Say it ain’t so! A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, one of the most loved and respected hip-hop bands ever, have bitten the dust. Here, they reveal what went wrong — and what they’re up to next. Tribal blathering: ANGUS BATEY
SO, JUST WHAT do you do when love breaks down? When the fabric that holds the fundamentals of your life together finally unravels? You probably gather your friends and family close around, regroup and reassess, get back on with everything and clear your head. But what if that relationship is also the one that underpins your career? Do the same rules still apply? How do you cope? And where do you go next?
In June 1998, A Tribe Called Quest – one of the most consistent, loved and respected hip hop bands of all time – had been asking themselves these same questions. In the middle of rehearsals, six days away from the start of a European tour, they should have been looking forward to the oft-postponed release of their ambitious fifth album, The Love Movement, yet were unable to escape the doubts and the unease that accompanies friends or lovers when they know it just isn’t working out. Someone had to pluck up the courage to say what has to be said, to clear the air and remove the malaise that was dogging their steps.
Fast forward to mid-August, and Ali-Shaheed Muhammed, Quest’s producer, DJ and de facto band spokesman, sits on a sofa in a dressing room at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena and tries to explain what happened in that rehearsal room. All that is so far clear is this: ATCQ’s July European tour was abruptly cancelled. Their record company, Jive, claimed that last-minute revisions to The Love Movement had taken priority over live work. Then in August they began a string of US dates supporting their long-time friends and fellow rap veterans the Beastie Boys, the album was scheduled for a late September release, and things seemed to be back on course. But on stage at a gig in Seattle, Q-Tip – the charismatic rapper and some-time actor, a veteran of cameos on records by everyone from Deee-Lite and Janet Jackson to The Fugees – announced that the band would be calling it quits as soon as the tour was over.
Ali has the family around him. He’s flanked by diminutive rapper Phife, the band’s friend and back-up live vocalist D-Live who appears on the new LP, and Quest’s elusive Bez-like figure Jairobi. Jairobi was a member at first but has never appeared on any of ATCQ’s records. He’s spent the last few years learning how to be a chef (“the culinary arts was always his first love,” Phife confides). Jairobi feels there’s a circle being closed. “I was here at the beginning, so I’m here at the end,” he explains. “To help wrap it up.”
Tip hasn’t arrived yet, but he will, and Tribe will make what could well be their last ever live performance in front of 23,000 Beasties fans. There’s a strange atmosphere as this group of life-long friends muse on what was and what might have been. It’s a bit like sitting on the edge of a wake for an old mate whose life is being celebrated even while their passing is being mourned.
“I guess it was on all our minds but no-one spoke it,” remembers Ali of the decision the group arrived at some weeks earlier. “But Q-Tip came in [to rehearsals] and spoke his mind as far as how he felt, and we all felt the same way. That we’d done all that we could do. I think we’ve all been in a relationship with someone and felt that this can’t go on. It doesn’t mean you don’t love or respect one another, but you feel so much better when you’ve had that talk. It puts you on the road to understanding one another, but it’s like…”
He exhales and wipes his brow.
“We’ve had our trials and tribulations. There are a lot of things we’ve gone through that have mentally and physically battered us. It’s taken its toll, and we all kinda felt the wave when it hit us. We all basically felt it was time to move on. And if we don’t we’ll always have this darkness over us and it’s gonna show in our music, and that’s the last thing any of us wanted. Our motto was to always have fun.”
A Tribe Called Quest were synonymous with good vibes and warmer times. Their first album, the universally acclaimed People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, hit the ground running in a world prepared for the possibilities of psychedelic hippy-hop by De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising. Tribe sampled Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and had a massive world-wide hit with the sweet, simple ‘Can I Kick It?’. The year was 1990, rappers wore beads and moccasins, Afrocentricity was the buzzword and, despite murmurings from a place called Compton, musicians weren’t getting shot.
A year later they released a magnificent, understated album of double bass jazz, hard drum snaps and luxuriantly laid-back rhymes. The Low End Theory made Tribe the choice of purist rap fans without losing them the massive crossover audience of their debut. Midnight Marauders followed two years later, an almost as perfect distillation of what was now the trademark Tribe sound. The sleeve was covered with mugshots of practically every emcee in the known universe, proving that Tribe had become the rappers’ rap band of choice. Q-Tip made a brief appearance in John Singleton’s Higher Learning and got to snog Janet Jackson. Things, surely, could get no better.
