DRESSED IN A black T-shirt with THE LOVE MOVEMENT emblazoned in silver on the back, baggy jeans, and a blue denim fisherman’s cap pulled down low on his brow, Q-Tip prances atop the stage at Tramps, a nightclub in downtown Manhattan.
“This rap shit is nuts,” he remarks over the mic, “but we still here and we want to thank y’all for the support over the years.”
Three months prior to the September release of their fifth album, The Love Movement, and A Tribe Called Quest have sold out the club. Phife, clad as always in athletic gear and mint condition Nikes, darts behind Tip as Ali Shaheed Muhammad cues up the vibrato keyboard intro to “Award Tour.” The trio rollick through tunes new (‘Find a Way,’ ‘Pad & Pen,’ ‘Da Booty’) and old (‘Bonita Applebum,’ ‘Check the Rhime,’ ‘Phony Rappers’). Quest’s performance thoroughly enraptures the crowd, which includes Busta Rhymes, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Quest’s original fourth member, Jarobi White.
“Tribe Called Quest are still the purest, most authentic motherfuckers in hiphop,” Busta shouts, right after a rousing rendition of ‘Scenario’. “You should salute them.” The audience all raise stiff hands to their sweaty foreheads.
Backstage, an MTV reporter approaches a physically spent Q-Tip about building rumors that A Tribe Called Quest are planning to dissolve the group. “There’s no nothing,” he responds. “We’re just gonna concentrate on what we got to do this summer. We gotta do some shows. We gotta play some ball. We gotta kick some ass.”
Weeks earlier, publicity mouthpieces at Jive Records said such rumors were completely false. Jive claimed the cancellation of Quest’s planned European tour was due to recording issues and personal problems, like the February fire that claimed Tip’s home in New Jersey.
One month later at the Spy Bar, a fashionably popular SoHo nightspot, the festive falsetto of Marvin Gaye crooning ‘Got to Give It Up’ is cut short by the jangly blues guitar of Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones’ ‘Miss You’. The DJ is Q-Tip, and the exclusive, velvet-roped event is an album release party for the artist formerly known as Prince. The Artist himself holds court in the VIP section, enjoying Tip’s musical selections with Stevie Wonder, Wyclef Jean, Humpty Hump, Andre Harrell, and the Spice Girls’ Melanie B, along with a host of others.
“We gotta get together soon, duke,” Q-Tip says to me as he descends the DJ booth. “You haven’t heard?” he questions with a serious tone. My answer is equally cryptic, as if someone might discern underneath the prevailing wail of Mick Jagger that we’re discussing the hush-hush breakup of A Tribe Called Quest.
“We’ll speak soon, maybe next week,” Tip says solemnly, stepping off towards the dance floor where singers Joe and Joan Osborne boogie with abandon.*
THE BLEAK, overcast sky hanging over New York City seems apropos. A pensive Ali and Q-Tip eat from an assortment of delivered dishes in a conference room at the offices of Jive Records. At once hesitant and accessible, the duo, with Phife on speakerphone from his bedroom in Atlanta, begin to detail the truth behind the hearsay of the past few months:
Miles Marshall Lewis: So what’s going on?
Ali: Outside of preparing for this album-i.e. shooting the video, Beastie Boys tour-we are disbanding. That’s what has brought you here today.
Q-Tip: We are no more A Tribe Called Quest. This is it, this is our last album.
Ali: The Love Movement is our last album, this [tour] is our last hurrah. Whatever we’re doing this year, that’s it.
After nine years, why have you come to this decision to disband?
Ali: It’s been nine publicly, but it’s been about ten for us. And after ten years, we done said everything that we can say. No matter what we say or how we say it, there are people who are gonna feel the way they feel. You gonna love Tribe or you not. You gonna understand us or you not. We’ve said everything that we could possibly say, and for us, we’d rather just leave it on The Love Movement, leave it on that note.
