Award Tour

A Tribe Called Quest’s latest release, in context.

The first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime,” I was on a basketball court in Houston. I was not overburdened with handles. No jump-shot to speak of. But it wasn’t long before some truck’s bass swallowed my courtside anxiety, enough to pull me and everyone else on the court into a lilt. Tribe sounded punk. A little funky, too. Except no one had ever heard anything like it. I missed lay-up after lay-up, jouncing every second pass, but it didn’t matter. Just being black kids on the court in the middle of the city, before Facebook but after Y2K, was a celebration in itself — cause enough to break into chorus. Like someone was rhyming simply for the sake of getting you through the day. It isn’t a feeling I’ve gotten from another record since.

A Tribe track brews a very specific emotion, a particular brand of confidence: a clean, untouchable thing. The group honed that aura for a little over a decade, across five albums, before their initial dissolution in 1998. When they released their first record in 1991, Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) couldn’t have legally scored a brew. He was carving out his role between Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, on the verge of re-molding America’s soundscapes. And yet, despite their youth, and the beginnings of inter-group conflict, and the vertigo of the musicians’ burgeoning success, they penned verses like this one, this one, and this one, upper-cutting the ceiling they set for themselves again and again.

Their latest record, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 your service dropped three days after the presidential election. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed performed on SNL the next evening. The group claimed it would be their final album, their first since Phife’s death from complications with diabetes earlier this year (they had recorded his verses in the months prior). And the release felt like a blessing of sorts, albeit a strange one. That a group preaching non-conformity and coexistence on every record (save one) should re-materialize after the election of its literal antagonist felt pretty fucking weird.

So I passed on it that first week. And then the next one after that. I treated the SNL spot like a pop-up, dodging Tribe and all conversations concerning them. But when I finally did get around to listening, in a roundabout trip for gas, I pulled onto the highway to take the tank as far as it would go. Three listens through the record, I circled around again.

2016 saw plenty of good records, but this album had propulsion. The tracks were hot; they were fueled by the moment. But they also played on one another, building and deconstructing, creating a sound as cohesive and disparate as an immaculate jazz set. Across sixteen tracks, Tribe didn’t have much hope in the future, but they had hope in themselves — and that difference is distinct. It was a notion I’d lost sight of in the days before, that no matter where your country or your block or your economy or your boys or your neighborhood are headed, you yourself can be dope as shit. And you have the right to be whoever you are.

Eventually, the buildings beside me devolved into dirt roads and motels. I’d driven well into the middle of the nowhere when I finally stopped the record. The only appropriate reaction was silence. That palpable, physical feeling was back.

In June, Chris Jackson gave a speech for the Asian American Writer’s Workshop. As the editor-in-chief of Random House’s One World imprint, he’d arrived to accept an Editorial Achievement Award — and working my way through We got it from here…, his words rang in the back of my head:

It’s a big responsibility, holding a country as batshit crazy as this together, which is why we need to do it together. We — all of us across race and background who want to ally, who want to join together to create a wider, truer channel for our culture — are in a fight, which we should never forget. But we should also never forget how much we have already won.

Tribe works with a similar color palate, although their painting’s a shade darker. Across their larger oeuvre, the group stresses about imposters. They knock on the Knicks. They gripe about diabetes, relatives, and love interests. On one track, Phife is a two-time victim of car-theft before we even reach the hook. The narratives are original, but there’s a connective tissue between them, an undercurrent of wryness to reel every track home.

Instead of shying away from politics in lieu of braggadocio, they’ve placed them front and center on “We the People…”:

The OG Gucci boots are smitten with iguanas
The IRS piranha see a nigga gettin’ commas
Niggas in the hood living in a fishbowl
Gentrify here, now it’s not a shit hole

before literally mirroring the voice of that discrimination across the chorus:

All you Black folks, you must go
All you Mexicans, you must go
And all you poor folks, you must go
Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways
So all you bad folks, you must go

The riff, on “Ego”, about the burden of persevering in a society that could care less, and navigating a country that erases its dissonant voices:

Ego make you violent or govern like a tyrant
Or switch a dictionary’s word from vibrant to vivrant
Fool the thirsty people, selling tap water in bottles
Fooled a girl with NYU scholarship and now she models
Ego has no ending, has people pretending
Religious zealots get jealous ’cause guys want their defending

