A Tribe Called Quest’s Generation Is Now and Forever: A Conversation with Q-Tip
A Tribe Called Quest premieres the video for "Dis Generation," and Q-Tip explains the importance of art.
Time disappears in this music. There are no beginnings and no endings, just a mobius strip, an undulating rhythm, many voices in space. A Tribe Called Quest's We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service marks several endings, but it itself is endless, just another pulsing speaker in one vast temporal conversation spanning generations. One voice goes like this:
"I always say I'm in a looming fraternity of artists, whether it be Robert DeNiro or whether it be 21 Savage," Q-Tip tells me. "We all have something in common that we are joined to: art." It's really Q-Tip through the phone, speaking softly and listening patiently, even though he could be, like, smoking weed with Busta Rhymes or reading Japanese philosophy or digging through old pressings of analog synth recordings or doing literally anything more rewarding than explaining to a stranger why New York is a great city (as everyone alive will tell you, it's a melting pot, but Q-Tip does tell you this in a way that makes you feel like you are a genius with a global perspective instead of an idiot with a boring question). Q-Tip, The Abstract, is one of those rare figures who is culture, who holds together the fabric of the world, who is at home in any room. He comfortably connects the realms of high art and street vernacular and conceptual thought and pragmatic politics. He speaks with consideration but also quick, humored ease, raising his voice from its contemplative murmur only in moments of spirited enthusiasm, like when he gushes, "I like Young Thug—I love Young Thug."
That connective role was made clear on We got it from Here…, Tribe's sixth and final album, released last November in the same week as the US presidential election. It's apparent, too, in the interwoven flows of second single "Dis Generation," which unites 'Tip, Jarobi, Phife Dawg, and Busta Rhymes (the video is premiering below). We got it from Here… unfolds in an unbounded sprawl, pulling its surrounding narratives into a space where they are subsumed by the greater project of sound. In the story of Tribe, the album was a rekindling and a reunion, a new beginning for a group that had drifted apart since its days as one of hip-hop's defining acts (think of them as the genre's Nirvana, a band that laid out an ethos of the alternative and then followed it to mainstream-redrawing success). Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, old friends who had become exasperated with each other in the way that only longtime friends and family can, connected anew from across the country as they celebrated the anniversary of their first album on a national stage.
"I'm in a looming fraternity of artists, whether it be Robert DeNiro or whether it be 21 Savage. We all have something in common that we are joined to: art."
The recording process, though, also ushered in new endings, in the form of Phife's untimely death last year at 45, which in turn meant that, as 'Tip raps, "this is the last Tribe." This cyclical pattern played out in other ways, too. We got it from Here… kicked off a modernized incarnation of the long-running social and racial progressivism of Tribe's music for an era of more urgent rhetoric and arrived as the country made a jarring shift from the relatively enlightened Obama era to the terrifying Trump one. The album took on a particularly poignant note when Tribe took the stage at SNL the weekend after Trump's election to provide a public rallying cry for a reeling nation. The group reprised the theme of resistance earlier this year when a performance at the Grammys celebrating their career criticized Trump's Muslim ban, with Busta Rhymes calling out "President Agent Orange."
Yet We got it from Here… for all the ways it marks time, also defies it. It brings Phife's voice back from the spectral beyond. It resuscitates familiar samples, including one from Tribe's own past. It ties in contributions from contemporaries like Andre 3000 and new talents like Anderson .Paak. The same synthesizer tone beeps like a rushing heart monitor, moving the action forward throughout the length of the album, while abrupt silences mark the jarring presence of reality. In addition to an actual song "Mobius," there is the unbroken free-associative soundscape of "Whateva Will Be," where a blaxploitation movie sample bumps up against dub reggae gospel and Consequence's voice rises out of the ether. One song is just Kendrick Lamar rapping like he's coming out of a boombox across the street followed by two minutes of extremely sick synthesizer noodling. And then there is the seamless transfer of personas that marks Tribe's instinctive travels, the tradeoff of bars, the suspension of the rules of beginnings and endings, where one voice leads into the next.
That signature Tribe groove is there, particularly arrestingly, on "Dis Generation." How does the song work? One might understand better by watching Hiro Murai's video for it. The Atlanta director's vision travels forward in an infinite tableau, which is of course what the paths of rhythm are there to explore. In the universe of Tribe, all is united, all is rhythm, all is truth, and all of that. One voice, Q-Tip's, goes like this:
Noisey: One thing I think is cool about the video is that it is a very good visual representation of the way Tribe trades off lines. I feel like that isn't as prevalent in hip-hop now. Have you thought much about that evolution?
Q-Tip: Well, I think that over the past years we've seen, in hip-hop, a focus on the individual MC. Of course there's a whole heap of collaborations. It's not to suggest that collaborations don't exist. It's a very old tradition for MCs coming up in New York or coming up back in the day, whether you're part of a crew or not, to say lines together or finish off lines. It's something that, it's almost like a Voltron kind of premise, where you have, as individuals, we all are strength, but together we are might. And to really exploit the fact that there are four of us on the record by trading off those bars like that. And it's also just in terms of the economy of the song, you get to still have everybody represented in a good fashion within a reasonable amount of time.
