The Secret History of A Tribe Called Quest’s Final Album
On Wednesday evening, New York City’s music community came together in the VW Dome at Queens PS 1 museum to hear A Tribe Called Quest’s final album We’ve Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service for the first time. The assembled congregation comprised a who’s who of culture warriors including DJs, A&Rs, hip-hop journalists and most of the Okayplayer and Okayafrica staff as well Tribe’s extended family, management team and reps from Epic Records—all of whom had woken up that morning to learn that the KKK’s preferred candidate swept the crucial battleground states to win the electoral vote, becoming the President-Elect of the United States.
Woken up, that is, assuming they had slept at all in the previous 24 hours. The emotions people brought with them into that room ranged from shock to despondency to anger to a surreal, punch-drunk sense of disconnection. It is safe to say that everyone present welcomed the moment of community, if only to reaffirm their sanity by commiserating with old friends over a world that seemed to have lost its damn mind overnight. It’s also safe to say that the expectations placed on the music we were all about to hear were crazily, dizzily, high. They were probably dangerously high right from the moment the existence of a new ATCQ album was confirmed—the return of a game-changing force in music 18 years in the making. A reunion embarked upon on the very eve of one member’s untimely passing. But in that moment of post-election shock, most everyone in the room, consciously or not, rationally or not, was asking even more of A Tribe Called Quest. Most of us were looking to Tribe’s music to—if not save the damn world—then certainly to restore order to our little universe.
Impossibly, against all odds, as the first few bars of their track “Space Program” came on, A Tribe Called Quest delivered the bars, recorded months previously, that expressed exactly what everyone in that room needed to hear: “We got to get it together forever / Got to get it together for brothers / got to get it together for sisters / For mothers and fathers and dead n****s… We got to make something happen.”
All of which is to say that if you had to quickly sum up this album in a single word, if, say, you needed to email it to someone urgently, the single word subject line of that email would doubtless be: “important.” Important not just in a musicological sense (it is that) because A Tribe Called Quest’s album turns out to be less of a grand opus proclaiming the peak of the group’s sonic evolution, and much more a living document of the collective spirit and the simple, selfless camaraderie that gave the group life in the first place.
The musical groups we idolize—whether we imagine them as starship crews, cliques of cool kids or nomadic bands of hippie outlaws—are in some sense models of who we want to be, our ideal group-selves if you will. For that reason, nothing hurts a true devotee of hip-hop more than surveying the catalogue of pioneering progressive artists of a certain era who preached unity yet couldn’t keep their little 2 and 3-man crews together. This is why this audio record of Busta Rhymes, Consequence, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and—at it’s center—Phife Dawg and Q-Tip—rediscovering their chemistry line by line, celebrating the fierce joy of brotherhood as they spar in the creative mock combat of friends pushing each other toward excellence—is so important. It is a blueprint for how to get it together.
All of which is simply to frame why recording—in the moment—the history of this album is also important. For many of us, this album will be intertwined with a capital-H in History. We will remember that Tribe reunited on The Tonight Show the day after the Paris bombings. We will always remember where we were when we got the news that Phife Dawg was no longer among us. We will remember that we first heard this album while we were still trying to fathom the phrase ‘President Trump’. But the history of the creation itself—the process, the obstacles, the bubble and hiss of group chemistry, the decision to put out a new album at all—may be even more important. Because whether you are listening from within this moment of national division and pessimism, or listening outside of time, they are notes on how to get it right–and how to get it back right when it’s gone wrong.
Key members of A Tribe Called Quest’s inner circle provided the Secret History that follows, including our founder Questlove of The Roots, arguably Tribe’s #1 fan, who presided over their reunion on Jimmy Fallon’s set, Phife’s manager and best friend Dion Liverpool AKA DJ Rasta Root, his widow Deisha Taylor and Q-Tip’s longtime friend and Beats 1 collaborator Gary Harris (better known to many as “the man who signed D’Angelo”). Additionally, Q-Tip, Busta, Jarobi and Cons shared more insights and anecdotes about the album’s creation in conversation with Omar Dubois at the PS1 listening session.
Read on to receive the lessons their stories revealed.