A Tribe Called Quest
Verses From the Abstract
By Del F. Cowie

A Tribe Called Quest’s hip-hop legacy is virtually peerless and while all the group members played a crucial role in the group’s chemistry, Q-Tip is easily the group’s most recognisable member. While Ali’s strong silent role as the DJ and mediator and Phife’s b-boy swagger were crucial in ensuring the group’s wide appeal and success, Q-Tip emerged as the group’s most charismatic presence. Now, years after the group have issued any new music or solo projects, A Tribe Called Quest are revered more than ever, while Q-Tip has managed, unlike many of his contemporaries, to remain relevant and yet restlessly creative.

1970
Jonathan Davis (aka Q-Tip), along with the two other core members of A Tribe Called Quest, Malik “Phife” Taylor and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, is born in 1970. Phife and Q-Tip meet at age two in Queens, NY; Q-Tip’s mother attends the same church as Phife’s grandmother. Phife attends the church’s private school, which Q-Tip joins in third grade, and they become close friends. Phife, whose twin brother died at birth, is inspired to rhyme by his poet mother; he rhymes as a kid out of loneliness. Ali’s father DJs at house parties; Ali begins to DJ at eight, and to program sounds at age 13. As high school freshman, Ali notices that Q-Tip constantly rhymes “The Adventures of Super Rhymes” by Jimmy Spicer to himself; later fourth member Jarobi White bonds with Phife in 1983 over love of basketball. Q-Tip and Ali attend Manhattan’s Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, alongside future members of hip-hop groups X-Clan and the Jungle Brothers; Phife and Jarobi regularly visit the school for basketball games.

1986 to 1988
Q-Tip (as MC Love Child), takes part in high school rap battles with Jarobi as his beatboxer and one occasion doesn’t place at all. Q-Tip’s Montserrat-born father Jonathan Davis II, whose deep love of jazz and blues influenced his son, dies of emphysema. Q-Tip becomes friendly with the Jungle Brothers and puts together a demo with DJ Flamboyant, Ali’s name at the time, using his uncle’s equipment; the song is later known as the Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black,” and appears on their 1988 Straight out of the Jungle debut. Through Mike G’s uncle DJ Red Alert’s industry connections, the Jungle Brothers are signed and they invite Q-Tip to appear on their debut. Q-Tip urges his friends to form a group; their crew, Crush Connection, consists of Phife, Jarobi, Ali, Q-Tip and a high school drummer named Sha. The group’s name changes to Quest before the Jungle Brothers dub them A Tribe Called Quest during a card game. “We were just in our own world,” Q-Tip recalls of his high school days. “And it wasn’t like a cockiness, it was confidence. Not to be like it was competitive, but we always tried to one up each other.” The group’s first demo, containing early versions of “Bonita Applebum” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” leads them to a showcase for A&R scouts. The group’s inexperience shows — Ali brings his mother’s turntable in a suitcase and Phife, a Seventh Day Adventist, shows up to the Saturday meeting in his church clothes. The showcase leads to a management deal with DJ Red Alert, then a record deal with Jive. Q-Tip meets Big Daddy Kane outside famed club the Latin Quarter; Kane invites Q-Tip and Afrika from the Jungle Brothers into his limo and lets them hear his classic single “Raw” for the first time.

1989
The Native Tongues collective, spearheaded by the Jungle Brothers, includes ATCQ and De La Soul, who just released their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, on which Q-Tip appears. Queen Latifah and Monie Love are also considered members of the collective, known for its Afrocentricity, positivity and penchant for obscure sampling. ATCQ begin work on their debut while Jungle Brothers record a sophomore album, and much of the pre-production is done at friend DJ Towa Tei’s house. ATCQ’s first single, “Description of a Fool” samples Roy Ayers’ “Running Away” and features Q-Tip rhyming against domestic abuse and drug dealers.

