A Tribe Called Quest - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Having created some of Hip Hop music’s most memorable and intelligent anthems, A Tribe Called Quest is one of the genre’s few groups who can be called “beloved.” Representing perhaps the pinnacle of Hip Hop’s Golden Age, the crew composed of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and occasionally Jarobi, provided a clever and pacifistic alternative to the gangster rap which was steadily gaining popularity in the early ‘90’s. Along with the rest of the progressive Native Tongues collective, A Tribe Called Quest sought not only to subdue the violence within Hip-Hop, through the usage of unique and chilled-out jazz samples, they sought to innovate its up until now, fairly monotonous production. Their efforts have yielded some of the most revered Hip Hop benchmarks of all time.
Q-Tip, originally using the alias MC Love Child, met Ali Shaheed Muhammad while attending high school in Queens, NY. The pair often recorded with Q-Tip’s childhood friend Phife Dawg collectively calling themselves Crush Connection. Adding a fourth member in Jarobi, the group changed their collective name to Quest. However, their high school-classmates and future Native Tongues peers, Jungle Brothers expanded the name to A Tribe Called Quest.
Q-Tip began to add his playful yet calm voice to productions by the Jungle Brothers such as “In Time” and “Black is Black” from the Jungle Brothers’ debut Straight Out The Jungle (Warlock-1988). Afrika Baby Bam of the Jungle Brothers introduced Q-Tip to fellow New York Hip-Hoppers De La Soul, while they were working on their classic debut 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy-1989). Because if this meeting, Q-Tip ended up lending his lyrics to the remix from the coming of age classic “Buddy”, which also featured the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love and Queen Latifah. A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, shared common threads of esoteric and positive subject matter. "Buddy" has become a classic track and played a pivotal role in the formation of the influential Native Tongues collective, which featured A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Jungle Brothers. The respective members of these groups would often collaborate and be featured in each other's music.
Q-Tip’s nasally spat verses began to grab a buzz for A Tribe Called Quest. The group recorded a demo which featured “Can I Kick It?”, "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" and “Description of a Fool”, all of which would later be used on their debut full-length.
Lyrically, the wordplay on the crew’s debut People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive-1990) was positive, playful but still loyal to dance floors. Sampling the likes of Lou Reed, Grace Jones and The Beatles, the production sought to tap resources which hadn’t yet been tapped in Hip Hop. Despite the buzz surrounding the quartet, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was met with a fairly mediocre reaction. While some outlets praised the album’s positive promotion of things such as safe sex and individuality, publications like Rolling Stone were initially unimpressed. The album also underperformed in terms of record sales and A Tribe Called Quest were overshadowed by their Native Tongues peers, De La Soul and Jungle Brothers, both of whom had released highly praised and canonized debuts. However, the Queens crew persevered and through the slow rising popularity of the mellow “Bonita Applebum” and the bass line-powered “Can I Kick It?”, People's Instinctive Travels... began to attract ears and the album is now considered a classic.
A Tribe Called Quest, now a trio with the departure of Jarobi, continued to tour and collaborate with De La Soul. Tribe’s following continued to grow larger and more loyal. A Tribe Called Quest soon released their sophomore album The Low End Theory (Jive-1991). Q-Tip had easily become the group’s most recognizable member but on tracks like “Buggin’ Out” and “Check the Rhime” Q-Tip’s partner in rhyme Phife Dawg began to find his lyrical hubris and the dynamic word-bouncing between Q-Tip and Phife began to give the group it’s charming shine. The group’s production and arrangement was primarily attended to by Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who had mastered the technique of sampling and layering jazz samples and innovated it by injecting it with a Hip Hop vibe. Busta Rhymes makes a significant cameo on the song “Scenario” where his chaotic flow delivers one of his most memorable verses, which would foreshadow his solo career. The conscious sensibility delivered with a lighthearted sense of humor on The Low End Theory is often credited as paving the way for other “conscious” Hip Hop artists such as Mos Def and Common.
