Loss Haunts A Tribe Called Quest’s First Album in 18 Years
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. — On March 22, at 3 a.m., Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were on the phone. The two rappers — lifelong friends from Queens and half of the influential hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest — were “yucking it up,” Q-Tip recalled, and talking about a project few people outside their inner circle knew was in the works: a new Tribe album, the first in 18 years.
Q-Tip was in the million-dollar recording studio he built in the basement of his stately New Jersey home; Phife was at his place in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Phife was fired up about a potential track: “Yo, make sure you send me that beat. I’ve got to put some verses to it. That beat is fire!” Q-Tip said in a recent interview in the lounge of his studio, surrounded by white shelves holding hundreds of vinyl LPs. The lighthearted conversation ended around 4 a.m. and Q-Tip went back to work. Nineteen hours later, Phife’s manager called. His friend and lifelong collaboratorwas dead.
The cause was complications from diabetes; Phife was 45. The other members of A Tribe Called Quest were shattered. The rapper Jarobi White was at Q-Tip’s house and heard people screaming. “We broke down,” he said. “There were two puddles of goo on the floor.” The producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad was in Sherman Oaks, Calif., walking out of an Apple store with a replacement iPhone when the call came in. “I was in shock,” he said. Without any of his contacts, he stood paralyzed, unable to reach out to anyone.
“I had no idea that his days was numbered,” Q-Tip said. Retelling this story in the same room where he had had so many conversations with Phife, he became too emotional to speak. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed. Finally he said, “I just want to celebrate him, you know?”
On Friday, Nov. 11, A Tribe Called Quest will do just that, releasing on Epic Records “We Got It From Here, Thank You for Your Service,” the group’s sixth album. It features all four of the group’s members plus a host of guests — André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Jack White and Busta Rhymes, a longtime Tribe collaborator who made a heralded appearance on the 1992 posse cut “Scenario.” Busta Rhymes said he saw Q-Tip and Phife in the studio vibing the way they did in the old days. “I seen them laughing and joking and high-fiving, and you can just see that young, invigorated ‘we’re-just-getting-our-first-opportunity-to-do-this’ energy again!” he said. Q-Tip noted, “I hadn’t seen Phife that happy since we were kids.”
They went through so much to reach that point. Tribe assembled as teenagers in Queens — Q-Tip and Phife, who first met in church at the age of four; plus Mr. Muhammad, who created much of their music; and Mr. White, who Q-Tip has called “the spirit of the group.” In the early ’90s, they made what are widely considered two of hip-hop’s greatest albums: “The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders.” (Mr. White left after recording “The Low End Theory” to pursue a career as a chef.) The group was known for thoughtful lyrics, jazz samples and a more artful, less macho, approach to hip-hop. Q-Tip was the artistic, esoteric, philosophical M.C. while Phife Dawg was the streetwise, confident yet humblerapperwith a little Trinidadian “ruffneck” swag. “He’s like your common man’s homeboy,” said André 3000. “He’s like the dude next door that watched sports and is always talking about the game. And he was funny.”
Three of Tribe’s five albums went platinum, and the other two went gold, but the group’s influence extended far beyond sales figures. As part of the Native Tongues movement, which also included De La Soul, they were into Afrocentrism and positivity and showed a generation how to make music that was both fun and substantive. “Tip’s kind of like the father of all of us, like me, Kanye, Pharrell,” André 3000 said. “When you’re a kid, it’s kind of like, O.K., who am I going to be? Can I be Eazy-E? Nah. But Q-Tip? Yeah. He seems more like a common kind of person.”The Apollo Theater marquee for Phife Dawg’s memorial service in April. Credit: Chad Batka for The New York Times.
Around the same time, a teenager in Detroit was also studying Tribe’s music. “They were trying to break new ground, and they had a musicologist’s attitude toward what they were doing with their samples,” Jack White said from his studio in Nashville. “I mean, you’ve got ‘Can I Kick It?’ over a Lou Reed sample from ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ That really showed that they were miles and miles deeper than most other people in pop music.”
By the end of the ’90s, Tribe’s members had broken up. In the ensuing years, they would occasionally reconvene to do shows, but the relationship between Q-Tip and Phife was difficult at times, as can be seen in Michael Rapaport’s sometimes brutal 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.” Q-Tip said the group had grown so popular that it was hard to maintain the friendships that were at its core. He also felt uncomfortable being cast as the de facto leader. “I’m more of a special-ops soldier,” he said.
Even still, Phife repeatedly asked about doing another group album; Q-Tip would respond, “Not now.” He was on a self-imposed sabbatical. “I wanted to rethink my life as an artist and as a man,” he explained.
He stepped out of the spotlight to re-energize himself and flowed into a yearslong period of spiritual rejuvenation. He studied music theory. He read a lot — Duke Ellington’s “Music Is My Mistress,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” George Orwell’s “1984,” the fiction of Paul Beatty, the poetry of Nikki Giovanni. He worked on his own poems. He tried all sorts of things.From left, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Jarobi White at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, in 2013. Credit: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images
“I was celibate for like a year,” he said. “I just wanted to ensure my mental health as a human being.” Then one day he said to himself: “How much longer are you going to be here? It’s good that you sat and you’re reading these books and you’re leaving the girls alone but, like, get over yourself.” It was time to get back to work.
