An interview with A Tribe Called Quest

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It’s fair to say that the year 2016 AD hit like 366 consecutive “what in the actual fucks?” to the left hemisphere. Predictable from the outset only as a leap year, it felt more like a plunge on a lotta levels. Finished or done, puttin’ some respek on 2016 seems to be a tough prospect for many.

But if you lean that way, hip hop carried you through. If anyone put out a bad rap record this year, I don’t really know. There was too much good shit to choose from, new music that for whatever reason feels timely and timeless at once, making 2016 a pleasure not only to keep up with, but a  year to remember forever. If the album format is truly dying, 2016 must have been too busy racking up genius musician souls to have noticed. And no one could attest to either of those points more this year than A Tribe Called Quest.

You can’t blame the calendar. But when March 22 of this year took Queens, NY native Five Foot Assassin, Malik Izaak “Phife Dawg” Taylor — aka Phife, the Phifer, Mutty Ranks and Donald Juice, to mention a few — hip hop found its place at the ongoing rock star wake that was 2016.

At 45, the smooth-flowing, hyper-quotable bar spitter succumbed suddenly to a lifelong diabetes battle, leaving his bandmates, contemporaries and fans worldwide in grief.

A little over year ago, A Tribe Called Quest had just reissued their debut LP, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, commemorating its 25th anniversary with fresh packaging and newly mastered versions of the classic material therein. Reuniting for a rare televised performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, the Tribe, backed by brothers-in-arms the Roots, treated fans to a powerful rendition of a signature track, “Can I Kick It?”

It felt too good to be true, but for five minutes or so, A Tribe Called Quest were back. Phife Dawg, his lifelong homie Q-Tip, their DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and their “spiritual essence,” less seen and heard over time but still very much a constant force in the group’s energy, Jarobi White (“sometimes ‘Y’” to Midnight Marauders appreciators) gave it all for a segment that felt historic and, to fans longing for even a hint that the foursome would return, just right.

And that was supposed to be it, really. The Tribe had, since disbanding in 1998, done a handful of reunion shows, at Rock the Bells and on tour for a few dates with Kanye West, most notably. Michael Rappaport’s somewhat controversial 2011 documentary on the band highlighted the personal divisions between Tribe members — especially Phife and Tip — making the idea of a comeback more remote than ever in the minds of many fans. And Phife’s death four months after the Fallon appearance seemed to make it a moot point.

At this time last year, myself and fellow Montreal-based music journo Erik Leijon were getting ready for a year-end radio special, and we thought it would be cool to invite someone from the band to discuss their celebrated TV one-off, the album reissue and Christmas rap tunes, for good measure. I’d had the privilege of speaking to both Phife and Shaheed in the past, and getting Q-Tip seemed like a stretch on short notice.

I’d followed Jarobi (a professional chef with cool pop-up concepts in NYC and around the U.S. on the go constantly) on social media for a while and figured I’d ask this more reclusive personality for a few moments, which he gladly obliged.

All in good fun, we talked about the past and present, his culinary passions (White left full-time Tribe duties early on to pursue a career as a chef) and of course, the future. Any chance of A Tribe Called Quest burying their respective hatchets and getting on the road or in the studio?

Jarobi deflected the question with a subtle, “You never know”-type reply, pretty much as expected. What he obviously couldn’t tell us was that the band were already deep in the cut at Q-Tip’s home studio, laying down the foundation for what would become their final album, We Got It From Here…Thank U For Your Service.

Announced just three weeks prior to its Nov. 11 release date, news of a new Tribe album caught swift mega-buzz. Who produced it? How would the loss of the Phife Dawg affect the outcome? Would it be good? Who would guest? Could it possibly meet the standards that ATCQ’s legacy still thrives on, nearly two decades after their last studio excursion?

The near-immediate consensus among heads when the record dropped a day early was formed by the end of the first track: A Tribe Called Quest, representing, once again. We Got It From Here… lives up to its title’s promise in every conceivable fashion, not only satisfying longtime listeners but actually hitting #1 in over 30 countries in its first week.

Lest we forget, the album appeared just days after the U.S. election. Its most official launch party yet remains a “divinely” timed Saturday Night Live musical guest slot for Tribe, while Dave Chappelle made his own television comeback as host. If there’s such a thing as a good time to make some more history, ATCQ couldn’t have set the clock any more precisely.

And the moment, lovely as it was, came with more than a touch of the bittersweet. The SNL performances honoured Phife Dawg’s living legacy in a fashion only a group as visionary as A Tribe Called Quest could ever grasp well enough to manifest in sight and sound. Tip, Shaheed and Jarobi — and later longtime collaborators Busta Rhymes and Consequence — showed they were out to be on top with their friend, and for their friend, but never without him.