The Low End Theory had acquired commercial and critical acclaim the world over and the group had climbed out of the shadows to become the most prominent group within the Native Tongues; amidst the limelight, many critics were skeptical that A Tribe Called Quest could maintain their selfless and intelligent discussions of relevant topics on their third album Midnight Marauders (Jive-1993) named for the public’s tendency to listen to music at night (midnight) and the music’s ability to invade ears (marauders). Despite the public’s skepticism, songs like “Sucka N***a” continued Tribe’s streak of intelligent lyrical discourse and “Award Tour”, which was assisted by De La Soul’s Trugoy, became A Tribe Called Quest’s highest charting single. The song contained a sample from an underrated yet influential jazz-musician Weldon Irvine, who was enthusiastic about being being sampled and assisted the group with the usage. Midnight Marauders went on to be A Tribe Called Quests highest grossing album. Also significant is that Midnight Marauders was released with three alternate covers.
The group took a short hiatus and Q-Tip began to hone his production skills and constructed songs for fellow Queens-rappers Nas and Mobb Deep. While on tour, Q-Tip met a young producer named Jay Dee from Detroit. Q-Tip became a mentor for the Motor City producer and introduced Jay Dee to Tribe’s DJ, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and the trio decided to form The Ummah, which would be a branch of A Tribe Called Quest and would handle all of the production on future Tribe releases. The trio would also produce songs for artists like Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, Whitney Houston among others. Jay Dee, later going by J Dilla, would also go on to be one if Hip Hop's most legendary producers before his untimely death in 2006. The Ummah would produce A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth album Beats, Rhymes and Life (Jive-1996). The addition of Jay Dee to the production would create a silkier feel. However, songs like "The Pressure" and “Get a Hold” showed how Beats, Rhymes and Life would stray away from the upbeat feel of past releases and would dabble with darker themes. At the time of its release, there was a war of words occurring between record labels, Bad Boy (from New York) and Death Row (from California). Always choosing to keep their material relevant, A Tribe Called Quest called for an end to this dispute on the track “Keep It Movin.” Muhammad had long been a Muslim and just before the release of Beats, Rhymes and Life, Q-Tip had converted to Islam but Phife was not Muslim and as the music became slightly darker, Phife began to feel alienated from the group as can be seen in his dwindling visibility on the album. Phife has stated that he began to lose interest in the group. Despite a quick rise to number one on the Billboard Charts, the sales for Beats, Rhymes and Life were weaker than those for the previous two Tribe albums.
Before their fifth album, The Love Movement (Jive-1998), was even released, the group collectively announced that they would split up after its release. Produced by The Ummah, the unconditional optimism returned to A Tribe Called Quest’s music. This return to the soulful feel from earlier Tribe releases was catalyzed by the uniquely produced “Find A Way” which received a significant amount of airplay. While some critics felt that A Tribe Called Quest was taking a step back, many critics saw The Love Movement as a welcomed return to form.
When the group split up, the members embarked on various ventures ; Ali Shadeed Muhammad teamed with frequent Tribe collaborator Raphael Saadiq and Dawn Robinson of En Vogue, to form the soulful group Lucy Pearl, who found success with their album Lucy Pearl (Beyond-2000). Q-Tip also put out a solo-album Amplified (Arista-2000) which was perhaps more commercially accessible than anything A Tribe Called Quest had ever released, as evidence by the dance floor-favorite, “Vivrant Thing.” Many critics expressed hostility of Q-Tip’s more “accessible” music. One of Q-Tip’s harshest critics was former band mate Phife who accused Q-Tip of selling out on the song “Flawless” from Phife’s solo album Ventilation: Da LP (Groove Attack-2000). Q-Tip later recorded a soul album Kamaal the Abstract (Arista) which was shelved because his label Arista didn’t feel a former rapper, singing, was marketable. After a slew of delays, Q-Tip went on to release The Renaissance (Universal-2008).
Since their split, A Tribe Called Quest has buried the hatchet on disputes and along with longtime absent member Jarobi, reunited to headline several tours.
A Tribe Called Quest fused positive vibes with head-nodding Hip Hop. Never appearing concerned with commercial accolades, the group created some of Hip Hop’s most memorable tunes. A Tribe Called Quest helped pave the way for the modern day Hip Hop group as well as progressive Hip Hop artists who thrive today. Founding member Phife Dawg died at age 45, March 22 2016, of complications from diabetes.