Let’s face it, 2016 hasn’t exactly been the most rewarding of years. With police shootings, terror attacks, Brexit and now Trump’s victory, the whole world seems to be holding out for some kind of solace, any hope for just a glimmer of light at the end of the dark tunnel we’ve been spiralling down for the last 11 months.
That glimmer of light might just have surfaced in the form of a brand new album titled ‘We Got it from Here..Thank You 4 Your Service’, none other than the first release in 18 years by hip hop legends A Tribe Called Quest. Arguably one of the most significant and important releases of the year, this record is not only a blessing for the world of hip hop but it is bound to score Tribe some new fans, who will be heartbroken to realise this will indeed be their final release, and just how much they have been missing out on all this time.
Though the release comes as a huge surprise to Tribe fans who, after the tragic loss of Phife Dawg earlier this year might have given up hope of ever hearing any new material from the group, the reality is that that ‘We Got it From Here’ has been secretly progressing for the last year. Though creative differences between long-time friends Phife and Tip had essentially been the catalyst for the group’s split back in 1998, these were thankfully put aside in November last year when the quartet reunited on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ to commemorate the 25th anniversary of ‘People’s Instinctve Travels…’. It was their first television appearance in 15 years, it was a rediscovery of that undeniable chemistry that established them as one of the best hip hop groups of all time, and it sparked the magic that brought us here today to the release of the new record.
Q-Tip told the New York Times: “The energy was right. It felt like we was those kids that had the big show in Paris when they were 19. It felt fresh. It felt exciting. Plus, it was just good to be with my brothers after all of that time.” Jarobi White said the group just “slipped back into the zone” easily: “It was like, oh man, this is the feeling that we’ve all been missing!” That was the night when Q-Tip finally said: “Let’s just do an album. Let’s just start tomorrow!” And they did exactly that.
In the months before his passing, around his rigorous dialysis schedule,Phife was repeatedly flying back and forth between his home in Oakland to New Jersey to record at Tip’s home studio. Perhaps it was fate that brought the group back together, an act of kismet that sparked the sudden inspiration to record an album while they could, while Phife’s days were unknowingly numbered. The reality is that Phife died knowing the record would eventually be released, but he never knew that on what would have been his 46th birthday, Tribe would hit the No.1 spot on the Billboard 200 for the first time in 20 years. Tragically, the group members believe that all the travelling Phife had to do to work on the record may have worn him out. Jarobi told the NY Times: “Doing this album killed him. And he was very happy to go out like that.”
2016 has undoubtedly left a huge hole in the hearts of many music lovers with the loss of Prince and Bowie amongst others, but the loss of Malik ‘Phife Dawg’ Taylor in March, who died suddenly due to complications from diabetes, really did rock the world of hip hop to the core. Since his passing, Q Tip has worked tirelessly to finish this record, and though they endearingly admit they don’t actually know what it means, the album title is exactly what Phife wanted it to be called, and Tribe are not about to question the wish of their late brother. The record completely transcends possible expectations of Phife and any Tribe fan, and Phife would sure be one proud little guy.
The laid-back yet boldly assertive ‘The Space Programme’ kicks off the record with the beat that would take a veteran fan right back to 91, with the bassline, simple bouncy beat and the alchemic fluidity of the back-and-forth of verses of Phife and Tip vividly reminiscent of the sound of ‘The Low End Theory’. The beat steadily builds up in the beginning before beginning to unravel and before you know it you’re nodding your head, tapping your feet and praising fate for bringing back every single element of Tribe’s music that made them so special in their Golden Age heyday.
Perhaps the most refreshing and truly special element of the album is the way the formerly elusive Jarobi White himself is finally back in business. Since his departure from the group in 1991 after the release of debut “People’s Instinctive Travels…” this is the most we have heard of him, and with almost as many verses as Phife and Tip he absolutely kills it with his rhymes and has left Tribe fans everywhere and surely even Jarobi himself wondering where on earth he has been all this time.
The record then smoothly leads onto the lead single of the album, ‘We The People’, that the now-trio recently performed on SNL, and boy, what a huge song to burst back on the scene with. The track, with a genius Black Sabbath sample buried within the beat, is now lyrically more relevant than ever in the wake of the recent Presidential Election.
