A Tribe Called Quest return: You fight for what you love and you go through hell to get it

Eighteen years after their last album, the hip-hop legends are back with a record that reunites original members Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White and Phife Dawg, who died in March. Here, they talk post-Trump despair, why their music is a rallying cry for the voiceless and life without Phife

Its a strange day at Q-Tips house in suburban New Jersey. Its the night of the launch party for We Got It from Here Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quests first album in 18 years, and their last. But its also less than 24 hours after the shock election of Donald Trump so the excitement is somewhat muted. Weird day, mutters Q-Tip, Tribes 46-year-old MC, producer and mastermind. Speechless.

He was rooting heavily for Trumps opponent. Hanging on the wall, beneath a photograph of Q-Tip with Harry Belafonte, is a framed letter from Hillary Clinton, congratulating him on his appointment as the Kennedy Centers first artistic director for hip-hop culture. Q-Tip made a cameo appearance in the leaked John Podesta emails, asking for a meeting with Clinton to help with her campaign. Earlier today, Tribe were rehearsing for the post-election episode of Saturday Night Live. What was expected to be a celebration looks likely to be a wake. Thats going to be a weird gig, I suggest.

What can you do? he drawls. You cant wallow in it. Youve just to charge ahead.

Its already been a turbulent year for one of hip-hops most beloved groups. It was in this houses basement studio that Q-Tip recorded much of the new album, which reunited him with Phife Dawg, his oldest friend and Tribes amiable everyman MC. And it was here, on the night of 22 March, that Q-Tip and his bandmate Jarobi White heard that Phife had died at the age of 45 owing to complications related to type-2 diabetes.

Jarobi White and Q-Tip. Photograph: SACHA LECCA
We were just getting ready to send him a track for him to rhyme on when we got the news, says White, a likable, down-to-earth character whom Q-Tip has described as the spirit of a Tribe Called Quest. We couldnt hold our eyes open for longer than five minutes without crying. We had to make sure that the album honoured him and showed him at his best.

Q-Tip is perched at his kitchen counter, eating cinnamon-coated apple slices and stroking his dog, an elegant Rhodesian ridgeback named after Fela Kuti. In the Podesta emails, one of Clintons aides described Q-Tip as lovely and eloquent, but his charisma is all or nothing. His eyes widen and narrow depending on how interested he is. Hes either sharply engaged or so vague that I understand why hes nicknamed the Abstract: distractedly gazing at his phone or slapping me on the knee and joking about putting me on a track. Im not saying that youre not dope, he says, laughing. Im sure you could probably out-rap me and out-play Jack White.

Q-Tip doesnt like talking about the past (Thats old man shit) but somebody has to. Since 1990, when he first appeared on Tribe hits such as Can I Kick It? and Deee-Lites Groove Is in the Heart, he has been one of hip-hops most reassuring presences. I like the ageless nature of his voice, says Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers, who worked with him on the hits Galvanize and Go. Its light, sinewy, flexible, funky. His lyrics are always interesting and fresh. And hes a great producer.

Q-Tip has released three solo albums and guested with artists ranging from Janet Jackson to REM, but hes never better than when hes in harmony with Phife: the funny, streetwise yin to Q-Tips smooth, poetic yang. The pair met in church as infants and formed Tribe with White and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad at high school in the St Albans neighbourhood of Queens. Their music was optimistic, insightful and politically aware, but not didactic. Even more than De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, their friends in the Afrocentric Native Tongues movement, Tribe carved out a space in hip-hop for the geeks, pranksters, philosophers and eccentrics. At a memorial service for Phife in April, Andr 3000 said: Outkast would not be Outkast without Tribe. You could say the same of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams and many more.

Q-Tip was just 19 when Tribe released their debut album, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. If he gave all those artists the courage to be themselves, I wonder who or what inspired him.

Being young! he says. Not being jaded. You come up with some shit and you believe in it. Thats all it takes. You have these lofty expectations and because youre young, you dont know any better. But its good. Thats the best way to be when youre being creative.

DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, 2015. Photograph: David Buchan/Getty Images

After their debut, Tribe recorded two heavy, socially conscious, jazz-inspired masterpieces, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, which established Q-Tip as one of hip-hops all-time great producers and sample-spotters. In Michael Rapaports excellent 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Williams says: Were all his sons. Myself, J Dilla, Kanye, we wouldnt be here if it wasnt for Tribe albums.

But as Tribes fame grew, the group dynamic changed. White drifted away to train as a chef, although he never officially left. It wasnt like I wasnt a member, he says. The difference between us and a lot of other groups is we were friends first. We all decided to go into the same business but the business doesnt define our relationship.

A Tribe Called Quest in the early 90s. Photograph: SONY

Phife, who described himself on 1993s Oh My God as a funky diabetic, struggled to control his illness. As well as being the groups de facto leader, Q-Tip became an older brother, pressuring Phife to eat right and stay healthy. On Lost Somebody, his eulogy to Phife, Q-Tip calls himself sometimes overbearing though I thought it was for your benefit.

Did he feel protective?

I wouldnt use that word. I think protective denotes a motherfucker cant move. Its not Happy Days, Im not chaperoning niggas to movies, but Im the oldest one. You want to be mindful. Thats what brothers are supposed to do. Thats what families are.

