 show in Mountain View, California.
“Fuck you, Kamaal,” Phife said, shouting the name Q-Tip has used since converting to Islam in the mid-90’s. More screaming followed. It’s unclear in the documentary if there was a physical confrontation.
Later on, Phife revealed that between the two shows, he’d read an interview with Q-Tip in Spin. “I see Spin magazine with Q-Tip on the cover, lemme check out,” Phife said in the film. He then reads from the interview, “’I never had a problem with Phife.’”
“He kicked me under the rug,” Phife said. “Stop throwing me under the bus in interviews.” And that’s when I squirmed. You see, I was the guy who interviewed Q-Tip for Spin.
It’s strange meeting a childhood hero as an adult, especially when it’s work-related. Ice Cube was cool. I haven’t interviewed Don Mattingly. I hope to never cross paths with Magic Johnson. I had his poster on my wall.
In June 2008, I met Q-Tip in a truck parked on W. 53rd St. outside the offices of Universal Records and he played me songs from his then-upcoming album The Renaissance. A few days later, we sat down for our chat for Spin. I’d interviewed him a few years earlier (more on that later) but was still anxious — those were the only times I’d been nervous while conducting an interview with a musician. (DMX scared the shit out of me once but that was initiated by his driving.) But of course I was nervous: A Tribe Called Quest were my favorite group during my formative years. They were my Beatles. They were my Michael Jackson. In 7th grade, my sandlot baseball team would celebrate a win by singing the “Scenario” chorus in the dugout (“Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what, so what, so what’s the scenario.”).
Q-Tip was a good interview. He took long pauses and gave frank, detailed answers. Our conversation touched on many topics, but we spoke a lot about A Tribe Called Quest. (The Spin interview is a long-form career-retrospective Q&A.; As the writer, you’re gunning for introspection and not just promote-my-album pull quotes.) The group were touring that summer and Q-Tip’s relationship with Phife seemed like an important part of the story.
I asked: “How did you and Phife mend your friendship?”
And Q-Tip answered: “I never really had problems; he more had problems with me, because I was the type of person who would voice my opinions. He viewed me as this kind of figure [in the group]. Every issue I had with him, I would say it, and it would be done afterward. I wouldn’t let it affect me years down the line. But I always had love for him and continue to have love for him.”
It made it into the magazine and a few weeks after the issue hit newsstands, Q-Tip vented on Twitter:
“I just wanna say on record…FUCK SPIN MAGAZINE!!”
“I never ran a ‘Hollywood set’ and if that is ur main heading 4 me after a 18yr career yall have been to busy sucking up to the pseudo-hi…”
“Yall got a bunch of folks to try to shit on black artist (d’angelo, ms. Hill) and get one folk to try to shit on me…”
“I rarely read shit on myself but was forced to and yall really don’t give a fuck..”
“I never went anywhere I’m comfortable and I’m good … Oh and once again FUCK SPIN!”
“Will I be welcomed back as an M.C. Elder” please!!! I won’t pull rank but yall know what the fuck it is…
“I’m sorry yall but I just had to let yall know that spin is a b rated cracked magazine and I’m sure..”
“They will continue to shit on me by way of reviews, ect..So kick rocks”
What made him so upset? At the time those Tweets appeared, I had no idea. Our follow-up interview was a little contentious because I’d asked some dumb, obvious questions but that wasn’t it. After watching Rapaport’s documentary, it’s clear why Q-Tip was “forced” to read the interview. He’d nearly lost his childhood friend over it.
I first interviewed Q-Tip in the summer of 2005 for a profile in XXL magazine. It had been six years since his solo debut Amplified (The Much-Maligned Commercial Reach That Has Aged Well). In the meantime, he recorded Kamaal the Abstract (think The Love Below meets Electric Circus, I guess) and a more traditional rap album, Open. Both were never released. The crux of the interview was about that hiatus, the different expectations placed upon rap and rock artists and how technology affected the music industry. (This was around when MySpace was getting started.) We hadn’t talked about Tribe but that was on the agenda for next time.