1990
De La Soul’s debut is a groundbreaking critical and commercial success; the Native Tongues record a classic remix for “Buddy,” featuring Phife’s first-ever appearance on wax. Tribe follow up “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” with full-length People’s Instinctive Travels in the Paths of Rhythm in April; it showcases the group’s eclectic tastes and positivity. The Source magazine gives the album 5 out of 5 (they didn’t yet hand out “mic” ratings). The album is a critical success and singles like “Bonita Applebum” do well, but the group are disappointed when the album sells just 250,000 copies, and feel that the record company’s promotion of their image, which attempts to piggyback on the psychedelic vibe of De La Soul is inappropriate. Phife learns he’s diabetic a month after the album’s release, and considers quitting the group to get a regular job. Q-Tip and Phife have a long discussion and agree to beef up Phife’s participation on their sophomore album and that they will step it up in general as a group. Jarobi does leave to study culinary arts. The group fires DJ Red Alert as their manager, signing with Russell Simmons’ Rush Management, which causes tension within the Native Tongues camp. They also fire their lawyers and face lawsuits as a result. Q-Tip appears on “Groove Is in the Heart,” a hit single for DJ Towa Tei’s group Deee-Lite.

1991
With work underway on a sophomore album, disillusionment with the record industry impacts both material and approach; and Q-Tip often indulges in weed and booze. With N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton as unexpected inspiration, The Low End Theory is intended to refer both to the status of black men in society and to the bass frequencies in the music. Led by single “Check the Rhime,” the album is hailed as an instant classic. Its stripped down, jazzy sound proves highly influential and leaves a sonic imprint on hip-hop for most of the decade. It also proves to be the lyrical breakout for Phife.

1992
Spike Lee directs a video for Low End Theory single “Scenario,” featuring Leaders of the New School and a scene-stealing verse from Busta Rhymes. For a remix, Q-Tip includes a friend named Kid Hood; he records his verse in one take with his shirt off. Two days later, Kid Hood is shot dead, and Q-Tip writes a dedication to the MC on the sleeve of the twelve-inch. During a brace of late night TV appearances, Phife is hospitalised for complications from his diabetes.

1993
Q-Tip is attacked in the street by members of Wreckx-n-Effect, a group conceived by New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley, and gets a black eye. The group took offence to Phife’s “Strictly hardcore tracks/Not a new jack swing” lyric on “Jazz (We’ve Got).” To diffuse the beef, Q-Tip enlists the Nation of Islam and Afrika Bambaataa from the Zulu Nation. It is rumoured the strange mask Q-Tip wears in the video for “Hot Sex,” a song from the soundtrack to Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang, is to cover up the injuries. Tip becomes more interested in the Islamic faith. He appears in John Singleton’s film Poetic Justice as the boyfriend of Janet Jackson’s character; the two become friends. ATCQ release their third, and finest album Midnight Marauders; it sells platinum. Ali Shaheed Muhammed is invited to Trinidad to record with R&B artist Raphael Saadiq, who appears on Midnight Marauders. Upon his return, he is introduced by Saadiq to a new young R&B artist named D’Angelo. While Tribe enjoys success, tensions rise in the Native Tongues camp. While De La Soul’s Dave appears on Midnight Marauders single “Award Tour,” on DLS’s Buhloone Mindstate track “I Am I Be,” Posdnuos criticises “Some tongues who lied and said we’d be Natives till the end / Nowadays we don’t even speak,” and Q-Tip takes offence.

1994
Habitual crate-digger Q-Tip often shops for records with other influential producers Pete Rock and Premier; through Large Professor, he hears that Nas, who is working on his debut Illmatic, would like to work with him. Soon after Nas chooses a Q-Tip beat, he conceives Illmatic’s “One Love.” At the Source Magazine Hip Hop Awards, Quest is named Group of the Year, but before they can accept, 2Pac bum rushes the stage for an impromptu performance. With the group’s popularity on the rise, they join the Lollapalooza tour, playing to huge daytime crowds and doing club gigs at night. Also on the bill is George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, whose keyboardist is named Amp Fiddler. In Detroit, Amp Fiddler introduces Q-Tip to a young producer and Quest fan he’s been mentoring named Jay Dee, who gives Tip a tape of his group Slum Village. Q-Tip is immediately struck by the production, offers to manage him, and brings Jay Dee to New York to work on the Pharcyde’s sophomore album LabcabinCalifornia. Meanwhile, Phife parlays his sports fanaticism into writing gigs and permanently moves to Atlanta while Ali works as director of East Coast A&R at Quincy Jones’s label Qwest Records, meets his wife while on tour, and is beginning to learn how to play bass and keyboards. Tip and Ali form a production company called Museum Music and sign Vinia Mojica, a singer who appeared on a handful of Native Tongues recordings. Q-Tip becomes a Sunni Muslim, legally changing his name from Jonathan Davis to Kamala Fared. Bizarrely, MC Hammer disses Q-Tip on his failed comeback album The Funky Headhunter because of a lyric on The Low End Theory’s “Check The Rhime.”