Q-Tip: I think one of our last impressions that we always had was to always give off love. And we kinda wanted to walk away from A Tribe Called Quest and leave that. That’s something that we made, that’s something that we put a lot of time into, and we walk away from that on that note of love.
Ali: We can’t elevate it any more than that.
So you honestly feel that Tribe has said everything there is to say?
Ali: Yeah, man. As A Tribe Called Quest, we’ve said it all. It’s been ten years, man. It’s a long time. We’ve accomplished a lot.
Q-Tip: We don’t wanna keep trying to do it and then ruin it.
Ali: It’ll just get worse and worse [until] it just doesn’t mean anything to anyone. And while it does mean something to us, and to people-our fanbase and our peers-we wanna leave it on that high note.
Do you wanna go into how you feel personally about this? Emotionally? After all, this is something y’all been involved in for all of your adult life and y’all decided to let it go.
Ali: You know what? I saw Jam Master Jay on the corner a couple of days ago. He said, “You gotta look at it as when you go to school. You spent 12 years of your life to prepare you for something.” And I thought about it, and I was like, “That’s exactly how I feel.” This is ten, 12 years. This is like, you go through kindergarten, elementary, junior high, high school, to prepare you for some sort of adulthood. And that’s how I felt like Tribe is, for me personally. All that we’ve done all these ten years has just been schooling. It’s a little deeper than ten years ’cause the group has been together longer than that. But professionally ten years, and it’s time to step and do something different. We’ve learned all that we can learn. We’ve said all that we can say.
Q-Tip: I feel like, the special thing… [stops himself] The special thing about Tribe… [stops again] The special thing about it is that it was just us doing it outta love, and doing it for the fun. And we grew in it, we learned a lot in it, and we learned a lot from it. And I wouldn’t trade that in for nothing. I mean, from the day that we first did anything back on a record back in 1988, ten years ago, to when we first saw the album come out, our first video, our first real show together, first tour. The Source giving us love, calling our albums classics. Certain interviews, shows overseas, seeing fans, meeting with people that you just… Stevie Wonder singing to you… [Q-Tip begins to cry]
Ali: Singing your songs!
Q-Tip: Singing your songs!
Ali: To meeting Prince to Sade…
Q-Tip: It’s just special, man, ’cause you just grow in it and it’s something that you do. It’s sad because it’s something that you created, but you know that it comes to a point where a man is a man, and he has to be a strategist. And he has to feel what’s inside of him, and then he goes with that. It’s all a test from the Creator, and we accept that as a part of creation. And we just try to move through. To winning a Source Award. That was to me one of the highs… [his voice cracks on “highs”]*
IT WAS JUST all good, even in bad. Even through jealousies or beefs, like with Wreckx-N-Effect. We got to go on national TV, David Letterman, just everything, man. We never came into it expecting to get embraced the way that we did. We’re thankful and we’re real humble about it, and we just would like to have opportunities to present that again, ’cause as sure as we did that, hopefully somewhere down the line we could do something else. But we’d just like to leave it at this state.
Maybe it was inevitable for the elements of Quest’s collective chemistry to weaken; friendship is everlasting, but change is the only constant, and the passage of time demands it. And if these are the last days of Quest, we should take another look at their beginnings. For John Davis III, Malik “Phife” Taylor, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White, it went a little something like this…
It’s the summer of 1985 and the sun streaming through the leaves of trees lining the streets of Queens, New York. One week ago, the Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers commenced its three-month summer vacation. You just lost your quarter in the Frogger machine at the local arcade, so you decide to stroll down Linden Boulevard towards the basketball courts. Turning the corner, you can already hear the strains of ‘The Show’ booming from somebody’s JVC and the familiar squeaks of Lotto or Diadora sneakers on asphalt.
During the mid-’80s when he was known as MC Love Child, John Davis (whose father passed away from emphysema when Davis was a teen) rolled these streets with Malik, Jarobi, and Ali. Rhyming together as a crew dubbed Crush Connection was their everyday routine over a decade ago, before Davis rechristened himself Q-Tip (Q for Queens), or his Islamic name, Kamaal Fareed.