Shortly afterward, in November 2015, the group was asked to perform on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its debut album. It was the group’s first television appearance in 15 years, and everyone agreed. “It felt right,” Q-Tip said. “The energy was right. It felt like we was those kids that had that big show in Paris when they were 19. It felt fresh. It felt exciting. It felt new. Plus, it was just good to be with my brothers after all of that time.”
Mr. White said the group easily slipped back into the zone: “It was like, oh man, this is the feeling that we’ve all been missing!” That was the night when Q-Tip finally said: “Let’s just do an album! Let’s just start tomorrow!”
But just because you put out the bat signal doesn’t mean everyone can come running. Q-Tip and Mr. White were ready to work on a new album but Mr. Muhammad was in Los Angeles working as the music supervisor for Netflix’s “Luke Cage.” And Phife was in Oakland, recording his own music and dealing with his health problems.
Jarobi White, left, and Q-Tip at Q-Tip’s home recording studio in New Jersey. Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times
Since 1990, Phife had been dutifully managing life with Type 2 diabetes. He was receiving dialysis three times a week and eating right. “He wasn’t in any pain,” his wife, Deisha Taylor, said in a recent interview from the home she and Phife shared. “He hadn’t been in the hospital in years. He was in a really, really, really good place before he transitioned.”
Phife was working on his craft every day — he finished a solo album that Ms. Taylor said should come out next year. (The single “Nutshell” is out now.) And while he was ready as a musician to work on a new Tribe album, his relationship with Q-Tip needed work. “I went through a lot of internal and family persecution around the group,” Q-Tip said. “A lot of people faulted me for breaking it up.”
So Phife flew out to Q-Tip’s home, and they sat and talked for hours.
“He came here, and we was bonding,” Q-Tip said. “We went through all of the stuff and apologized, and it was just so good, man. We were so back.” Ms. Taylor said Phife was encouraged by the meeting: “They were developing that chemistry again. He was excited about that.”
Phife found a clinic in New Jersey where he could receive dialysis, and in December 2015, just weeks after the triumphant Fallon performance, he began flying between Oakland and New Jersey twice a month and staying at Q-Tip’s house for weeks at a time to work on the album. The music was inspiring, but Q-Tip believes Phife was primarily focused on repairing their relationship.
From left, Jarobi White, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad in New York in 1990. Credit: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images
All of the recording sessions for “We Got It From Here, Thank You for Your Service” took place at Q-Tip’s studio, which Busta Rhymes called “phenomenal.” Soft design touches like bamboo floors and pink mood lights contribute to the warm aesthetic. But a vibe also flows from the history in the room. The main recording board has captured the music of Blondie, the Ramones and Art Blakey. There’s a tape reel that was used by Frank Zappa and equipment from the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
Q-Tip had one major rule for the album: He insisted that everyone who was a part of it come work in the studio. “If you wrote your rhyme somewhere else, you still had to come back and lay your verse in Q-Tip’s house,” Busta Rhymes said. “So we pretty much did every song together. Everybody wrote his stuff in front of everybody. Everybody spat their rhymes in front of each other. We were throwing ideas around together.”
When Jack White came to the studio, things fell right into place. “We recorded so many tracks and ideas,” he said. “It’s one of those scenarios where we’re so excited to finally get to work together that it was exploding in a whole different direction. We really didn’t know what we were doing, it was just a ‘hurry up and press record’ kind of moment.” (Q-Tip and Jack White connected when he asked to do an old Tribe song called “Excursions”in his stage show. They learned they were mutual admirers of each other’s work.) Jack White came to the studio without his own gear. “He just took a guitar off the wall and plugged it in and just got his wizard on,” Q-Tip said.
It was thrilling to the guys to watch stars like Jack White, Mr. Lamar and André 3000 come through and record. It was even more exciting to have their brother Phife around all the time. But now some of the group members think that all that traveling may have contributed to grinding him down, physically. “Doing this album killed him,” Jarobi White said simply. “And he was very happy to go out like that.”
In the months since Phife died, Q-Tip has worked to finish what he called “the final Tribe album.” Its title is the one Phife wanted. What does it mean? “I don’t know,” Q-Tip said. “We’re just going with it because he liked it.”
Q-Tip said it was tough to finish the album. From April until late October, he recorded and tweaked his way to the end, but one part was never easy. “It’s so hard for me to sit in there and hear his voice,” Q-Tip said. “Sometimes I just have to like take a break and walk away. It gets heavy. It doesn’t necessarily get sad, it just gets heavy. I literally feel the energy from him when I hear his voice.”
Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Mr. Muhammad and everyone in the Tribe family are still in mourning. The wound is fresh. “I’m gonna be missing him for a while,” Q-Tip said, with an audible lump in his throat. He paused. “God is in control,” he said. “And I feel at peace. I feel hopeful. I feel Phife with me.”
Credit: Chad Batka for The New York Times
Correction: November 13, 2016
An article last Sunday about the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest misstated the location of the home of the rapper Phife Dawg, who died in March before the group’s new album was completed. He lived near Oakland, Calif. — not in Oakland.