In the meantime, I decided that since no one had written the ATCQ break-up story, that was going to be shoehorned into my Q-Tip profile. I lined up secondary interviews and spoke with Tribe’s engineer Bob Power, their former manager Chris Lighty, Phife and Q-Tip’s cousin, the rapper Consequence. I got good stuff from Phife. He talked about how management and the label Jive Records neglected him, mostly communicating through Q-Tip. He also admitted that he’d leaked reunion rumors a few years earlier. Phife was honest with me but leery. Consequence was a little more reckless.
Consequence, who’d first appeared on a rare Tribe remix, was one of the reasons why Beats, Rhymes and Life was ATCQ’s worst album. While a capable rapper, he’s distracting on the seven songs here — it further muddled the group’s chemistry. His presence in the group had greater, ahem, consequences. “Q-Tip put me in A Tribe Called Quest. It was his decision,” he told me back in 2005. “It might have been better if Tribe put me in Tribe, but Q-Tip put me in Tribe. That is the truth. It didn’t really sit well with Phife.”
I asked Phife about it. “It wasn’t a beef between me and Consequence,” he said in 2005. “The beef came because I felt, this guy is a new artist. Since we were doing a Tribe album, I had no problem with him being on three songs and getting his shine on so the rest of the world can scratch their heads and say he’s nice. But he was on six, seven songs. I know everybody was going to look at it like, ‘this ain’t no real Tribe album, who’s that new kid.’ I think Tip over did it by having him on all those songs. I thought about it and I could be wrong but I felt like that was his way of etching me out. We had a conversation about it and he said it wasn’t so but I don’t think you can blame me for seeing that way. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.”
(The Q-Tip follow-up interview never happened because his album, then called Live at the Renaissance, didn’t have a firm release date. My editor only wanted to run the story if it was pegged to the album. I never submitted a draft and the piece was killed.)
Whatever their initial coolness, Consequence and Phife quickly became friends, bonding over sports and video games. But Consequence wasn’t on The Love Movement — and he is barely in the new documentary too. One of the few mentions of him in the entire film is when Barry Weiss, the former head of Jive, listed the problems with Beats, Rhymes and Life. “Why is Consequence on the records? Who brought him in? What does he have to do with it?” he asked rhetorically. Not following up on those questions was the film’s glaring flaw.
Since those days, Consequence has evolved into a really good MC. It might sound corny, but I wish he were a more respected and successful artist. Apparently, he’s no longer affiliated with Kanye West, who he’d been running with for the past decade. That’s a shame; clearly, he influenced West’s rapping. (see, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and “Grammy Family”).
In the documentary, his only line comes on the roll call during the closing credits. He says, “I am Consequence of A Tribe Called Quest.”
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest was released last weekend in New York and Los Angeles and is at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Over the past few months, Q-Tip feuded with Rapaport over it and judging from statements in the press, it seems Q-Tip was uneasy about the film’s tenser moments. “My intention wasn’t to ever make them feel uncomfortable but my intention was never to make a fluff piece so we kind of hit a bump in the road,” Rapaport told MTV earlier this year.
There is no bad guy in the Tribe break-up story (well, maybe Jive Records) or in the film, which ended on a positive note: Phife received a kidney transplant from his wife, reconciled with Q-Tip and the group performed in Japan last summer. During the filmed rehearsals for that show, Q-Tip and Phife practiced a dance move to “The Chase, Part II.” It looked like such effortless, goofy fun.
The scene reminded me of the photo shoot for the killed XXL story. Q-Tip was hooping with some kids at a basketball court in Jersey City. They were young, about junior high school age. After ten minutes or so, one said, “That ain’t no basketball player; that’s a rapper.” By that point, a group of older women had congregated and were hollering at Q-Tip. He took pictures with them and some little girls. Everyone had a blast.
Later that afternoon, I told Q-Tip that I recently went to Strata, the Chelsea venue where he’d DJ’d earlier that summer.
“I was in Japan,” he said. “How was it?”
“The DJ played lots of Jagged Edge. The crowd was feeling it when he played some Brand Nubian though.”
“Good. Come back tomorrow. There’ll be lots of heads there.”
The make-up artist, a pretty woman in her 20’s, walked over to us. “Where do you spin at? Table 50? I used to have a blast there.”
Q-Tip looked over at me and smiled. “See,” he said. “I make people have blasts.”
Thomas Golianopoulos is a writer living in New York City whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Observer, Spin, Vibe and a few other places. You can follow him on Twitter.