In the hook, Tip, with powerful irony, rhymes: “All you black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go / All you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways”, sounding all too familiar after Trump’s election campaign. Tribe have always been socially conscious, political and thought-provoking, but this track lyrically illuminates all the problems America faces today, speaking out against racism, sexism, religious discrimination, the media, and police brutality. The way Tribe manage to rap about politics with no element of violence or aggression is admirable and undoubtedly part of what has always made them so appealing.
The star-studded line-up of guest appearances Tribe have managed to round up is surely enough alone to make this the record of the year. Man of the moment Kendrick Lamar delivers probably one of the impressive verses on the record in the electro-synth sensation that is ‘Conrad Tokyo’, the political exasperation about America’s current situation obvious in his urgently staccato verses that just roll off his tongue as effortlessly as ever. Andre 3000, Anderson Paak, Talib Kweli and even Jack White all also graced Q-Tip’s home studio to lay down their vocals for the record, along with long-time familiar Tribe collaborators Consequence and Busta Rhymes.
‘Solid Wall of Sound’ is one of our favourite tracks on the album, a song built around a ‘Bennie & The Jets’ sample, with lavishly innovative production with the help of none other than Jack White, a signature fast-paced verse from Busta Rhymes and even Elton John himself stepping in for a duet with Q-Tip. Phife also impresses with his Caribbean patois giving the track its true Tribe charm and authenticity.
‘Dis Generation’ is another Applebum favourite, the whole crew united in a funky cypher as Tip, Phife, Jarobi and Busta Rhymes spit bars back and forth, weaving rhymes through each other as they rap about the new generation of hip hop, almost symbolically passing the baton over to the new school: “Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick and Cole/ gatekeepers of flow/ they are extensions of instinctual soul”.
You can’t help but to feel haunted by the surreal feeling of hearing Phife’s vocals posthumously on the record, leaving you wondering whether the finished product would sound any different if he had been able to have a final say. ‘Lost Somebody’ is a poignant tribute to the late Funky Diabetic, Tip’s heartfelt verses chronicling Phife’s early life and their brotherhood of a friendship that spanned over 40 years. Perhaps the most heart-breaking moment on the record is Tip’s rap as Phife himself on ‘Black Spasmodic’, imagining what Phife would say to him now if he could. You can feel a lump grow in the back of every long-time Tribe fan’s throat as Tip raps “..and please check in on my mother.”
As ever Q-Tip is the one that shines on this record. His knotty, complex, philosophical rhymes have improved over the years like a fine wine. Aside from his distinctive nasally tone that he can pliably throw in all different directions, his dexterous cadences are what sets him apart from other rappers that have been on the scene as long as him. Tip’s legendary production makes for a solid listen from beginning to end, showcasing a fresh sound that manages to maintain a vintage charm with elements like the ‘Bonita Applebum’ sample on ‘Enough’ evoking nostalgia for fans.
This album truly is a masterpiece – though the genres Tip explores sprawl all over the place he somehow manages to knit the magic together smoothly into a somewhat psychedelic and really quite captivating experience, the kind of record you know is best played all the way through.
To be clear, ‘We Got It From Here..’ is by no means their best album. Musically it is miles away from timeless 90s classics ‘The Low End Theory’ or ‘Midnight Marauders’, but with its significance and timescale it could well be a contender for their most important and ground-breaking.
Its November 11th release was a breath of fresh air in a truly suffocating year of tragedy, radical change, outrage and disappointment. It is a sign that speaks out to the world in a time of crisis in need, signifying that things might just be okay eventually.
Tribe did not need, and most likely did not even set out to create their best ever album, or even put out something that was necessarily going to sell millions of records. The story behind ‘We got it from here..’ goes deeper than that. It’s about speaking out about issues that matter, it’s about uniting the people, it’s about giving the fans what they’ve been waiting so long for, it’s about paying homage to one of the most gifted and endearing emcees that ever lived, and most importantly, it’s about finally dropping the curtain on a three-decade-long career, whilst simultaneously perpetuating their legacy as what many would call the greatest hip hop group of all time. Can A Tribe Called Quest still kick it? Yes, they certainly can.