A Tribe Called Quest has long seemed finished. While some veteran hip-hop groups, such as Public Enemy, continue to punch out records here and there, the Tribe declared that 1998’s The Love Movement would be its final record before it was even released. Eighteen years and zero musical output later, the three of them — Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Jarobi — had remained MC’s of their word, despite flirting with exposure through a handful of live appearances. When Phife Dawg died from diabetes at age 45 earlier this year, the prospect of any new music surfacing from the once-prominent conscious-rap act seemed bleaker than ever.
And yet here it is: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (released 11/11/2016 via Epic Records), the first album by A Tribe Called Quest in the 21st century. It turns out that the rappers wanted to get their back to making music after all, as indicated by the record’s opening chant: “We gotta get it together, forever.” Phife Dawg’s passing, tragic though it was, has apparently given the beloved hip-hop act the inspiration to make the final chapter of its storied career a positive one.
We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
by A Tribe Called Quest
And well it is for fans that they have decided to do so. We got it from Here makes for a lively and inventive listen all of the way through its hour-long running time. The terrific chemistry and cunning lyricism that the group has been known to display is once again a major factor to this record’s success.
Always known for their sociopolitical commentary, the Tribe keeps the trend going with tracks that touch on a variety of issues. These include gentrification on “We the People…” and the numerous obstacles facing the black community on “Whateva Will Be.” Along the way, the group comments on its own legacy and the current generation of hip-hop artists (“You can’t define us, XY us, or Z us, you generational elitists,” they say to set the record straight).
Watch: “We the People…” – A Tribe Called Quest
A number of smart nods to the old days are made. The record’s mellow atmosphere feels close enough to that of the Tribe’s early material. Busta Rhymes, who has been a stable ATCQ collaborator since 1991’s “Scenario” and even released a joint mixtape with Q-Tip a couple years back, also returns in stellar fashion on a grand total of four tracks.
We got it from Here is far from an all-out nostalgia project, though, and plenty of not-so-familiar elements are incorporated into the new record. To begin with, the production sounds much more modern than the jazz-infused minimalism that defined the group’s trademark sound, particularly on 1991’s The Low End Theory. The absence of Ali Shaheed Muhammad— the group’s longtime go-to producer, who they were unable to recruit for this project— could partially explain this shift in sound. There also are dramatized movie audio excerpts— most memorably and creepily from Willie Wonka on “The Space Program”— that sound more characteristic of Paul’s Boutique-era Beastie Boys than anything A Tribe Called Quest ever produced in its heyday.
Jack White, Elton John and Kanye West are among the many guest musicians on this record whom A Tribe Called Quest has never collaborated with before. Indeed, a good number of them, including Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak, were barely ten years old the last time ATCQ released any new music. Now that these artists are among the giants of the mainstream industry, however, they are more than ready to make fiery contributions to the Tribe’s catalogue. In the end, as much of a hodgepodge as this recipe may appear, it all makes for a fantastic combination of old-meets-new.
One question with which fans may approach this album is how great of a role, both vocally and thematically, the late Phife Dawg plays across these sixteen tracks. As the record went into production some time before Phife’s passing, the late MC was able to contribute substantially to a number, though not all, of the songs included here. He evidently remained a capable rapper until the end of his days, as he delivers impressive wordplay throughout the album and even holds his own in a duet with the greatest rapper on the planet right now, the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “Conrad Tokyo.”
Q-Tip and Jarobi keep the grief for their lost comrade relatively contained, aside from two tracks where it is all laid bare. The first, “Lost Somebody,” is probably the album’s most moving entry, with each rapper dedicating a heartfelt tribute verse apiece. “No more crying, he’s in sunshine. He’s alright now, see his wings,” the gently sung chorus reminds us. This theme continues on the closing track “The Donald”— a reference to Phife Dawg’s old nickname, Don Juice, rather than any vaguely-known casino owner— on which the man himself is given the glorious last word.
“Who wanna spar? Ha ha, well here I are,” he boasts. “No doubt I’mma set it, dudes best be ready.” As Busta Rhymes barks the fallen legend’s name repeatedly during the song’s closing passage, there is no doubt as to which figure the group wants embellished in people’s minds as the record concludes.
Barring a 2Pac-style outpour of posthumous material, this is likely the last we will ever hear from Phife Dawg — as well as A Tribe Called Quest in general, since Q-Tip has confirmed that this is the group’s final record and they are set to permanently disband. If that is indeed the case, then A Tribe Called Quest can head out knowing they managed to make a fantastic final statement on We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, a record on which they displayed none of their age and every one of the reasons why they have remained one of hip-hop’s most beloved acts for the better part of three decades.
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cover photo: A Tribe Called Quest © Aristos Marcopoulos