Ab­dur­raqib’s riv­et­ing, po­etic take on A Tribe Called Quest

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - By Ge­off Edgers

If you can re­mem­ber back to Nov. 12, 2016, A Tribe Called Quest ap­peared, seem­ingly out of nowhere, and ba­si­cally staged a mu­si­cal takeover of “Satur­day Night Live.” It had been 7,349 days since their last record and yet there stood Tip and Jarobi, backs turned to the cam­era to sa­lute a sprawl­ing mu­ral of the fallen Phife Dawg, as “The Space Pro­gram” kicked in.

Son­i­cally, the song is clas­sic Tribe, built on beats and groove and a Pa­le­o­zoic sam­ple from an An­drew Hill Blue Note record. But con­tent-wise, “The Space Pro­gram” man­ages to be more of the mo­ment than the mo­ment it­self. Never mind that it was prob­a­bly mixed down at a point in the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign when white sub­ur­bia still be­lieved pantsuit flash mobs would rule the day. Tribe seemed to know what was com­ing. Only four days af­ter Don­ald Trump took the White House, Tip had shifted out of stun mode. He stalked the cam­era to lead a res­o­lute chant of “Let’s Make Some­thing Hap­pen.”

As Hanif Ab­dur­raqib writes in his riv­et­ing and po­etic new book on Tribe, we shouldn’t have been all that sur­prised by the group’s re-emer­gence on “We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Ser­vice,” its sixth and fi­nal al­bum: “Black folks have been cre­at­ing with their backs against the wall for years, telling the fu­ture, speak­ing what is com­ing to the masses that aren’t ea­ger to hear it un­til what’s com­ing ac­tu­ally ar­rives, loom­ing over them.”

There are two gen­eral mod­els for mu­si­cal his­to­ries: the deeply re­ported biog­ra­phy (think Peter Gu­ral­nick) and the im­pres­sion­is­tic takes found in the wildly un­even 331⁄3 se­ries and Rob Sh­effield’s stel­lar “Dream­ing the Bea­tles.” In “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest,” Ab­dur­raqib opens Door No. 3. He keeps to the chronol­ogy enough to al­low the unini­ti­ated in, chart­ing the birth of Tribe, the par­al­lel and side­ways move­ments that emerged and the group’s slow fiz­zle, col­lapse and re-emer­gence. Ad­bur­raqib’s gift is his abil­ity to flip from a wide an­gle to a zoom with ease. He is a five-tool writer, slip­ping out of the time­line to de­liver vivid, mem­oiris­tic splashes as well as let­ters he’s crafted to di­rectly ad­dress the cen­tral play­ers, dead and liv­ing. He is a grown man, a cul­tural critic, an Im­por­tant Voice, but he’s also an awk­ward kid hud­dled in the back seat of the school bus, that “Beats, Rhymes and Life” cas­sette wear­ing out his Walk­man. He brings ev­ery­thing to the game, whether a cos­mic vi­gnette about Leonard Co­hen or an un­ex­pected curve­ball that some­how morphs into con­nec­tive tis­sue.

A Tribe Called Quest was formed in the mid-’80s, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween two kids from Queens, Ka­maal Ibn John Fa­reed and Ma­lik Izaak Tay­lor, whom we would come to know as Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. DJ Ali Sha­heed Muham­mad and MC Jarobi White joined by the time they recorded their de­but, 1990’s “Peo­ple’s In­stinc­tive Trav­els and the Paths of Rhythm.”

They had a sense of hu­mor and an un­de­ni­able ta­lent at grab­bing sam­pled grooves, and they weren’t afraid of the mu­sic their par­ents loved, par­tic­u­larly jazz. Tribe broke up in 1998 for the same rea­sons most bands col­lapse. And their un­ex­pected re­turn would serve as a de­fi­ant but heart­break­ing coda. Phife’s bat­tle with di­a­betes ended eight months be­fore the last al­bum would ar­rive. He was 45.

We get the full pic­ture in “Go Ahead in the Rain.” We watch Tip emerge as the sonic sci­en­tist and Phife as the flaky, even re­luc­tant par­tic­i­pant.

The beauty of be­ing both a true fan and a pro­fes­sional is that you can em­brace even the low points and yet an­a­lyze with pin­point ac­cu­racy when your he­roes have fallen short. And as you search for the per­fect end­ing, you’ll re­al­ize there sel­dom is one.

“Not ev­ery story in mu­sic ends with a group forced to throw in the towel due to a great and im­pos­si­ble loss, and not ev­ery story should,” Ab­dur­raqib writes. “But had it not, I would want A Tribe Called Quest to re­turn again and again, giv­ing me the doses of up­dated nos­tal­gia that I might need when no other mu­sic could pro­vide it. At least now, I think, we can lay them to rest.”

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