Album of the Week: A Tribe Called Quest, 'We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service'

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A Tribe Called Quest, 'We got it from Here...'
A Tribe Called Quest, 'We got it from Here ... Thank You 4 Your service' (Epic Records)

When Phife Dawg, a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, died from diabetes-related complications on March 22 of this year, it hit the hip-hop community hard, particularly because ATCQ never got a proper farewell. Short of some live shows and a controversy-filled documentary, the crew had gone dark for almost 20 years. Most Tribe fans had ruled out a full-blown artistic reunion, primarily just expecting a string of one-off shows from time to time when money and schedules coalesced. Phife was a great rapper inside the matrix of ATCQ, but sadly, with that group on hold, Phife hadn't created a full-length album that gained resonance with Tribe fans. When news of Phife's death came out, the alchemy among the three primary members of Tribe (and on-again, off-again member Jarobi) seemed confirmed to be in the past tense. But it turns out that at the end of Phife's life, A Tribe Called Quest were in full-on renaissance mode and more than halfway through their first studio record in almost two decades. In a note on Facebook, Q-Tip, the reluctant spokesperson (but recognized quarterback of their new project), announced that a record was on its way on November 11, titled We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service. As a lifelong Tribe fan, I was on edge…

Towards the end of their career, the group had gravitated towards a hardening of silos internally: Phife was the accessible slice-of-life rapper/rhyme spitta, and Tip was the larger-than-life, head-in-the-clouds creative, pushing the boundaries of where an emcee could go. By the end of their previous chapter, the production coming out of Tip, Ali Shaheed and Dilla (known collectively as the Ummah) seemed to be putting their best beats onto other people's records. The formula had gone stale, and ATCQ's LP releases weren't the cultural events they once were; they were joyless. It was a long way to fall from where their two bona-fide classics, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, had positioned them. On two releases in a row, ATCQ had both changed the direction of hip-hop and outdone the followers that these changes birthed. The albums were dead serious in their attention to arrangements and doubled down on the bump factor that their then-contemporaries Rakim and Kool G Rap had crafted. But ATCQ diluted the unrelenting masculinity and bravado of late-80s hip-hop with a dose of humility, three armpits worth of jazz LPs and a commitment to putting jocular, capricious moments in the genre.

So which Tribe would we get on this We Got it From Here? The genre-expanding band of friends clowning on the streets of Queens? Or Q-Tip in a fur coat on the cover of his solo album Amplified, with everyone else wondering which way to turn their Yankee caps? Spoiler alert: We don't get either. Anyone waiting for ATCQ to move backwards has been disappointed for the last 30 years. But we get a record that sounds like it was fun to make. From frequent guest Busta Rhymes resetting himself in the middle of a technically challenging verse on "Mobius," to Tip checking up on all the MCs at the top of "Black Spasmodic," it sounds like a record cut shoulder to shoulder in a home studio, which is exactly how it was done.

Behind the pure joy this reunion thankfully sounds like on record, the record also faces the dire times our country is going through. Though many (including myself) rushed to the last track, "The Donald," to hear a searing indictment of our President-elect only to find out that the Donald was a rarely used nickname for nickname-magnet Phife, there are powerful tunes here: "The Killing Season" explores the struggles of military service; "The Space Program" looks at the importance of self-reliance and self love. And ATCQ's gift for fitting a little bit of medicine, information and social justice inside their sh*t-talk remains fully intact. The crew have always let sex, politics, vulnerability and braggadocio share bars next to each other, and the new album is no exception.

Sonically, the record shows the absolute master that Q-Tip has grown into as a producer. ATCQ's first chapter as a group reached across the era when multiple samples on a single song became a fiscal impossibility, and their sound seemed to stumble musically in the aftermath. At this point, Tip has a stable of musicians (including himself) and named collaborators (including Jack White and Elton John) to create a huge variety of beats. But the real art of Tip's production doesn't lie in the beats; it lies in the arrangements. We Got It From Here is filled with auspicious drops, surprise arrivals of extra percussion halfway through a track, and other sonic candy that adds so much to the songs. It is worth noting that (at least based on the production credits) DJ and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad is notably absent from the proceedings, with most of the cuts being credited to DJ Scratch.

With Phife's passing, it is clear that We Got it From Here will be the last chapter in A Tribe Called Quest's discography. It is heartbreaking that a crew who had 20 years of life, experience and world history to digest and to pull from, had barely a year before the heartbeat of the crew passed away. But there is no doubt that this record sits as a moving final document from perhaps the greatest hip-hop crew of all time.

Resources


A Tribe Called Quest - official site

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  • Remembering Phife Dawg The Current's Sean McPherson reflects on the life and music of Phife Dawg; the rapper from A Tribe Called Quest who died earlier this week due to complications from diabetes. 'Phife Dawg wasn't the man, he was the everyman. He wasn't the coolest. He was the realest,' Sean writes.
  • 'We Didn't Wanna Be Anybody Else': A Tribe Called Quest Reflects On Its Debut The first artist we're featuring for Black History Month is A Tribe Called Quest. Here, they reflect on the 25th anniversary of their amazing debut, 'People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.'

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