Do you think hip-hop loses anything aesthetically when it becomes more of this individual thing?
No, not at all, not at all. I think it's just a choice and an option. I don't like to hear the older artists or the artists of yesterday begrudge what's happening today. I think that that's ass backwards because when we were coming up we didn't want anybody to do that to us. I think it's just about your feeling and your taste and what the music calls for. I really try—as a producer, as an artist—to really follow the energy of the music and let that be the conductor. I don't think that anybody that goes to another choice is bad or weakens it. Not at all.
I think, speaking of musical flow, this album answers a really interesting question, which is: How does the sound of hip-hop evolve while still maintaining its traditional qualities? How do you see yourself playing into that discussion, and what ideas are the most interesting for you to explore?
I think you have to always look ahead, in anything. We sometimes become creatures of habit, and we want to continue to do things that we maybe have enjoyed or that strike a particular chord that we've experienced a long, long time ago. But as time moves on and humanity moves on and man moves on and art moves on and philosophy moves on and so on and so forth, you find yourself either faced with a choice of adjusting and moving on with it or staying put. Now, there's also some good things about what you may have experienced in the past or whatever, and therein lies the challenge. Of: Man, how do I keep to my ethos and keep to my philosophy but adjust it and update it and still have a fresh kind of attitude about it? And that's tricky. To be able to do that, again, you have to just be egoless to a degree and you have to allow yourself to be challenged and allow yourself to be uncomfortable. And turn off your brain in a way and just trust instinct. And then fall into that, and I think you may end up on a good side.
Were there specific experiences you had or art that you've interacted with or people in your life that have helped you find that zone or perspective of being more egoless and instinctive?
Oh yeah, man. On a personal level, I've had quite a few conversations about that with Prince. He and I used to talk about that. And Stevie, Large Professor, Kanye. Those are the conversations that come to mind immediately that speak to that directly.
One thing that resonated with many fans when Tribe first emerged was the group's message of Afrocentricity, which wasn't present in a lot of other music. Now, 25 years later, society is much more global. We can interact and travel much more easily around the world and have a more culturally all-encompassing perspective. And yet we still have vast, looming questions about race, maybe even more at the forefront of the national discussion than then. How have your views on that evolved?
Well, race is tricky. Here's the thing about race in this country specifically: If you don't properly deal with a virus or an ailment, it just continues to grow. You could deal with it, if a virus comes. Usually you get these viruses because your diet is you eat cheese and bread all day. And then when you get sick you go to the doctor, get a shot, and get some medicine, and you feel better for a bit. But if you continue on that diet it's sure to rear its head again. So you have to deal with it effectively and properly. And unfortunately as a nation, we haven't really dealt with it. And it's all these -isms, they're just wildly prevalent. That's why they still exist.
Do you see your role as an artist in addressing those -isms as having changed at all?
I see my role as an artist as: to stay inspired, personally. Address all of the things that interest me, personally. Speak about it honestly and truthfully. And if there's anything that I don't know that I'm interested in, ask questions, artistically and creatively and truthfully. I'm a man. I'm a human being, and I'm a man, and, you know, all the other things—artist, son—those things tend to fall further down the list. And I just try to walk that course with my complications. I try to walk with my strides and revelations as well. And I just have to be as vulnerable to life, vulnerable to understand. Every artist, I don't care who they are—they could be the most nefarious, lean-drinking, gun-toting, drug-selling felon, whoever—everybody as an artist who has had some form of success has to be vulnerable. And that doesn't stop. I just continue to do that. That's my role.
So if I come across something—which I definitely do—which is racism or sexism or homophobia or chauvinism or classism or an elitist, then you just have to blow the whistle. Even if it's upon myself. Even if I fall guilty. You have to be willing to examine it. It sounds sexy, but it's like the old adage that making sausages is an ugly process to witness, but when you eat it it's great. You've kind of got to go through the mud as an artist. I'm no different. I'm not exclusive from that.
Hearing you say that is interesting because his album was very much received through the lens of it being in memory of Phife Dawg and it being a political album. But I think revisiting it with a bit more distance, it's also such a rounded portrait of everyone involved. So I think you achieved that idea. Yet I'd also be curious, in that sense, how you feel about the way that the album landing with its timing. With the album dropping right after election day and your performance on SNL and even at the Grammys, it became a really inspiring political symbol to a lot of people. How do you feel about politics being the way that people have come to process this album?
I welcome it. One thing about this is it's all for people's interpretation, and it happens, you know, all the time. I mean, you know, this is something that we had no plan over, but it just happened. A lot of people decided it's a revolutionary album for the century, for hip-hop, for this and that. And we weren't really trying to be that. We were just speaking something that was heavy and honest for us. So I welcome it. We didn't ask for any of it. We didn't design it. But if it falls on us we can't shirk responsibility. And we can't shirk how people see us. And we're all in a very lucky place, man—not lucky, but we're in a great place because we get to deal in the world of art and expression and so many different mediums. Like we're not surgeons, we're not politicians. We don't have these, like, heavy duty jobs on face value. But as you look deeper, we deal with the esoteric. We deal with the unseen. We deal with emotion. And we deal with the feeling. Those things are what drive humanity.
