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