A Tribe Called Quest were without question one of the most progressive and crucial rap groups of the 1990s. Along with their brothers and sisters in the Native Tongues — a crew that also included the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Monie Love, and Black Sheep — Tribe struck a natural balance between ruminative and carefree lyrical content, examining personal and deep societal issues without forgetting to have a good time. Just as creative and powerful as producers, Tribe helped create new paths for hip-hop with visionary and inventive sampling from previously unutilized ’60s and ’70s jazz recordings, among other styles ranging from bossa nova to prog rock, and even collaborated with some of the players whose names were listed in the liner notes they scoured. The group’s first five albums, highlighted by the all-platinum run of The Low End Theory (1991), Midnight Marauders (1993), and Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996), added up to one of the decade’s most vital artist discographies, rap or otherwise. Six years after their 1998 split, they reconvened onstage and continued to occasionally tour into the 2010s. We Got It from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service (2016), their final LP, became their second number one album months after the death of founding member Phife Dawg.
Although it wasn’t until 1988 that they became known as A Tribe Called Quest — named by peers the Jungle Brothers — the group started to take shape three years earlier, with Queens native Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis) and high school classmate Ali Shaheed Muhammad (a Brooklynite) recording demo material with pause-tape beats. The rapper/producer and DJ/producer duo eventually became a quartet with the addition of Q-Tip’s childhood friend Phife Dawg (born Malik Taylor) and neighbor slash part-time member Jarobi (short for Jarobi White). Q-Tip was heard first on the Jungle Brothers’ 1988 album Straight Out the Jungle. The next year, he was featured De La Soul’s “Buddy,” and a version of that track, dubbed “Buddy [Native Tongue Decision],” added Phife to the mix. The recorded debut of A Tribe Called Quest followed later in 1989 with “Description of a Fool,” issued on Jive. (The group had recorded a demo for Geffen, but the major label balked on offering a contract.) The following April, Tribe released their first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Much like De La Soul, Tribe looked more to jazz as well as ’70s rock for their sample base; “Can I Kick It?,” which followed “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and “Bonita Applebum” into the Top Ten of Billboard’s rap chart, plundered Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and made it viable in a hip-hop context.
No matter how solid their debut was, second album The Low End Theory, released in September 1991 (after Jarobi’s departure for culinary school), exceeded all expectations and has held up as perhaps the best hip-hop LP of all time. In addition to its rich assemblage of samples, it featured jazz legend Ron Carter on double bass for “Verses from the Abstract.” Like the debut, it yielded a trio of charting singles. “Check the Rhime” topped the rap chart, and “Scenario,” featuring Leaders of the New School (with future solo star Busta Rhymes), went to number six. The Low End Theory included several tracks with props to hip-hop friends, and Tribe affirmed their support of the wider rap community with their third album, Midnight Marauders. The album cover and booklet insert included the faces of over 70 hip-hop luminaries, a coast-to-coast assortment that included members of De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and Beastie Boys, as well as Ice-T and Too $hort. The LP entered the Billboard 200 at number eight, easily the group’s highest placement to that point. It offered several classics, including “Award Tour,” the group’s sixth Top Ten rap hit, and a sound that was harder than the first two albums. During the summer of 1994, Tribe were part of the fourth Lollapalooza lineup, and the next year were comparatively quiet, apart from several production jobs for Q-Tip. They returned in July 1996 with their fourth LP, Beats, Rhymes and Life, which prominently featured Consequence, Q-Tip’s cousin, and production associate Jay Dee (of Slum Village), who had gained notice for his work on the Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia. The album topped the Billboard 200, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rap Album category, and became the group’s third consecutive platinum LP. The single “1nce Again” was also up for a Grammy in the rap field.
Before they released their next album, The Love Movement, the group announced it would be their final statement and that they were splitting up. After The Love Movement debuted at number three and earned the group their second Best Rap Album Grammy nomination, each member pursued solo projects to varying degrees of success, but the call of the group proved strong enough that they reunited many times over the years. They headlined the Rock the Bells concert in 2004, toured heavily in 2006, featured on the Rock the Bells tours of 2008 and 2010, and played a series of shows in 2013, including some with Kanye West in New York. They reunited again in November 2015 to play The Tonight Show in conjunction with the 25th anniversary reissue of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
The group’s performances post-Love Movement helped pay for increasing medical expenses faced by Phife. Diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, Phife eventually needed multiple kidney transplants. In March 2016, Phife died (at the age of 45) due to complications related to the condition. Later that year, Q-Tip announced that the group had completed a new album. The night of their Tonight Show appearance the previous year, the group’s original four members decided to put aside their differences and start recording again. Sessions were held in Q-Tip’s well-appointed home studio, and the group welcomed guests like Busta Rhymes, Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, and André 3000 to contribute. Though Phife died before the album was finished, Q-Tip was able to power through and complete it. We Got It from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service was released in November 2016 and topped the Billboard 200 on its way to gold status. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad continued with assorted musical pursuits. Tribe were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. ~ John Bush & Andy Kellman