Speaking of politics and the Grammys, I was trying to imagine you guys planning out that performance and sitting around discussing who would be the one to say something and then deciding it would be Busta Rhymes . How did that decision happen? Was there any discussion about that?
(Laughs) No, there really wasn't. I just was like "hey man, at this part there's gonna be like this amount of seconds. You should just come out and be like 'yo, this is how we feel, we are the people, we are all one.'" And he went into the "Agent Orange" thing. And I think people missed it, but Consequence I think called him "Cheeto-in-charge."
One of my favorite verses on the album is the one on "Black Spasmodic" where you embody Phife Dawg's voice. The way you do it is so moving.
Yeah, "my nigga be talking to me let me explain, not through evil mediums"—
Yeah! What was it like writing that verse?
I wasn't present! I don't really write, I just kind of go in and just say it, and words just start coming. I really, really, really try to not think too much about it and just flow. And that just all came out, man.
It felt like you really were channeling Phife there.
I had chills doing it. Really the whole the album, but that one was—yeah, yeah… I miss my guy, man. I miss him so much.
What was it like coming together and recording again? You'd known each other for so long, but I'm sure there were sides of him that you were appreciating in new ways in this process.
It was cool because it was right back in there like day one, talking sports, cracking jokes. He was talking about how he was going to move by me, he and wifey were gonna get a house in the town next to me. We were looking at cars online, looking at Bentleys and all that crazy shit—we were being 18. It was a good time. It was good to hang with him. It's all still a little bit surreal. I never would have imagined it being like this. But it is. And I'm thankful for the times that I spent with him and making this record with him.
Did you ever have any sense working on it that something might be wrong?
I kind of had a little bit of a vibe, but I tried not to really view it. I tried to really deal in the moment.
I was reading you said that it was Phife who came up with the album title. I'd always read it as a message from you guys to him.
Yeah. Well, I was messing around with it, and we were going back and forth, and he was like "yeah, let's do that. That's the title right there. Don't change it, Tip." And then we started laughing because he was like ''cause you know your ass, you'll do something, and you start changing shit. Leave it!' He cosigned everything—the artwork, music, title, all of it.
"We don't have these, like, heavy duty jobs on face value. But as you look deeper, we deal with the esoteric. We deal with the unseen. We deal with emotion. And we deal with the feeling. Those things are what drive humanity."
Do you think he had any sense of the resonance that might take on later on?
Maybe. Because you know, like Jarobi said, he basically died making this record. Because he was in Cali, he lived out in Oakland, and he was on dialysis. And so he would travel over 3,000 miles every week or every two weeks to work on this record—he was so happy, bro. He was happy being here. I don't want people to think he was like on his last leg and sad. He was hopeful. He was prideful. He was still the Trini gladiator. He was still ready to fucking battle, sniffing out beats.
Yeah, that's what I love is he's like 'I'll still take all of you MCs, you're all trash!' He's coming out swinging!
Right, right, yeah, right, no doubt! But now, unfortunately for a lot of these critters, that shit just jumped up to me.
How do you want people to remember him?
Like I said in the rap, "for short people all around the world, Napoleonic and bionic people who cause the world to twirl." He was just a might.
He really was repping for short people.
Yes, he was. And he was repping for Trini, for his mom's family, his grandma's family. He loved his family. He loved his heritage, his people. He loved his neighborhood. He loved his parents. And I want people to continue to remember him as a husband, a son, and as the Five Foot Assassin.
What was it like for the rest of y'all in the group coming together and working with Consequence again and Busta and Jarobi and everybody? It sounds like y'all are tighter than ever. How do you see the collective now?
Right now I just see that we're still tight. I don't think there's gonna be another Tribe album because, you know, you can't do it without Phife, but, you know, there's a Busta album we're working on. We're working on the Jarobi album, we're working on the Consequence—but if we were ever to do something together it would probably be under a different name. A Tribe Called Quest is done. As far as I see.
There's this part in "Dis Generation" where you talk about "Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow." What is it that you see in them that makes that distinction and that, looking forward, excites you?
It's just exciting to see what they take and do and better it, expand it—expand the lexicon and broaden it and reshape it and contort it. And then, God willing, we'll be able-bodied enough to see what they do and then to raise them and we continue to do it and push each other. I celebrate it. And we all come from something. I didn't just pop up. I come from a whole host of different combinations. It's just acknowledging. Because again I just detest when old people make these complaints about shit but don't offer any solutions. Or don't have anything that they see—like I see a lot of myself in a lot of what's happened. And I see a lot of myself in what happened yesterday, too.
How so? What parts of yourself do you see in what's happening now?
I mean like the aforementioned four MCs, obviously. I like to fucking turn up just like everybody else, so I love a lot of shit that's out when you go out to the club. Like anybody else, there's some shit I don't like, but there was some stuff when we were putting out music in the 80s and 90s that I didn't like either. And that goes for anybody.
Video stills courtesy of Epic Records
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.