“I was born in the Bronx-Co-op City, Section Three,” says Jarobi White, recalling Quest’s embryonic stage. “I moved to Queens when I was 12, and I met Phife. Tip was his best friend since he was two, ’cause their parents were families that knew each other. We did talent shows at Tip’s high school with me doing the beatbox and Tip rhyming. Then he met up with the Jungle Brothers, and Tip had got signed! Me and Phife, we was gonna do our thing. Since we all hung out, he was like, ‘Yo, it don’t even make no sense, we need to all come out together.’ That’s how Quest had got started.”
“The Jungle Brothers formed a relationship with A Tribe Called Quest,” says DJ Red Alert. “Mike G and Afrika was going to school at Murray Bergtraum, the same place where Q-Tip and I think also Shaheed [went]. They were all there together.” For the record, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was released with a Red Alert Productions imprint on the back, and Red guested on ‘Pubic Enemy’. “They all was coming across each other, formulating groups. As Jungle Brothers got their start, they introduced Q-Tip on one of their records, ‘Black Is Black.’ “
“Me, Mike, and Tip was sitting in the lunchroom and we came up with this joint called ‘In Time’,” says Afrika Baby Bam of the origins to the Jungle Brothers’ Straight Out the Jungle classic. “So we went in the studio, laid that down. Tip, he was really into Sly Stone records, even now. He had [Sly and the Family Stone’s 1973] Fresh in the studio, and it was this loop part. It just all came together on the love. We was deep into our music as poets first and then rappers second, so we was coming from a cultural base. That just bled through the music, and when you get in a cultural base, your thinking becomes tribal. You wanna be inclusive, bring everybody in. So when we started seeking out heads that was thinking like us, that’s how we met De La. That’s why we used all kinds of methodology that relates to native languages, like Native Tongue. That’s the real substance right there.”
Despite a mild split that was publicly patched up in 1996, the Native Tongues have been like family since their consecutive debuts in ’88, ’89, and ’90. And of all the groups in hiphop culture, De La Soul ranks among the longstanding few that have kept pace with A Tribe Called Quest in producing records of consistent quality. With a constantly evolving musical aesthetic that may have caused them to suffer commercially, De La might have more of an empathetic understanding of the pressure Quest has faced.
“Tribe has that curse that was put on them,” says Posdnuos. “They not only had a dope first album, but their second album was considered to be even better. Every album was evolving. People just expect that everything gotta be that much [more] intense with them, and that’s the curse. It’s a good curse to have, but you gotta work hard to keep it going. People always act like they’re tired of the old stuff, but when someone comes at them totally from the left, they don’t really accept it right away, ’cause they don’t know how to respond to it until they see enough people responding to it. It ain’t wack because I don’t understand it.”
Disgruntled fans might falsely credit the “more ordinary” qualities of Quest’s fourth and fifth albums to the dissolution that’s been growing since Beats, Rhymes and Life. But the overriding cause is plain ol’ adulthood. A Tribe Called Quest has been laughing, crying, partying, and performing with each for even longer than those four English lads from Liverpool. It’s a wonder hiphop culture has had them around for even this long.*
I know this is difficult, because I have so many Tribe memories, I know y’all do.
Q-Tip: It’s good ’cause it’s therapy. It helps you deal with situations. My whole thing is that I just love A Tribe Called Quest like Phife does. It’s all symbolism. Jarobi is back with us, we just chilling and kicking it. It all means something. We all happy. We have such a feeling of trust amongst each other that it’s ridiculous. Nobody could ever sever that. So just for the record, we don’t have no internal beef, none of that. It’s all love. It ain’t never gonna be no shit like that. I just get overwhelmed because it’s just dope to me. We’ve been able to maintain ourselves. And we’re not stepping away from it because we’re forced to, we doing it ’cause we want to, and that’s dope.
