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The Millennial's Guide to A Tribe Called Quest: Their Origin, Impact, Downfall, and Revival

By: Riley Starling
The Millennial's Guide to A Tribe Called Quest: Their Origin, Impact, Downfall, and Revival

by Modern Spaceman

A year ago

“The world is crazy and I cannot sleep”; this melancholy quote from ‘Melatonin’ off A Tribe Called Quest’s recent album reminds the hip-hop community of the troubling events that echo throughout 2016. From the death of Phife Dawg, to the attacks in Orlando and Istanbul, to the all-consuming U.S. presidential election, Q-Tip’s words resonate with a world struggling in unsure times. An NPR article notes ‘A Tribe Called Quest gave us the best of themselves a generation ago. They didn't owe us this one last album. Yet here it is, a parting gift right when we needed it the most’.   

An air of reverence and magnificence surround the group’s name, but A Tribe Called Quest remains cloaked with archaic mystery: up until this past November, the group hadn’t produced new music since 1998. Today’s college students were still gnawing on plastic keys during the zenith of Tribe, and today many find themselves wondering what made Tribe so special.

The legendary group dates back to the mid 70s, when a young Phife Dawg (born Malik Taylor) and Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis) became fast friends at the age of four in their local church. The boys stuck together through their youth, and in middle school Phife became good friends with Jarobi White, who would later become a noted member of The Tribe community. In high school, Tip became acquainted with the group’s future producer, Ali Shaheed Muhammad. This duo provided much of the hard work behind People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the collection of music regarded as The Tribe’s first album. Initially, Phife was a peripheral member who was only featured on four tracks. However, when Tip began seriously considering The Low End Theory, the group’s sophomore album, Phife was reintroduced to the group as a more integral member. The loss of Jarobi White, who left the group to pursue a culinary career, catalyzed the musical intimacy shared by Phife and Tip in coming years. This magical chemistry between the two artists propelled the ambitious young adults late into the 90s.

The music generated by Tribe was revolutionary. A New York Times article written in anticipation of the group’s 2016 album notes that Tribe was the first group to successfully fuse jazz and rap, inspired by De La Soul, a hip hop group of the late 80s. Their initial projects were controversial; some critics gave rave reviews while others called it ‘undanceable’ and didn’t understand how the music could be put to good use. However, the second album received universal acclaim and the same critics that censured Tribe’s first album found themselves in awe of The Low End Theory. For their third album, Midnight Marauders, the group made drastic changes to their sound but the album was still met with great positivity from critics. The two albums that followed, Beats, Rhymes, and Life and The Love Movement, were still highly successful in the industry but failed to receive the same critical reception as the group’s first three albums.

While Tribe’s first three albums are regarded as their most pivotal, all of the projects produced between 1990 and 1998 attained either gold or platinum status. Their success was highly attributed to the alternative styles explored in their music, both in the artistic approach of their sound and the socially conscious themes of Tribe’s message, which contradicted the macho, bodacious, egocentric style shared by their contemporaries. Tribe’s message resonated with listeners, making Q-Tip and Phife Dawg more accessible to the hip-hop audience than the harder hip-hop personalities of the 90s like TuPac and Eazy-E. The group is also remembered for their innovative movements in Afrocentrism, making the ideology more approachable by putting it to music.

In 1998, before the release of their then-final album, The Love Movement, A Tribe Called Quest announced that they would be splitting up. The group heavily emphasized that they were splitting up to follow their own paths, though the exact cause of the group’s break remains elusive. The documentary, 7: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest, remains controversial on this subject: the film suggests conflicts between Phife and Tip as the main reason for the break, but this explanation has been adamantly rejected by Tip. Tribe fans were left hopeful, feeding off Phife’s optimistic wish that someday Tribe would reconvene… but the Tribe shortly went from the center of the hip-hop universe to a ghostly echo by the early 2000s.

Even after Tribe stopped producing music, their legacy lived on. The group’s impact is especially notable in the modern generation of rappers. The artists that grew up listening to the Five Foot Assassin’s unique vocals and Tip’s inspirational rhymes now recreate the conscious messages of Tribe in their own works. Kanye West, one of the most influential contemporary rappers, credits Tribe with “making the kid with the pink polo” in his tribute to Phife. OutKast’s Andre 3000 also shared a special connection with Tribe, especially Tip, noting the esteemed rapper as a father figure and inspiration. Tribe informed conscious rap with their massive contributions to the budding genre, and the reflections of their success are seen today in the alternative yet hip nature of many famous contemporary artists. The countless featured guests on We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service are undeniable evidence of Tribe’s penetrative influences on the music industry, still visible 20 years later.  

Unfortunately, if you were born after 1998, you’ve heard very little of A Tribe Called Quest in the news. Despite the lasting spotlight of Tribe’s 90s fame calling for performances scattered throughout the past decade, there was still little hope for revival. Most, if not all, hope for this revival was lost after Tip announced the group would no longer be performing after opening for Kanye’s Yeezus tour in 2013. 17 years after the group's last album, Phife still maintained the opinion that Tribe was “doing the fans a great injustice by not getting together and rocking.” If it wasn’t for a particularly successful appearance on The Tonight Show, two years after Tip’s announcement, the inspiration for a new album would have never been sparked. The group said they felt an energy on stage that hadn’t been present in decades, and the Paris attacks that happened that same evening reminded the group of the state of the world: it was a call to action. The whirlwind of turbulent events in the past year sparked the impetus for a 2016 Tribe album, and provided an extraordinary antidote for a hurting world.

The Hip Hop community was teeming with anticipation for the rumored album, but the death of Phife this past March dominated the news on the Tribe front. Phife was stolen from the world at 45, after years of struggling with type 2 diabetes. His death was unexpected and untimely, given his passion and excitement for the new album, but old friend and colleague Jarobi White synthesized the egregious reality by stating Phife gave the last of his life to the album, and “he was happy to go out like that.” The passing of Phife far from hindered the production of We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, if anything it was a call to action and an encouraging experience for Tip to finish the album in celebration of the life of his most special friend.


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