By the time of 1996s more sombre Beats, Rhymes & Life, Phife felt sidelined and Q-Tip, who converted to Islam and changed his name from Jonathan Davis to Kamaal Fareed, had lost some of his youthful zeal. There was a degree of jadedness, he says. You learn about the business and all this bullshit. In 1998, Q-Tip dissolved the group. Sporadic reunion tours to pay Phifes medical bills failed to restore the two mens friendship or bring them back together in the studio.

Phife wanted to make the album for the last 10 years at least, White says. It was tough for him. Im sure that led to a little bit of dissent between the guys. Last November, Phife told Rolling Stone: Were doing the fans a great injustice by not getting together and rocking.

But Q-Tip wasnt interested. I was always the cat that didnt want to do it, he says. We didnt want to come back and be wack. You want to really hit the mark and be relevant, not just be a bunch of old dudes. It seemed a daunting task.

Just days after Phifes Rolling Stone interview, however, everything changed. Tribe appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, backed by Fallons house band (and Tribe fans) the Roots. In one short performance, Q-Tip and Phife rediscovered the joyous chemistry that had eluded them for so long.

The vibe was crazy, Q-Tip says. That was the same day as the Paris bombs so it was a night like tonight, a little bit weird, but everything about it seemed special. We had the same energy that we did when we was kids.

On the drive home from the show, Q-Tip told White that he was finally ready to make a new Tribe album. Straight away. Muhammad was mostly occupied scoring the Netflix show Luke Cage but Phife flew in from California for weeks at a time. We just got right to it, turned the shit on, and pow! Q-Tip says with a blissful smile. We know each other so fucking well and we have each others backs. If youre going left, theyre turning left. If you pause, you feel their feet stop before your feet stop.

Phife Dawg, 2015. Photograph: Brian Ach/Invision/AP
When did making a Tribe record last feel that easy? The Low End Theory. I had a very bad sinus infection the whole time and I dont know how I was making it through but it was just happening. This was eerily similar. It was sheer inspiration, which really comes from a higher spirit.

Tribe had recorded half a dozen songs when Phife passed away. He had been awaiting a kidney transplant and was receiving dialysis three times a week, but Q-Tip didnt realise his friend was in danger. Youre too busy enjoying him to really notice that he was ill, Q-Tip says. He was super-happy.

Its not like it was a dying man recording with his last breath, White says. It was quite the opposite. I havent seen him that happy and invigorated in a long time. He was doing what he wanted to do and hed patched up his relationship with his oldest friend. We were telling jokes and being silly like we were as little kids. It was a beautiful thing to watch, actually. One of the reasons I really miss Phife is all that stuff would have translated to shows. It felt like the first or second album.

Proceeding with the record, Q-Tip enlisted several A-list guests, including Kendrick Lamar, Andr 3000, Kanye West, Jack White and Elton John. Right from the start, Tribe was not just a group but a concept that encompassed collaborators such as Busta Rhymes and J Dilla. Even superstars, Q-Tip says, become honorary Tribe members. The idea of Tribe extends past a hard number of people, he says. It could always grow or shrink at any time. He thinks there are too few groups in hip-hop now. People are very isolated for the most part. Theyre in their own world, online, always looking down at phones, not looking up at each other. Theres a lack of community, but were trying to restore that.

The hardest part was returning to the tracks that featured Phife. It was very difficult because he was just here the other day, he says quietly. I had to stop many times when Id hear his vocals because I couldnt continue.

It was very painful, White agrees. There were moments mixing the album when we burst into tears.

Towards the end of the interview, we wind up talking about Brexit (Q-Tip was in London at the time) and Trump, whose rise haunts the album in several places: Q-Tip decided to cut a sample from Charlie Chaplins The Great Dictator at the last second because it suddenly felt too heavy-handed. Hes trying to be optimistic.

Its hard to see it right now but theres always a silver lining. He thinks for a moment. I put it to you like this. Hes one man and hes one problem. But the thing about problems is that theres a whole bunch of different solutions that surround them. The solutions outweigh the problem. So were in the majority, folks, you know? I must be looking dubious because he laughs and clutches my knee. I tried! Oh man, I tried!

A Tribe Called Quest, backed by the Roots, on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, (l to r) Jarobi White, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, 2015. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Three nights later, Tribe perform two new songs, We the People and The Space Program, on Saturday Night Live in front of a street-art portrait of Phife. Its hard to imagine more appropriate musical guests. Lyrics written months earlier about bigotry and inequality feel shockingly timely. Online, fans and critics have described Tribes return as not just welcome but necessary.

We the People seems like its becoming a rallying cry at street level, White tells me over the phone a few days later. Its really eerie that these things are coming to pass. All the things on the album are semi-prophetic, like Phife had a crystal ball. I dont think we intended it to be but the album seems to be speaking for people who dont have a voice to speak now. This is like food for the movement.

Given the time and the place that were in, it seems like its more important, Q-Tip agrees. Its still early days to be making a statement whether hip-hop is now politicised like it once was, but I feel like a shift is certainly happening.

He says hes still processing what the album means to him, let alone anybody else. I feel like its given us a sense of catharsis, completion and closure. I think Phife Dawg has left me personally with the understanding that you do fight for what you love, and you do go through hell and back to get to it, and then, when you get to it, you approach it with joy and zeal. With freedom.

We Got It from Here Thank You 4 Your Service is out now on Epic. Dorian Lynskeys trip to New York was paid for by Sony.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/17/still-kicking-it-a-tribe-called-quest

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