Magazine Feature

A Tribe Called Quest on the Future After Their Comeback: 'That's It for the Rest of Our Lives'

Q-Tip & Jarobi White
Matt Salacuse

Q-Tip and Jarobi White, photographed Nov. 6 in Brooklyn.

On Nov. 9, the night after Donald Trump won the presidency, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Jarobi White are holding court in a crowded, weed-scented hallway at MoMA PS1, a contemporary art museum in their native Queens. Earlier in the evening, in a dome erected in PS1’s courtyard, the group debuted its sixth and final album, We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service, to an appreciative crowd enjoying an open bar. But as much as the event was a celebration, it was tinged with a sadness that wasn’t just about the election.

In March, soon after he wrapped his parts for the album, founding Tribe MC Phife Dawg died at age 45 due to complications from diabetes. For his bandmates, losing their friend and immediately experiencing the outpouring of love for the MC felt surreal. “It was sensory overload,” says Q-Tip, 46, in a quiet, raspy voice. “It was Phife who spearheaded this whole project — all we could do is make dope music and celebrate our man.”

Still, We Got It From Here, Tribe’s first studio album in 18 years, could have just as easily never happened. Dawg and Q-Tip were friends since they were toddlers in Queens’ St. Albans neighborhood, where they started messing around with rap together in elementary school. But after the group split in the late ’90s, they grew apart. Even when Tribe would play occasional shows, in part to help Dawg manage his substantial medical expenses, there wasn’t much warming of the relationship. But in November 2015, when The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon booked the group to perform for the 25th anniversary of debut LP People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, something changed. Backed by The Roots, the foursome — which also includes DJ-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who was not available for comment — lit up “Can I Kick It” like it was 1989.

“When we did that performance, the synergy between the four of us was crazy,” says White, 44, sipping from a glass of Courvoisier. “It was such an ill moment, and [Q-Tip and Dawg] both had a feeling they needed to reconcile.” A few weeks later, the members agreed to convene in Q-Tip’s basement studio at his art-filled home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. They decided that it was crucial to write and record a new album as a group, cracking jokes and one-upping one another in their verses, the way they did on their early-’90s classics The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders.

“So many people mail vocals in, and you don’t get that face time,” says Q-Tip, wearing a navy peacoat and a knit cap with red, green and black stripes reminiscent of the Low End cover. “When you’re in the same room as somebody, you feel their energy and see them react.” That in-person rule included the album’s guests: longtime associate Busta Rhymes, who first broke out with his verse on Tribe’s “Scenario,” as well as Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar and Jack White. There were two exceptions: Kanye West, who eventually did swing by but recorded his hook for “The Killing Season” remotely, and Elton John, who croons on “Solid Wall of Sound” to the tune of “Benny and the Jets.” “Elton is royalty,” says Q-Tip, who reached out to John and was amazed to discover that he was a fan. “When Phife died, he was on tour in Australia and dedicated ‘Candle in the Wind’ to him.”

For Rhymes, who appears on four new tracks, the sessions felt like going back in time. “It was exactly like when we wrote ‘Scenario,’ ” he says. “[The Tonight Show] was the first time in years that I saw them happy.” Dawg’s rhymes, which veer nimbly from roughneck boasts to Caribbean-accented vamps, were especially awe-inspiring. “He killed all of his performances,” says White, beaming with pride about moments like the acidly political “Whateva Will Be,” on which Dawg raps, “So am I ’posed to be dead or doing life in prison?/Just another dummy caught up in the system?”

Beyond Tribe’s chart success — its five albums have sold a combined 4.6 -million — the group influenced generations of left-field MCs and producers with its Afrocentric lyrics and jazz samples. “I love Tribe,” says The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, “because they’re the reason the section of my parents’ record collection that I used to ignore suddenly made sense to me, and gave me life.” The new album captures that spirit, kicking off with a dusty organ groove and boasting several boom-bap rhythms, but it also covers fresh territory, from Jack White’s fractured guitar tone on “Ego” to the skittering beat of the Andre 3000-assisted “Kids…” “It’s a mishegas of stuff,” says Q-Tip, dropping the Yiddish word for “craziness.” Jarobi White adds: “We were conscious to make it a Tribe record, but a future Tribe record.”

Will Heath/NBC
Jarobi White and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest perform on Saturday Night Live on Nov. 12, 2016 in New York City.

As familiar as the studio vibe felt, much has changed since Tribe first kicked it together. White left the group after the second album for a career as a chef, eventually ending up in the New York restaurant August; he’s the only parent in the group, with an 11-year-old son who lives with his mom in Atlanta. Muhammad lives in Los Angeles, where he composes music for Netflix’s Luke Cage. And Q-Tip, whose last solo album was released in 2009, hosts Abstract Radio on Beats One, where he has interviewed Dave Chappelle and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The album came out in a post-election world that few predicted, but as you might expect from someone with The Abstract as another well-known nickname, Q-Tip is philosophical about the implications of Trump. “He’s somebody who’s never held political office,” he says. “He’s never been, like, an assistant coach on a softball team! I guess you could argue that it shows you can be anything you want if you dream big, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue that. And that’s before you even get to the homophobic, racist, sexist, myopic principles he ran on.”

So what comes next for A Tribe Called Quest? Both Q-Tip and White are emphatic that without Dawg, their quarter-century ride is coming to an end. “This is our last record, and we’ll probably do a world tour,” says Q-Tip firmly. “After that, that’s it, for the rest of our lives.” 

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.