New Again: A Tribe Called Quest

Eighteen years have passed since the release of The Love Movement, the last record by East Coast hip-hop heroes A Tribe Called Quest. Last week, when it felt like nearly two decades of political and social progress were halted by the 2016 presidential election results, the band issued their long-awaited album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic Records). We Got It from Here is timely to say the least; in the wake of the shocking passing of Phife Dawg (Tribe’s beloved original member) this past spring, and the confusing division of the United States, A Tribe Called Quest’s social commentary is as relevant and needed as its ever been.

Since the group says that We Got It From Here will be their final album, we’re revisiting their feature from Interview‘s June 1990 issue, which was published following the release of their debut record, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. At the time of their interview, the group was still a four-member unit, and Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (who was not present for the interview), averaged less than 20 years of age. The group shared the origins of their names, their opinions of white rappers, and their slightly pessimistic (and incorrect) view of their influence on hip-hop. —Natalia Barr

A Tribe Called Quest
By Michael Kantor

“People expect a lot from us because of who we hang out with,” says Q-Tip, né Jonathan Davis, the lead rapper of A Tribe Called Quest, a four-man, mostly Queens-based crew that averages nineteen years of age. If De La Soul is considered the hip and Jungle Brothers the funk, then A Tribe Called Quest is the jazz section of the Afrocentric rap triumvirate that calls itself Native Tongues. The Tribe’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, is a head-nodding rap voyage from enchiladas and fruit punch in El Segundo to existential pondering of their muddy footprints on the Left Bank, in Paris. We recently spoke to M.C.’s Q-Tip, Phife, and Jarobi. “Sound provider” Ali was elsewhere.

MICHAEL KANTOR: How did you get your names?

JAROBI: Jarobi is my real name, my given name. Ali, the sound provider—that’s his name, too.

PHIFE: Malik is my given name, and around the neighborhood where we used to play basketball they just kept calling me Phife. Tip said that’s a fly name, so I kept it.

Q-TIP: Remember Barney Fife, from The Andy Griffith Show? With me, they say I act like a kid. I don’t see what a Q-Tip has to do with a baby, but that’s how they got it.

KANTOR: Who named A Tribe Called Quest?

Q-TIP: At first it was Quest, and Afrikaa from Jungle Brothers did the rest.

KANTOR: What is the Tribe Vibe?

JAROBI: If I’m thinking something, and someone else is thinking something at the same, if we say it at exactly the same time, it’s Tribe Vibe. We can almost feel or pick up what the other is thinking, without actually saying anything.

Q-TIP: It’s sort of like a déjà vu. Native Tongues is just our group, Jungle Brothers, and De La Soul. We all think alike, and we all do music in the same vein. Tribe Vibe. You’re on the same vibe, on the same vein; it just floats around with us.

PHIFE: Every time they have studio time, we’re in there also, putting in our two cents—what we don’t like, what we like, what they should change, what they shouldn’t change.

KANTOR: What do you think of Third Bass, the two white rappers?

PHIFE: Dope.

JAROBI: They’re slammin’. Third Bass is real def.

Q-TIP: I’ve known Serch for about four years. To be honest, when I first met him I didn’t even know he was white. He started talking about his dad and mom, and he had to be home by sundown to worship Sabbath, and that’s when I thought, “Oh, shit, Serch is white.” But it’s no big thing. Just like color barriers are broken, like when Jackie Robinson was the first black to play major-league baseball, it’s the reversal now. It’s good, it’s real good. If Martin Luther King would have saw that, he would have been pleased, because it’s not just a struggle for blacks to be accepted by whites, but the other way around as well. A lot of people don’t see that.

JAROBI: Music has no color. Music is sound.

PHIFE: Anything that sounds good, whatever color you are, congratulations.

KANTOR: On your jackets you wear a patch that says “The Stop the Violence Movement,” and a lot of your music is about peace and unity. But when I went to your show at the Ritz I was trampled and thrown to the ground. Why isn’t your message getting through?

Q-TIP: With the black male as a teenager, where you’re coming from the ghettos and that kind of stuff, you’ve got to assert yourself, be macho, not let anybody walk over you, so that’s where all this unnecessary bullshit comes from—from egos. That’s why there are a lot of fights. That’s how come the whole thing with rap has been violent. It’s because of the male ego.

KANTOR: Do you think you can change the attitude?

PHIFE: It’s 50-50.

Q-TIP: I think it’s pretty dim. To be honest I’m not going to sell dreams like everybody else does and say, “Sure, it can be changed.” I don’t want to seem like a pessimist, but nothing’s getting better.

JAROBI: We can only but try.