Where To Start With... A Tribe Called Quest
There are perhaps only a handful of hip-hop groups that could claim to have influenced the genre quite so much as A Tribe Called Quest. Hailing from the Queens neighbourhood of New York, the group were one of the key components in the Native Tongues collective that also included Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep and De La Soul, all of whom pursued a style of 'conscious rap' with a lyrical focus on social issues and everyday life, rather than the more aggressive style of rap that was emerging from the West coast in the late 1980s and early 90s. Along with their peers De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest were right at the cutting edge of a style of hip-hop that was as imaginative as it was progressive.
Founding members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg met as school friends, forming an early version of the group in 1985 before adding members Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Jarobi White to complete the line-up, signing to Jive and releasing their critically-acclaimed debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, in 1990. White would become a peripheral member from there on in, appearing occasionally on the four albums that would follow right up until their last, 1998's The Love Movement. By then, the group's often fractious internal relationships were leading its members in different directions and when they finally split after their fifth album, of the four members it was Q-Tip who would go on to have the most successful solo career, releasing four solo albums and making regular guest appearances on tracks by a range of artists including Dee-Lite, Chemical Brothers and Mark Ronson.
The split looked pretty final for a long time, but then in 2004 the group reunited for a series of live shows, something they would do sporadically over the next few years. As far back as then, fans and the media were talking up a new album, but even though Phife admitted that they still owed Jive another LP from their six-album deal, he also said that the prospect seemed unlikely and that the group were reluctant to put out an album that might damage their considerable legacy.
When they did return to the studio in November 2015, they did so quietly, no doubt hoping to avoid a media circus in case things didn't work out. But in March this year, before the album was entirely completed, tragedy struck; Phife Dawg had been diagnosed with diabetes in the late 90s and had battled with ill health ever since, even having a kidney transplant in 2008. But in March 2016 it was announced that he had died aged just 45, a result of complications arising from the disease.
It was August before news of the new album was announced by Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid, who revealed that the new album would indeed feature the original line-up, including Phife and Jarobi White. In October, another announcement from the label revealed that the resulting album, named We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, was imminent. Today the album finally arrives in stores, a full 18 years on from their last.
Its arrival feels timely in the wake of recent political events and, as you'd imagine, Q-Tip and co. have plenty to say. A lot has changed in hip-hop over the two decades that have passed in the group's absence, but you wouldn't guess that by listening to it. Savvy enough not to chase the dragon of emerging trends, the group's signature sound remains intact without ever sounding like an outdated throwback.
As ever though, the lyrics remain vitally on point and on tracks like 'We The People...' Q-Tip is quick to address the societal and racial divisions that have emerged and widened during the last year of bitter presidential campaigning (“When we get hungry, we eat the same f***in' food”), as well as the role of social media in amplifying these (“In the fog and the smog of new media that logs / False narratives of Gods who came up against the odds”).
It's enough to make you realise what has been missing from hip-hop in recent years. Sure, there are artists who have discussed politics in their music lately – Killer Mike, Common and even Kanye West spring to mind – but these tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. That makes the arrival of this album all the more vital and as a parting shot from a group that pioneered this style of rap, this is essential listening.
You can find the surviving members' performance of 'We The People...' on Saturday Night Live below, beneath that we've picked five of the most essential tracks from A Tribe Called Quest's back catalogue.
'Can I Kick It?'
If you can only name one song by A Tribe Called Quest, it's probably this. Taken from their debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, this track based on a sample from Lou Reed's 'A Walk on the Wild Side' was certainly the group's biggest hit in the UK, breaking into the Top 10 for the first and only time. What you might not know is that a couple of the non-musical samples featured in the song were lifted from the animated British series Superted – that's the voice of Jon Pertwee's character Spotty stuttering the words “then do so, immediately!” The group decided on a remixed version for the official video, which you can find below, but truth be told we prefer the album version...
'Check The Rhime'
Featured on the group's second album The Low End Theory, 'Check The Rhime' is one of the best examples of the chemistry between MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg and the interplay between them on this track is excellent. Featuring a typically jazzy sample lifted from Average White Band, this is A Tribe Called Quest at their best.
The closing track from The Low End Theory, 'Scenario' is one of three tracks on the album to feature guests, in this case the Long Island-based rap crew Leaders of the New School, fronted by a young Busta Rhymes. The video below was directed by Jim Swaffield, the man responsible for the visual side of R. Kelly's sprawling hip-hopera 'Trapped in the Closet', and features cameo appearances from various guests including Redman, Brand Nubian, Fab Five Freddy and director Spike Lee.
Taken from their 1993 album Midnight Marauders, 'Electric Relaxation' was one of the album's singles and while it didn't achieve the same commercial success as lead-off single 'Award Tour', it's still one of the album's highlights thanks to some hilarious lyrics on the subject of sex, especially from Phife Dawg, who is struggling to get the attention of an unnamed female:
The last cut from the group's 1996 album Beats, Rhymes and Life, 'Stressed Out' takes the group a little further into R&B territory and features guest vocalist Faith Evans on the chorus. By this time, production was being handled by The Ummah, including J Dilla, and there's a noticeable shift in the vibe on this album, which was also the first to feature Q-Tip's cousin Consequence. At the time of its release, reactions to album were mixed, but Beats, Rhymes and Life has stood the test of time and this is one of its best moments.