1995
Ali Shaheed Muhammed co-produces D’Angelo’s hit single “Brown Sugar,” while Q-Tip contributes three tracks to Mobb Deep’s acclaimed album The Infamous. Q-Tip tries to adhere to praying five times a day and swears off alcohol and drugs. Jay Dee, Tip and Ali form a production collective, called the Ummah (meaning “brotherhood”), while Tip and Phife’s relationship becomes strained.

1996
On the title track of De La Soul’s fourth album, Stakes Is High, Posdnous declares “The Native Tongues have officially been reinstated!” The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and ATCQ air out their grievances and make plans to work together again. ATCQ’s fourth album Beats, Rhymes & Life is not as well received; Phife later admits to not being focused and feeling restricted by what he could say on the record. Other members eventually concede that it was a difficult process. The group revive the Museum Music label and sign Consequence, Q-Tip’s cousin, who appears on many of Beats, Rhymes & Life tracks. Phife acts as label A&R and develops a management company while Q-Tip takes an A&R position with Motown. He also appears on the Roots’ Illadelph Halflife.

1997
Q-Tip does some production work on the Jungle Brothers album Raw Deluxe and “How You Want It” features Tip and De La Soul; it’s virtually the last collaboration of the short-lived Native Tongues reunion. Q-Tip co-produces “Honey” for Mariah Carey; the time they’re spending together leads to rumours of romance. He also raps on Janet Jackson’s “Got Till It’s Gone,” a song credited to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, although in interviews, Jay Dee claims the song was produced by the Ummah. On an appearance on The Chris Rock Show, Ali plays bass with D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq and Roots drummer ?uestlove; plans are made for further group work. As work begins on a fifth ATCQ album, Q-Tip encourages other members to listen to Abbey Road, while the effort forces them to turn down Spike Lee’s offer to soundtrack He Got Game, a job that eventually goes to Public Enemy.

1998
A home studio fire destroys Q-Tip’s New Jersey home, destroying the studio, records and hundreds of songs.” Q-Tip is allegedly confronted at a New York Virgin Megastore by Kenrick Miranda, an aspiring rapper who accused Tip of preventing him from handing out demo tapes outside a recording session. Q-Tip allegedly punches Miranda in the face, breaking his jaw; Tip pleads not guilty to third-degree assault. ATCQ cancel a European tour and rumours of a break-up are denied by label Jive. They tour with the Beastie Boys, and a few weeks before the release of their fifth album The Love Movement, Q-Tip announces their break-up on stage in Milwaukee, blaming record industry politics. Movement is an understated finale to their legacy. Q-Tip allegedly punches a photographer who attempts to take a photo of friend and Quest fan Leonardo Dicaprio at a Manhatten nightclub, as is charged with third-degree assault. The group fulfil promotional and touring obligations; in L.A. Shaquille O’Neal jumps on stage to perform “Hot Sex” with Tribe, then stage dives into the crowd.

1999
Group members go their separate ways: Phife works on a long-gestating solo album; Ali sets up a basement studio and begins work with Raphael Saadiq and former En Vogue singer Dawn Robinson on a group called Lucy Pearl (D’Angelo is unable to participate for contractual reasons); and Q-Tip works on his first solo album with Jay Dee. “When we would work together, he would have it, like, 75 percent there and I would add a kick or bass line,” Tip says of their working relationship. Q-Tip releases “Vivrant Thing,” on the Violator compilation album; accompanied by a Hype Williams-directed video, many long-time Tribe fans find it too jiggy. “Vivrant Thing” is the first single from his solo album Amplified; on hidden bonus track “Do It, See It, Be It,” he reveals he once had a hit out on his life. At the album release, a fight breaks out during which Jay-Z allegedly stabs record label head Lance Un Rivera for possibly bootlegging copies of his album Vol. 3... The Life and Times of S. Carter. Though “Vivrant Thing” is a hit, album sales don’t match Tip’s expectations. Tip places ads in New York music papers seeking musicians for a live band, and begins studying drums, Italian vocal discipline bel canto, and takes piano lessons from Weldon Irvine, whom Tribe sampled on their “Award Tour” single.