They do it all in jest. It is deathly serious play. Tribe acknowledges these realities, prodding and challenging them, and in “The Space Program,” come out laughing on the other side:

The danger must be growing
For the rowers keep on rowing
And they’re certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing!
“We’re there!”
A small step for mankind
But a giant step for us
Oompa, loompa, doopa dee doo
I’ve got another puzzle for you

Insofar as they’ve given us a political record, Tribe’s latest is also a victorious one. They know the oppressed can rise to occasion. They convey the unsayable thing, something we take for granted in rap today — that it’s sick to kill a cypher, as Phife notes on “The Donald”:

Recently on the internet they chatting
Taking polls, debating who could win in battle rapping
Let’s make it happen, these cyber flows already par
No subliminals, with me you know who the fuck you are

but acknowledging your mortality is even more radical. If it sounds contrived to laud rappers for consistently promoting self-awareness, it’s only because we’ve grown used to the precedent they’ve set.

Plenty of other acts drifted away from the culture of inter-genre beefing, redirecting the track space spent on fronting and hype towards slant rhymes, flipped rhythms, and blank verse behind the bass: De La Soul, Ultramagnetic MC’s, and The Pharcyde, among others. KRS-One, Rakim, and Nas found fan-bases through their stories and lyrical prowess — and their consistency was such that their personas, insofar as they had any, were built off of those skills alone. But Tribe further supplanted the culture of machismo with strategic sampling, placing less weight on coast identification than diversity of sound. They wore the craziest outfits in their videos, mixed anaphora with trailing hooks, and stuffed maracas into the chorus, because it made a dope track.

Tribe was to rap what Hendrix felt like to rock: interstellar. A little out of this world. And, ensconced in that coolness, and a mastery of their craft, this difference was heightened through their manipulation of even the most basic mechanics — they worked their choruses, segues, and transitions to the absolute limit. When those limits became apparent, they reworked them again.

Of course, Tribe had their issues (whose contours and conclusions were investigated thoroughly in Michael Rapaport’s lovely 2011 documentary, Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest). Near the end (or at least the first one) the group turned their aggression inward — they were good-to-go until they weren’t. They didn’t separate on the best terms. Their creative peculiarities, originally a hallmark, began to cement fissures. Egos dissolved. Old grievances reared their heads. It was a small price to pay considering everything they’d given.

“there were modern poets before there was modern poetry”

— Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, ‘The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry’

To consider American music and its relation to hip-hop is to consider Tribe. In order to laud the youthful prowess of Chance, Noname, Vince Staples, and Anderson Paak; or to claim allegiance to Eminem, Andre 3000, The Roots, and J Dilla; or to stand in awe of Kendrick Lamar, our generation’s anointed innovator, is to stand in awe of Tribe. These artists’ ingenuity lies in their ability to pull from the world, to skate across tracks at the highest level, turning otherwise obscure references and allusions into essential additions — and who in hip-hop, to say nothing of American music full-stop, strove for multitudes as consistently? Because that’s what hip-hop is: constant redefinition of the self. The rhyme is born from the change, and Tribe’s only constant is their excellence.

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that when Q-Tip, after claiming in an interview with Billboard that “this is our last record… after that, that’s it for, the rest of our lives”, alluded to future plans to record on Annie Mac’s BBC Radio 1 show a few weeks later.

Stay tuned for any other incarnation, ’cause we don’t intend on stopping because that was Phife’s M.O. was, like, ‘This time we gotta do it and keep going,’ and now he’s left us with the equation of how do we do it, but we are going to need it, and we’re going to continue.

For most rappers, this indecision would be reductive. It could be perceived as played out, the lyricist’s kryptonite. But Tribe had done it before, turning these notions of insecurity and expectation on their heads, taking our preconceptions, obliterating them, and giving us their world. They were deliberately obtuse, before deliberate obtuseness became the standard. They were affectionate, in their own way, before emotionality was deemed acceptable, if not outright advantageous, on the record. And, through it all, they kept their feet on the ground. For most of us, slogging through the future will be a lot harder from here on out. But it isn’t, and can’t be, any less of a joy to try. And, ultimately, under Tribe’s watch, to triumph.