Jarobi and Phife met in their early double-digits, their shared love of hip hop being a significant focal point of their forged friendship. Tip and Phife, as has been well documented, were inseparable from toddler-hood on, growing up together side by side with hip hop. Jarobi meshed with the pair as they all began to jam in their early teens, setting the stage for the Tribe.

“That’s my brother,” Jarobi says, still audibly shaken and affected by the loss of Phife Dawg.

I spoke to Jarobi again this December, with a decidedly different tone to the proceedings in light of the year that was. Again, the MC, who shines on this new album in a whole new light, lent his time gladly and candidly, despite the pain so clear in his voice at times.

What follows is the entire transcript of that conversation. We talked about the new album, the circumstances of its manifestation, the loss of Phife, the year in music, Anderson .Paak, Kanye West, De La Soul and more.

Jarobi has long made clear he will speak only when he feels necessary, so it is with great respect that we bring you this conversation with one of 2016’s biggest newsmakers in music.

Darcy MacDonald: So we spoke exactly a year ago today, I realized earlier. Tribe had just reissued People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm for the 25th anniversary, and you had all been on Fallon, and our conversation was in the spirit of that fun, that day.

But I asked you about future plans for A Tribe Called Quest. I guess you were keeping a lot under your hat. And there’s a certain symmetry at play here.

Jarobi: Absolutely. We had already started working on the album by then.

DM: How much can you reasonably say you ever saw coming in the year that was 2016, and what stands out the most?

Jarobi: (kinda half-laughing) Shit, 2016 was a fuckin’ horrible year, like a fuckin’ terrible year. One of the worst of my life. What stands out the most? I mean, the passing of…losing my brother. You know what I mean?

DM: Yeah.

Jarobi: That’s definitely like, there’s nothing that has shaped or impacted my life, nothing even comes close. Like, the record, like — nothing comes close to that.

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DM: In working through that grief, what did that do to you personally in terms of getting the new project to see the light of day? Where do you stand now?

Jarobi: You know, I don’t really know. People ask me that, like ‘How does it feel?’ and all that and I can’t really explain it. Like, I’m happy that the fans and people feel like they got what they wanted from us, you know what I’m sayin’? I’m super happy they’re enjoying it and feel good about the project. But uh, you know, I wish that Phife was here to see how much all of these people love us.

It’s truly, truly, truly, truly humbling. For us not to have put out a record in so long and people still pay attention, in itself, is crazy. (laughs)

DM: Did you have a chance to really go in with Phife in the studio, and get creative together?

Jarobi: Me and Phife…I sat with him as he wrote every word on this album. Every syllable. I sat with him. Every syllable. If that’s any indication.

DM: What do you think, whether on this record or over time, that the particular chemistry you two shared brought to Tribe as a whole?

Jarobi: Number one, that’s my brother, and creatively (we were) totally symbiotic and shit, man, because we logged in all the hours together. If he was writing something and was like “What’s the next word?” it’s like, “Blam!” And vice-versa of course.

DM: In retrospect, now that you hear the album as a complete work, in terms of both before and after Phife’s “move to the stars,” as it were, how do you feel about the end result and how does it help you frame your friend’s legacy, as well as that of your band?

Jarobi: I can only speak for myself. This album is definitely a living tribute to Phife. And it’s very gratifying for this shit to be #1 in like, 30 countries or whatever it is? (laughs) Know what I’m sayin’? Wherever Phife’s sitting, he’s like, “That’s aight!” Definitely.

DM: So the timing of the release and the SNL appearance alongside the election of Trump was sorta perfect in terms of Tribe’s contributions to relevant message music through the band’s early history. The album was released on Veteran’s Day, and “thank you for your service” is a phrase associated to battle vets.

How much of that was planned — be that the album or SNL appearance — to line up with the election, and how much of the timing was coincidence?

Jarobi: There’s no such thing as coincidence, firstly. Coincidence is just a symptom of being prepared.

Everything about this album is divinely inspired. That’s why I have a hard time, when they’re like “Yo, Jarobi! You destroyed this shit, you killed this shit!” I have a hard time being like, “Oh yeah, I was dope up in it!” Because shit, this whole process was like, I put my hand on a writing instrument and put that on a paper and that shit just starts fuckin’ breathing. So even things I’m talking about, I had a different idea going in of how I would present myself and shit.

DM: In what way?

Jarobi: Think like, a song like “Enough!!” You know? Like, cool, playful, nerdy. But serious times required serious words and I had to speak to all the shit that was going on while we was in the studio. That’s just… that’s just fuckin’ crazy. ‘Cause we locked ourselves in, me and Tip, and grinded it out. We watched a lot of Black exploitation movies, a lot of rock documentaries, and just keeping up with current events. And that led to the subject matter that’s on this album, man.

And the timing of the SNL appearance and being on that, with the timing of the album release and the election and all that… it’s like I said man. Some of these things are just divinely inspired.