Careers are harder to maintain in hiphop. Why?
Ali: I think it’s because people are chasing a dollar more than building a career. It’s like when you have companies that are only signing things that sound like someone else, then it’s kinda hard for there to really be careers. Only that person who everyone is biting gonna be the one to survive and move forward. Unfortunately that’s been a trend for a few years now. But every now and then you’ll get a group who is not making music just for the fame or to get put on or make money, but they’re making music ’cause they really love music, so they’ll be around. Like a Lauryn Hill or something like that.
Phife: ‘Cause everybody’s lazy nowadays, I think. Everybody wants to be the next Jay-Z or the next Biggie Smalls instead of just being themselves. And once you have a bunch of people like that, it just gets cluttered and everybody’s on one level.
Q-Tip: There’s no diversity. I think with the whole longevity thing, I think longevity comes out of the real mixture of things. Where you have people like when it was a Joni Mitchell and a Sly Stone, Rolling Stones and Santanas, and Stevie Wonders and Bob Marleys. All these people’s music was diverse and they was all listening to each other, and it kept the creative process growing, but they all maintained themselves. So those artists were able to have more longevity because they all had their own identities and fans would draw to each one for different things. Whereas today, a whole bunch of groups sounding alike ain’t gonna have no longevity, because a fan could go right to the A-list and it’ll wean out the other ones. And then they’ll just get tired of it. Then they’ll flip the sound and then everybody will do this next sound.
Do you find it creatively constricting to please hiphop audiences?
Q-Tip: You gotta please yourself first, man. You gotta make the music that you like, that you enjoy. I really believe that. Then hopefully you’ll be so real about your shit that people will draw to it and see things in common.
Guru had to do Jazzmatazz separately because Gang Starr wouldn’t be accepted doing certain things. If Tribe had come out with, say, a triphop album, fans would’ve balked.
Q-Tip: That’s what happens, because we flipped our sound, and when you flip it… See, people get used to hearing one thing and they always gonna come to you for that one thing. And then if you feel the need to change, you just gotta go ahead and do it. You gotta be brave. Like the whole Gang Starr thing. Like Gang Starr will stick to doing one formula, and people like them for that. Or like M.O.P. It’s the same thing. And that’s cool. And then you have some motherfuckers who are like a Stevie Wonder or like a Prince, who already been there and done that, and now they wanna flip it and do some other shit. And people may be like, “I don’t know.” It’s nothing wrong with either way, it’s just what you choose to do. Whether you like to take chances or you the type to be more conserved.
Ali: I don’t see the masses of hiphop fans, though, when you decide to make a change like that. I don’t think hiphop fans are gonna run to a change, and that’s what’s sad. You get conditioned into the norm. Same thing with the style of wear, or the video. Whatever the trend is and just getting stuck in it. I don’t know what in mankind makes us stay like that. I guess ’cause what you know is comfortable, so you don’t wanna change. But the world is big, and there’s more than New York City, and there’s more than America. And that’s why it’s on point when Q-Tip said you gotta do what you feel and don’t stress all that.
Q-Tip: When Miles was doing Sketches of Spain and all that-Sorcerer-and all of a sudden, he flipped it and did Bitches Brew. And a lot of the cats that I’ve talked to from back then said that shit was not accepted for a long time. But now, it’s like classic. He went out and took a chance and he flipped his whole sound. It’s like he was innovative with the whole joint. And we are no way, shape, or form putting ourselves in that type of company in the analogy of hiphop. Although I’m a little sad, I’m actually quite blissful about the things that’s about to happen because I think that hopefully this’ll be the second phase of our careers. Like kinda in the same way [as] Miles when he flipped it.
I think the hiphop audience isn’t allowing Tribe to be artists.