Yet it’s here that the seeds of ATCQ’s destruction were ultimately sown. When their fourth LP, 1996’s Beats, Rhymes And Life, dared to show an element of evolutionary growth from its creators, responses from fans and critics were muted. The record sold poorly.
“People just don’t wanna let go of what was,” Phife reckons. “I thank everybody for supportin’ us, for viewin’ our first three albums as classics. But we were kids when we started and we’re men now, we all grow. Beats, Rhymes And Life was something different. The Love Movement is something different.”
“I feel like we’re cursed,” he concludes.
An hour or so later outside the arena, a reflective Q-Tip echoes his fellow rapper’s sentiments. “We kinda got cursed because we put out three albums that people hailed as masterpieces,” he explains, his conversational voice the same sing-song lilt familiar from records. “To a lot of people we represented one type of sound, one type of idea, one type of feeling and vibe and emotion. We were hoping that with A Tribe Called Quest we could be every dimension of who we are. But sadly enough people just loved one dimension so much they can’t hear nothing else.”
The Love Movement, a record they claim was inspired by The Beatles’ Abbey Road, will surely be the last straw for fans expecting the more of …Travels…‘s cheery melodiousness or craving the head-nod beats of The Low End Theory. It’s ultra-minimal; hip hop stripped almost naked. And it carries its musical aesthetic through to some emotionally raw lyrics about that thing called love. In today’s hip hop world of fast money, gratuitous sex and casual violence, it’s a stirring, brave record, every bit as revolutionary as anything they’ve done before.
Quest, then, are going out on a high. Just as they’ve spent most of their career. They’re animated when sharing some treasured memories.
“Being able to talk and chill with Miles Davis,” Tip reminisces, smiling gently, “that was cool. He told me he liked our stuff a lot and he appreciated it. And having Stevie Wonder sing me happy birthday when I turned 25. It was in New York, he was playing a show and we were there. He sang, ‘Happy birthday to you,’ and then he went into a bit of our song ‘Award Tour’. Prince was a nice guy. Again, he likes our stuff a lot. Just being able to talk to these people and chill – it’s just a bug-out.”
“One of the thing’s I’m gonna remember most,” vows Phife, “is The Source awards at the Paramount, where we accepted an award for artist of the year or somethin’ like that, and Tupac just came on stage and started doin’ a song. I’m never gonna forget that. God bless the dead and everything… but that was a crazy night.”
“That probably best exemplifies A Tribe Called Quest,” says a wry Ali-Shaheed. “No matter how much success or how good it may get for us, some obstacle has always come along. Why us? When will this curse stop?”
The future is mapping itself out. Phife is already working on a solo album. Ali-Shaheed is a sought-after producer, earning a Grammy nomination for his work with D’Angelo (“That kind of bugs me out. How come I have to go outside the group to get nominated for a Grammy?”). Jairobi’s got the cooking, D-Live’s just starting out, and Q-Tip? Well, Q-Tip is hip hop’s renaissance man. There’ll be a solo record, and the guest appearances will continue, but at the moment he’s looking forward to an entirely different challenge.
“I got a film I’m working on with Robert De Niro’s production company, Tribeca Films,” he enthuses. “It’s a musical, and the working title is ‘The Prison Song’. It’s sort of like a cross between Oliver! and Cool Hand Luke.”
There’s talk of an autumn US tour with Lauryn Hill, a college tour for the die-hard fans and maybe even some final dates in Europe. But for tonight, there’s the small matter of 23,000 people to impress. Not to mention the three folks who invited them along.
“As a fan I’m sad they’re breaking up,” admits Beastie Mike D after an energetic game of basketball with Tribe’s crew and rapper Biz Markie. “But obviously they gotta do whatever they feel is right to carry on doing creative and positive things. And it’s amazing getting to hear all those classic songs every night.”
But perhaps it should be Q-Tip who offers the band a fitting epitaph.
“If there was one thing that someone would look back and think about Tribe,” he smiles, “I would hope it’s that they would say, ‘They made good fuckin’ music’. Plain and simple.”
© Angus Batey, New Musical Express, September 1998