DM: I read the Wax Poetics interview with you guys this year — your final interview as a group with Phife — where the author asked about the subject matter of People’s and you were quoted as saying, “At that time, in the late 1980s, police brutality, Afrocentrism and STDs were all hot button issues that we were dealing with in society. The most important thing in our music was the truth and reality of it.”

So now in light of that, and these times and history’s propensity to repeat itself, what do you think the return of Tribe potentially represents at this juncture in U.S. social history?

Jarobi: This (reality now) feels like the same desperations that we were in at that time, on this album. Shit, even Chuck said this shit back in those days, like, “Cycles, cycles, life runs in cycles.” That’s how it’s been. I guess that’s why we were awoken, you know?  Because the times repeat themselves. And I dunno, maybe because of our work ethic and our aesthetic, we’re maybe people who can better articulate this shit for for people right now. I dunno! (laughs) You know what I’m sayin’?

It’s hard to analyze this shit, it’s beyond analyzing.

DM: So I appreciate what you said about not feeling one way or the other about the personal accolades you’ve gotten with this album, but you do kill it man. And in particular, you have a big tune on here with Consequence and Anderson .Paak, who is gonna go out on top of 2016 as a breakthrough artist of the year. What are some of your thoughts on .Paak, and on that collaboration?

Jarobi: Yo man. I just got back from L.A. And I just saw Anderson .Paak perform at the motherfuckin’ Palladium. Jeeee-sus Christ, man! Jesus Christ. This dude is the truth. The truth. I mean you listen to the album be like, “Goddamn, this is phenomenal!” But shit man, watching that shit live? His performance? His command of the crowd, the showmanship…

DM: Just wild.

Jarobi: The showmanship is of the old aesthetic, like us, and people of our generation. And people like Kanye, who give a fuck about their stage showmanship. (.Paak) is brilliant man, dude is fuckin’ ill. And our song (with him) “Movin’ Backwards” came out absolutely phenomenal. And I dunno, I wasn’t like “That verse is ill” when I wrote it. It didn’t impress me that much, I’m being honest with you! (laughing)

But after I got away from it and heard it again, I was like, “Oh wow, I like that shit.” That became one of my favourite joints on the album now.

DM: I chose Anderson .Paak as my show of the year and I saw a lot of incredible stuff in 2016.

Jarobi: Kanye has to be #2, then.

DM: Kanye’s another thing though. Kanye is a spectacle. I’ve been lucky enough to see all his tours…

Jarobi: But the Pablo tour, were you there?

DM: Yeah for sure.

Jarobi: Fuck, you kidding me? That’s gotta be #2 if .Paak is #1!

DM: I hold Kanye to a different measure. That’s like arena spectacle art as opposed to club-bangin’ show.

Jarobi: I hear you.

DM: What did you think of the Pablo record?

Jarobi: There’s some really strong stuff on there. I like it.

DM: And Anderson .Paak, by way, is like all four of you from Tribe at once up there! (laughter) And what about your record, is there a favourite track of yours on there?

Jarobi: It changes all the time. I love “Mobius.” The Busta Rhymes verse — ha! And I love “Conrad Tokyo.” And “Dis Generation.”

DM: For sure “Dis Generation” is a gem. And “Whatever Will Be.” The whole album is beautiful, man. “Black Spasmodic” is my favourite jam that right away jumped out. Before I even caught what it was about. (Author’s note: Q-Tip essentially channels the spirit of Phife Dawg on his verse. No lie.) Granted, you aren’t on it.

Jarobi: Lemme tell you something: Tip destroyed that song. Just destroyed it. Good lord.

DM: So Tip keeps alluding to future plans here and there in the press but it’s all a bit ambiguous for now. Where do you stand on the idea of a tour?

Jarobi: Um, I mean, it’s possible.

DM: Last time we spoke and you remained ambiguous and next thing you know albums were happening. I’ll take a “we’ll see” from you to the bank, personally.

Jarobi: I mean we gotta do one show, or something.

DM: One would hope…one hopes Osheaga 2017, ahem.

(laughter)

DM: I mean we talked about 2016 some and one good thing was, it was a banner year for hip hop. Your close contemporaries and friends De La Soul dropped this summer for the first time in 12 years with The Anonymous Nobody. What did you think?

Jarobi: It’s dope! My favourite joint on there, believe it or not, is the one with 2 Chainz.

DM: Yeah man. That joint “Pain” with Snoop, too — that’s one of my jams of the year.

Jarobi: I love the record man. It’s like, I dunno what people expect from groups like Tribe and De La. We just always gotta be true to ourselves and who we are as people. That said, you can’t expect us to make a record at 45 that we would make at 25. That would be idiotic. Or just try to sound like something new. It doesn’t make sense. But it’s not the ’90s no more. ■

A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank U For Your Service is available everywhere. See our b2b feature review of the record here.

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