Q-Tip: It’s very closed-minded of folk to be that way, but we hopefully can lay a foundation that kids coming up doing music won’t have to suffer that no more. We’ll be the sacrificial lambs for that. We have no problems because we’re happy with the shit and we know what we gotta do.
Ali: The only group I think who’ve come close to that is the Beastie Boys. Have you heard their new joint? They flipped it. They’ve been fortunate but everyone else can’t get it like that. They’re not gonna get the loyalty that the Beastie Boys had, which is kinda sad. Which just shows that us as mankind, we gotta challenge ourselves. I don’t mean to be repetitive, but just remember that the world is too big, man. If you ain’t gonna find what you looking for in this country, then go somewhere else, man. For real. Don’t let the media and the powers-that-be brainwash you into thinking that the only way you gonna get it is if you driving a 600 Benz and you just got mad diamonds and blah blah. Please! Don’t let the politicians control us into thinking that and getting locked into it. And don’t let the pawns-those people who glorify and magnify like that’s the only thing to life-lock your mind into thinking that that’s the only thing, ’cause it’s bigger than that. You could have it in another country, or even in this country in another state. You could have ten acres of land and be rich with cows and chickens, some apple trees, and you making it like that. And your family is healthy and you have one another and there’s love from that standpoint.*
LONGEVITY IN hiphop culture is a curious concept. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you can still catch an occasional show by the Sugarhill Gang or Run-D.M.C. But the last albums by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and Whodini flopped. And if Public Enemy’s recent return with He Got Game marked a comeback, it was critical, not commercial. But LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Will Smith have continued to sell millions of records for over a decade. In any event, it’s rare for a hiphop band to officially break up (N.W.A, the recently reunited EPMD); most simply fade away (UTFO, Stetsasonic). To say, therefore, that witnessing the dissolution of A Tribe Called Quest is an historic hiphop moment isn’t mere hyperbole; it’s fact.
So what’s behind the dissolution? Well, it’s not because the men of Quest can’t stand each other, an accusation that many will certainly offer up. However, that statement is not only untrue, it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation. If fingers need be pointed, thrust the first one at the music industry itself.
Madonna flips it.
Ali: You know what the difference Madonna has that hiphop doesn’t? She has the support. And no one wants to admit it openly: Yo, the white artists outside of hiphop gets it. Hiphop, R&B, and jazz don’t get the support from the record companies that all these alternative, rock ‘n’ roll, and pop acts do.
Q-Tip: Record companies are the most racist set, man.
Ali: If A Tribe Called Quest or anybody was supported in the manner and the way that Madonna was… If we were given that, then I’m pretty sure you would see more people doing it. But unfortunately, we’re not given that support, so we’re locked in. And it perpetuates the same thing, the same consistency.
Q-Tip: It makes no sense why Wu-Tang Clan don’t have the sales of a Metallica or seven million.
Ali: Straight up, straight up.
Q-Tip: You get your rarities, but it’s off of one record, and it’s off what’s clean-cut. Wu-Tang Clan, Run-D.M.C., Gang Starr even, Common Sense. I could go on for a minute, Mobb Deep. In hiphop you only get to see two million and then that’s it. But then when you come to our shows, if you come to a Wu-Tang show or you come to a Tribe show or a Fugees show, you see all types of flavors. And the only ones out of the [groups] mentioned that was representing it off the last joint was the Fugees, but that’s because of that big pop hit that they had [‘Killing Me Softly’, built off Tribe’s own ‘Bonita Applebum’ sample]. But they still that same dope crew. They still deserve to have that following. But the record companies don’t see fit to put that type of money behind it. They’ll put oodles and oodles of money into a bullshit alternative band that probably can’t even play, don’t have no real chops, and they’ll go fuckin’ three singles deep on ’em with videos. And the shit don’t sell, and they just keep going. And then they put the next album out and get the same campaign going. It’s just not fuckin’ fair. And we have the greatest mix. Hiphop is responsible for bringing kids together, B. Whites, Asians, Latinos, blacks, all types of kids, man, who ain’t supposed to be gelling coming together at our shows. I see it. Shorties, 16-year-olds. I have people come up to me and say, “Yo, I grew up off your shit”-like Matt Dillon or River Phoenix or Leonardo DiCaprio-on some fan shit, and that shit is real.
