A Tribe Called Quest didn't save my life. A Tribe Called Quest didn't change my life. From the beginning Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White have been as much a part of my life as that first cousin who isn't really your cousin.
I have my own first music memories, but even further back than my mind can go, my parents fill in the blanks for me. The way they tell it, at just two years old, I couldn't get enough of reciting one line over and over again: "A Tribe Called Quest represent, represent." It was the opening line to "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)," the first full song on ATCQ's bona fide classic third album (and my personal favorite) Midnight Marauders.
As I grew older, into my elementary and middle school years, Tribe stayed with me. It was mostly the classics found on their greatest hits album like "Scenario," "Electric Relaxation," "Can I Kick It" and "Bonita Applebum;" songs that would make it into any hip-hop textbook worth printing.
By the time I approached my teens, I started doing some digging of my own. I went into my dad's immense CD collection and pulled out the Midnight Marauders album, with only a few of the titles on the track list seeming familiar to me at the time. I hit play, and after the monotone female tour guide explained that the precise and bass-heavy presentation would be cruising at the tempo of 95 beats per minute, it happened.
Horns blared and the voice of Phife Dawg spoke up first:
"Linden Boulevard represent, represent / A Tribe Called Quest represent, represent."
I listened to the song like it was brand new. I had only gotten through about half of the album when I needed to take an intermission and tell somebody what I discovered. I hopped off my bed, paused the CD on my small silver boombox, exited my room into a small hallway in the apartment and hooked a right into the living room to tell my parents about how I went back and started listening to some more Tribe. I told them how I especially dug this song I had never heard before called "Stir It Up." My parents laughed and told me how that song had taught me some of my first words.
I dove back in and finished Midnight Marauders, then I finished Low End Theory, then I finished People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, then I finished Beats, Rhymes and Life and then I finished the The Love Movement. By then, we all thought A Tribe Called Quest was finished making music and performing together, but it didn't matter to me. My journey had just begun.
By the time I graduated high school, I had A Tribe Called Quest’s entire discography stored in my iTunes library. "Find a Way" was the first song I could recite front to back without listening to the track. I had reunited with old family.
A Tribe Called Quest single-handedly awakened the music nerd in me that wanted to know what those samples were that formed the texture of classic hip-hop. I spent a few hours on WhoSampled just going through song after song from a few of my favorite Tribe albums. I listened to all of Minnie Riperton's "Inside My Love," recognizing the song immediately when I hit play, but not understanding how this was sampled to make "Lyrics to Go" until at 3:07. OH MY GOD, there it was. My eyes widened. Genius.
As a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, I got to meet Phife Dawg, who was a huge Tar Heel fan, when he visited a beatmaking class on campus. It was my first time meeting anyone from my favorite clique and he was everything I could want in a hero and extended family member. Cool, humble and bearing gifts in the form of a quick impromptu performance of a few of his classics, which I couldn't believe every single person was not rapping along word-for-word with like me. I even spit in a cipher with the “Five Foot Assassin,” using one of several verses I had with a slight nod to Tribe in it.
I started writing rhymes at 12 years old, close to the time when I delved back into A Tribe Called Quest on my own. My dad played a lot of jazz, funk and soul around the house and in the car during my elementary and middle school years, so a lot of the music I wrote to at that time fell under those categories. A Tribe Called Quest proved to me that melding genres was possible and effective.
They also showed me balance. A catchy flow doesn't have to be sacrificed for quality lyrics; clever wordplay can exist with substance and storytelling, and it can all live over a funky, neck-breaking, danceable beat. I've taken this to heart since my once hobby has developed into my career as JSWISS and I've taken the Tribe ideal of genre-blending one step further from sampling to bringing live instrumentation into my recording process.
During the several weeks after Phife passed this March, I found myself doing no less than six or seven tribute performances to him. None of them were forced, a couple weren't even planned, the universe was just pulling me to the stage to honor Malik Taylor. I almost never needed any preparation for the performances, I know Phife lines like I know my own name.
When Q-Tip announced A Tribe Called Quest's new album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, along with an explanation about how it came to be, I think a lot of fans felt not only excitement, but contentment. We all thought that, because of a break in their chemistry, The Love Movement would be their final effort, but we just couldn't see them go out like that.
This feels right. There can be no A Tribe Called Quest without Phife, so of course this is their final album. And it isn't coming because of pressure from a label or from fans, it's coming because last November, for the first time in years, they felt the love together that we've felt all along and yearned for again. And it isn't a patchwork of old Phife verses thrown into new productions and verses from Q-Tip, they did this right on time, together. And if you've heard anything from the individual members of Tribe since their last group album, you know they still got it.
Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White: Welcome back, goodbye and thank you.
A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.
(Photo: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)