Thank You 4 Your Service
After 18 long years, A Tribe Called Quest have finally granted our collective wish and given us a new album, the aptly named We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your service. THE combination - Q-Tip’s philosophical social commentaries, Phife Dawg’s endearingly approachable yet streetwise verses and DJ Shaheed Muhammed’s warm, jazz-influenced instrumentals - has returned in 2016, and christ we’re glad they're back.
Before we talk about the album itself, it’s important to understand the circumstances that amounted to this 18-year hiatus, and the significance of their come back. Various reasons for the group’s break up have been cited, but it seems to boil down to personal issues between the groups two frontrunners, Q-Tip & Phife Dawg. Having grown up on the same street in Queens, New York, the two were best friends from the age of two, and anyone who listens to any of their first 4 albums can sense the intense proximity between the pair; between two best friends arm-in-arm navigating the way through their early creative adventures and their subsequent rise to notoriety. The way they so naturally bounce off one another on tracks such as ‘Check the Rhime’ (‘91) for example, was no act. This was a true duo, not just in the ‘showbiz’, performance sense, but in the sense of friendship and brotherhood. There have been many duos in entertainment history whose on-stage closeness did not follow them after lights had gone out, but with Phife and Tip, it couldn’t have been more genuine.
At some point, however, after Tribe’s fifth album ‘The Love Movement’, the pair started to move in opposite directions. Maybe it was growing up. Maybe it was the pressures of fame on their friendship. Many think that it was the two men’s desires to follow different creative paths - Tip was known to be overly controlling, and had reportedly decided he wanted to pursue other things, things that possibly did not include Phife. Whilst the relationship definitely wasn’t toxic, it was certainly infected. What is clear is the rift between the two drove the whole group apart. Jarobi White, the third MC of the group had left the group seven years earlier to pursue a career as a chef and when in ‘98 DJ Shaheed moved to the West Coast to work on other projects, the group disbanded.
The early days of the Tribe
The succeeding years saw sporadic reunion gigs and festival shows, but the intermittent nature of their rare group appearances was indicative of the love-hate relationship that existed between the two driving forces of the group. One thing that is not in doubt throughout this 18 year period, however, is that Phife Dawg was the keenest to reunite the group. He had often, during the interim period, floated the idea to Q-Tip of recording a final album, yet he had been categorically uninterested, preferring to work on solo albums and increase his production portfolio in collaborations with other artists. Due to Phife’s medical condition - he had struggled for decades with a rare form of diabetes, which eventually culminated in his tragic death earlier this year - his requests in recent years became more and more desperate, more and more urgent, perhaps as if he was sensing that his days were numbered. It was reportedly during their appearance in December of last year on The Tonight Show that Q-Tip finally let down his defences, ceding to his long-lost best friend’s wishes. “It felt right. It felt fresh, it felt exciting” said Q-Tip after their first TV appearance in fifteen years, by some quirk of fate deciding to record their final album on the 25th anniversary of their first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
With such intense history behind the album, the emotion one can feel whilst listening to it is unsurprising. For Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, this was more than an album. This was the reconnection of two age-old friends, a joyful fraternal reconciliation that had been 18 years in the making. In that vein, Tip (who produced most of the album) invited all the members of the the wider family - of the original tribe - to come on the tracks. Jarobi relished his opportunity to reconnect with his old gang; Consequence (Q-Tip’s cousin), André 3000, Busta Rhymes all feature, being old collaborators, and Shaheed, whilst taking a backseat on production to Tip, was there throughout, keeping a watchful eye on the breaks coming out of Tip’s board. What sets it apart from most collaborative albums is that Q-Tip implemented his own rule of thumb: everyone involved HAD to come and record their parts with everyone else in Tip’s home studio. Rather than everyone recording their sections and sending them across, which is how most rap albums are produced these days, anyone featured on the album had to come over, connect, laugh, joke and work together with everyone else. A true collaboration, a true family affair and recorded down to the last note at Q-Tip’s house. You can really feel the effect of this method: this is an album, yes, but it’s also a resurrection of friendship.
The trippiest family photo you've ever seen
Stylistically it is an interesting album. Some of the tracks harken back to the glory days - the boom-bap era of the early 90s - and tribe fans will appreciate tracks like The Space Program and Whateva Will Be for this reason. For Tribe purists, there could undoubtedly be more of these tunes in their old style, but understandably Tip and co. tried to go in a new direction with it. The album is different enough to not have to rely on nostalgia, to not have to rest on the laurels of what originally made them popular. Tip said that they had wanted to make a Tribe album, but a modern tribe album, and this one really is. Elton John and Kendrick Lamar both feature, and strong guitar riffs from Jack White on some of the tracks balance out the Dilla-influenced production style of others. While it was Q-Tip’s brainchild, it undoubtedly meant more to Phife, being almost at death’s door whilst flying back and forth to Tip’s home studio to record it. “I hadn’t seen Phife that happy since we were kids”, Tip said, and you can sense the emotional investment from both men in the hook of the first track on the album The Space Program, which reads “Gotta get it together forever, gotta get it together for brothers, gotta get together for sisters, for mothers and fathers and dead niggas". Jarobi was quoted saying he thought Phife poured everything he had left into the album. All the energy he could muster after fighting his disease for over 20 years - he poured every drop of it into this final hurrah. “But he was happy to go out like that”, Jarobi goes on to say, and tragically having just finished recording his parts of the album Phife Dawg passed away in March of this year. For this reason, the verse in Black Spasmodic when Q-Tip raps as Phife Dawg, asking Tip to to “check in on [his] mother” is unbelievably poignant, and one can’t help but thinking of the moment Phife called himself “the funky diabetic” back in 1991 in Oh My God.
This is why there will never be another Tribe album. After 18 years of begging, Phife’s Dawg’s wish was granted, and he passed away having just got there, having narrowly completed his crusade. They have effectively closed the book with this album, and it is a fitting tribute to Phife, even more so right now as it stands at No.1 album in the Billboard 200 charts. Forever, this album will stand as a glittering monument to the ‘5 foot assassin’, Phife Dawg, as will the corner of Linden Boulevard and 192nd Street in Queens, which has just been named after him. It feels like a good place to finish in truth, a true terminus to an epic 25 year journey.
Phife, and the rest of the Tribe, we thank you for your service.
Words by: Tom