It’s just like the jazz was. It’s just like the bebop was. Miles. Bird. Frank Sinatra, Bogart, all of them niggas was coming to they joints, feeling them., hanging out, getting high, just bugging on some friend shit. But they never got that love. And they trying to squander hiphop the same way. And I have nothing against R&B. I feel like we have a strong hold in it, ’cause we’re restructuring the whole sound, what we doing right now. And that’s thanks to people like Puffy who fused that shit in, but it ain’t the same thing, ’cause our shit is a little bit more heartfelt. We take a little bit more chances, we a little bit more maverick with our shit, as hiphoppers. So it’s ill. People… Like if I met Jesse Jackson Jr. and he’s running for Congress, he’s like, “Your joint was hot.” In a minute, you’ll have people in the Oval Office running this country talking about, “Yo, Run-D.M.C. was the shit. I remember the Treacherous Three.” It’s starting now. You got hiphop lawyers, writers, and journalists, hiphop television shows. One of the top three box office draws in the world is Will Smith. Say what you will about him, I feel him personally, and come on: he’s a hiphopper. Record companies are still not giving us no love, B. It’s racist. Fucking racist, and you could bold it when you put it down-record companies are racist fucks, just like that.
You guys have always been frank about your so-so feelings towards your record label, Jive. Why did you put up with ’em for ten years?
Phife: I felt like I was happy to be on, of course. It took me a minute to latch on to the business side of things, ’cause it was just a happy-go-lucky time. And then eventually, as time went on, it started to slap me in the face. But as far as record labels or whoever, they’re not gonna do us right. They’re never gonna do us right. If there was any record label I would feel safe on, it would be LaFace. And the only reason I why I say that is because they were artists at one time. And I feel like they know what a Goodie Mob would want, or what an OutKast would want. But as far as our label, I really have no comment, duke.
How will the breakup affect the promotion for the album?
Ali: Ch-ching! That’s what some people are saying. Whatever, man.
Q-Tip: They look at it like, we breaking up so now we gonna sell.
Ali: “Now we [Jive Records] gonna sell records. Now we gonna put some money into it and blow this up.” But we wanna see people for the last hurrah. The Beastie Boys are definitely gonna open it up a little bit and just give us the opportunity to let the world know. And to give back to our fans, ’cause we do love our fans and we don’t want them to feel like we’re breaking their hearts. You get angry sometimes when a group you really care about breaks up, and we don’t want anyone to be angry. We want everybody to understand. We wanna go out there and see our fans and just let them know why, and give them an opportunity to be a part of this.
What legacy do you hope y’all left behind?
Q-Tip: For me, I just hope that what we left behind, that people could listen to it, and I hope that it’s timeless. I hope that when you pick it up and listen to it, it feels the same way, or they could discover new things about it. They could see the hiphop in it, see the musicality in it, and see the chances that we took, the fun that we had, and the pain that we had and everything. And just take it. Hopefully people will just remember that. That we just made an effort to have people enjoy themselves and hear some dope shit.
Ali: For me, I hope that it will be well remembered, and not just like sugar that gets used up quickly and that’s it. Just something that when you go back to it, it really means something and will try to inspire you to still think and open your mind. And realize we put a lot of hard work into Tribe and into the music, and trying to bring forth change for those that come behind us. And we hope that those that come after will just do the same thing for those that come after them, and try to give back, and not just take, take, take.
Phife: That we were definitely for the betterment of hiphop. We was always in our own world, but we tried to represent making good music at all times. Hopefully, people can latch onto that and believe in themselves and not listen to what everybody else has to say. Just be you.
© Miles Marshall Lewis, The Source, October 1998