With their secretly recorded sixth and final album, A Tribe Called Quest address the state of their nation with fury, humour and love.
WHEN A Tribe Called Quest released their debut People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm in 1990, it was obvious that the collective was far removed from their James Brown sampling contemporaries. Not that the self-produced quartet (eventually a trio) consisting of boyhood friends Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad were afraid of the funk; they simply chose to be-bop onto the scene utilising varied rhythmic styles that included jazzbos Grover Washington Jr and Les McCann as well as Lou Reed and Little Feat. Lyrically too, Tribe — being down with the Native Tongues posse that included The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul — were on their own singular vibe as they rapped about leaving their loot in foreign countries (‘I Left My Wallet In El Segundo’), the misfortunes of a naive Frenchman visiting New York (‘Luck Of Lucien’) and the dangers of eating fatty foods (‘Ham ‘N’ Eggs’).
The group, especially de facto leader Q-Tip, were B-boys who had adopted the jazz tradition as an aesthetic that would guide them through to the end of the decade. For Tip, who has always been Tribe’s primary producer and artistic barometer, this tradition was more about evolving as an artist as opposed to simply selling records and gulping champagne in video clips. Following in the giant steps of heroes John Coltrane and Miles Davis, the Tribesmen were on a journey to expand their minds as well as their art.
The 1991 follow-up The Low End Theory influenced the future sound of both soul and rap, as it inspired then emerging artists The Roots, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and every other neo-whatever up to present day torch carriers like Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. However, as Tribe continued to grow sonically on their next two releases Beats, Rhymes And Life (which included newbie producer J Dilla as part of the production team) and The Love Movement, the record buying public began to drift from the group’s experimental ways and they soon called it quits.
Tribe occasionally toured and participated in the notorious 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest. But it would be 17 years before the crew returned to the lab — in secret — to begin working on their sixth disc.
Although Ali Shaheed Muhammad was supposedly busy scoring television projects, included in the initial recording sessions were Phife, original member Jarobi White, frequent Tribe guest Busta Rhymes, Consequence and, of course, nasal-toned Tip; along with engineer/co-producer Blair Wells, he also concentrated on putting together the beats, which were recorded in his new studio the AbLab. The process began in November 2015. Midway through, Phife died from complications caused by diabetes and the group were once again in limbo.
Instead of scrapping the work they’d put in, the crew forged ahead and constructed this album, released just under a year from the start of recording. Its title We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service derives from a bizarro phrase dreamed up by Phife. Said to be Tribe’s final full-length, the group exit with a bang-boom, tapping into the African-American psyche in the age of Black Lives Matter, countless civil rights violations and a maddening year that ended with racist billionaire Donald Trump, a man whose unbalanced behaviour invokes both fear and humour, being voted in as the 45th President of the United States.
Tribe have gone from detourning cool jazz to creating their own brand of fire music, delivered with the love and fury of Albert Ayler’s saxophone. Jumping head first into the nationalistic flames, ‘The Space Program’ opens with a sampled voice saying, “It’s coming down hard, we got to get our shit together”, while a haunting organ keeps the song anchored to a troubled Earth.
Tribe have always been racially conscious, but in the essentially non-threatening manner that was popular when they were teenagers. Now in their forties, they’re mad as hell as they witness an America many thought had evolved into a post-racial (translation: less racist) landscape reveal its true colours. Black folks are slain in the streets, Mexican immigrants are labelled rapists and all brown skinned Muslims are branded potential terrorists.
Indeed, the blaring sirens heard in politically charged first single ‘We The People’ serve as a wake-up call for those who have been sleeping through Trump’s white nationalist podium pronouncements. Phife raps in his Trinidadian accent — “Dreaming of a world that’s equal for women with no division/Boy, I tell you that’s vision” — as Tip crushes the competition with a combination of fury and humour: “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with/Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality”.
Musically, We Got It From Here plays with various sounds and textures, embracing the dreamy jazz (that bass is killin’ me) of ‘Melatonin’ before crossing the yardie road and getting hyped with the selector spinning the dancehall bounce of ‘Black Spasmodic’. The sample palette is diverse, with fragments of Black Sabbath (‘We The People’), Can (‘Lost Somebody’) and Gentle Giant (‘Mobius’) dropped into the mix.
Much has been written about the album’s numerous guest appearances: Elton John’s piano on the ‘Bennie And The Jets’ redo ‘Solid Wall Of Sound’; Jack White’s guitar solo on ‘Ego’; Anderson .Paak’s soulful wail on ‘Movin Backwards’; Andre 3000 rapping over playful cyborg electronica on the dazzling ‘Kids’. But Consequence is the revelation here. Keeping it street smart and ghetto grimy, the rapper’s verses on ‘Mobius’ (“They say Illuminati and other ordeals/Is how my lawyer got me to avoid a raw deal”) and “Whateva Will Be” (“I just wanna feel as liberated as lions in Liberia/’Cause recently my heart turned cold as Siberia”) stand out on an album jammed with dope MCs.
Sounding like nothing else out there, distinct even from Tribe’s previous work, We Got It From Here is political without being preachy, fun without being unintelligent and next level out while being street corner down. A superb swansong.
© Michael A. Gonzales, The Wire, January 2017