Throwback Artist Spotlight: A Tribe Called Quest
On the morning of March 22nd, 2016, many millennials were surprised to see the unfamiliar name “Phife Dawg” alongside the usual mix of Star Wars, Kardashian and Donald Trump news that congests the “Trending” Tags on Facebook and Twitter. In life, Malik Taylor, or Phife as most knew him, was many things: An incredible lyricist, a native New Yorker, a self- anointed “Five Foot Assassin and “Funky Diabetic”, but perhaps most notably, a member of the iconic hip hop collective, A Tribe Called Quest.
Alongside group members Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, and (briefly) Jarobi White, Phife Dawg pushed the growing rap genre into new heights. In the ‘90’s, A Tribe Called Quest found itself as the centerpiece of rap’s greatest decade. Armed with sharp lyrics, creative samples and unique instrumentals, the group took the rap world by storm with critically and commercially acclaimed albums The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders.
Pictured: An icon gone long before his time. RIP Phife Dawg.
In an era where rap is largely repetitive and much of the lyrical content is designed to appeal to a nightclub full of drunk college kids, A Tribe Called Quest is a refreshing look back at a time when lyrical content mattered. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of this group is their ability to rap about almost anything. They did diss tracks, songs about partying, songs about girls, and even incorporated short stories into their raps. While all three members had their fair share of memorable one liners, Phife was especially well known for bursting in and “stealing” the song with his energetic, animated delivery as well as his laugh out loud punchlines (most cannot be published here). Phife was the perfect foil to the more laid-back and somewhat monotone flows utilized by Ali Shaheed and Q-Tip.
Another aspect of what made A Tribe Called Quest so great was their sampling and background music, often drawing from jazz, blues and funk influences. Each song is a piece of music that can be enjoyed and appreciated, not only for its lyrical content, but also its composition as an independent piece of music. Always incredibly eclectic in their samples, ATCQ is well known for their hit “Can I Kick It?” which sampled the baseline from Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”. This song forever tied the Tribe to another icon of New York’s underground musical scene, albeit not for their financial benefit. Always conscious of expanding the genre rather than their wallets, the group never received a penny for their hit single as Lou Reed collected all profits.
For years, A Tribe Called Quest enjoyed near icon status, holding their own alongside more mainstream rappers such as Ice Cube, Dr Dre and even The Notorious B.I.G. The Tribe provided listeners with a change of pace that offered an alternative style to the hardcore and gangsta style that became popular with hip hop listeners after The Chronic came out in 1992. The group also offered a much needed neutral alternative to the militant style of rap that emerged as tensions began to rise between East and West coast hip hop artists.
In 1998, A Tribe Called Quest released their final album to date, The Love Movement. After nearly 14 years together, inner conflict had begun to manifest itself in the group and the final product was reflective of that. While definitely not a bad album, The Love Movement is indisputably many steps below the quality of their previous releases, with many placing the blame on the turmoil developing within the group. After the album’s release, Ali Shaheed, Phife and Q-Tip went their separate ways. Since the split, only Q-Tip has enjoyed mainstream solo success.
In the years since the split, there have been sporadic and short lived reunions, but unfortunately no new music. The group appeared in a few shows alongside the Wu-Tang Clan a few times in the early 2000s and were an opener for several dates of Kanye West’s Yeezus Tour. In November, the group reunited for a surprise appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Path of Rhythm. The performance was well received and created significant buzz regarding a tour and possibly new music from the group.
Pictured: One of the most iconic albums by the group & quite possibly in all of hip-hop music.
In the wake of Phife Dawg’s death, it appeared the door for any reunion shows or new music had been permanently shut. However in August, the group announced that they had secretly recorded a new album before Phife passed away, which will be released “very soon”. Hopefully the album will be a fitting finale for these rap pioneers.
The “what-ifs” are frustrating when thinking about A Tribe Called Quest, but these agitating hypotheticals should not prevent people from enjoying their incredible existing catalogue of work. Even almost 20 years after their final album was released, A Tribe Called Quest’s music remains just as fresh, funny and poignant as it was in the 1990’s and remains a worthwhile listen.
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