2000
Q-Tip appears on the much-bootlegged Slum Village album Fantastic Vol. II where he reflects on Tribe’s break-up. He also writes a song for Whitney Houston with Raphael Saadiq and co-writes “Left & Right” for D’Angelo’s Voodoo album. Phife’s solo single “Flawless” takes some thinly-veiled jabs at Tip’s “Vivant Thing” transformation; his album Ventilation: Da LP is released later in the year. Q-Tip is given an unconditional discharge on the alleged record store incident. The Lucy Pearl album is released to decent response, but after two singles, Dawn Robinson is replaced by Atlanta vocalist Joi; Robinson claims she’s not notified by her band-mates.

2001
Q-Tip finishes his second solo album, Kamaal: The Abstract; featuring a live band, it includes infusions of rock and pop sounds. Initial critical response is positive, but label executive L.A. Reid is unsure how to market it and the release date is pushed to the following year.

2002
L.A. Reid decides not to release Kamaal: The Abstract and Q-Tip is released from his contract with Arista and goes to Dreamworks. Interest in A Tribe Called Quest remains high, and they allegedly turn down an offer of $500,000 for a Las Vegas reunion. Tip befriends newly divorced Nicole Kidman, and accompanies her to the premiere for The Hours; he almost loses his seat when a publicist attempts to eject him before Kidman intervenes. Rumours of romance follow.

2003
A remix of Common’s “Come Close” — with a sample of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” — features a verse from Q-Tip that many interpret to be written for Kidman. Phife announces that A Tribe Called Quest will be reuniting and may do an album. A new A Tribe Called Quest single “ICU (Doin’ It)” featuring Erykah Badu surfaces. It is supposed to be on a new Violator compilation, but the album is never released. Q-Tip co-produces and appears on albums by jazz musicians Kurt Rosenwinkel and Roy Hargrove.

2004
In an interview with crate-digging periodical Wax Poetics, Pete Rock claims that Q-Tip stole the beat for The Low End Theory’s “Jazz (We Got)” from him. Rock says Q-Tip visited him while the beat was playing in his basement and that Tip noted what samples he used and recreated it. ATCQ reunite for at a San Diego street festival and other select dates, while Ali finally releases his solo album, Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, on his own Garden Seeker Productions. While doing interviews, he reveals that his name is on a 9/11 “no fly” list and that he must get clearance every time he flies. Phife’s diabetes worsens; he becomes a dialysis patient.

2005
Q-Tip completes the recording of a new album Open, featuring D’Angelo and OutKast’s Andre 3000, but Dreamworks is bought out by parent company Interscope/Universal. Q-Tip lands on Interscope until label head Jimmy Iovine moves him to Geffen, then he ends up at Motown. He releases a single entitled “4 The Nasty” featuring Busta Rhymes and Pharrell, which contradicts the live music direction he has been working in. Kanye West plays Q-Tip the first single from Late Registration that samples Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever.” Q-Tip informs the MC about blood diamonds, provoking him to change the song’s title to “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and to address the issue of blood diamonds in the video and the remix to the song. Phife gets married.

2006
Jay Dee, aka J Dilla, dies of complications from lupus; Q-Tip is a pallbearer at his funeral. ATCQ embark upon their first tour in six years on the 2K Sports Bounce Tour; in NBA 2K7, Phife is a playable character. Tip appears on Black Eyed Peas’ Monkey Business and Sergio Mendes’ comeback album, produced by Peas’ will.i.am.

2007
Q-Tip is an associate producer on the documentary The Hip Hop Project (exec produced by Queen Latifah and Bruce Willis). On his MySpace page, Tip drops “WorkItOut,” from his forthcoming The Renaissance, largely recorded with a band in his living room. The album will feature some songs from the unreleased Open album. ATCQ is honoured at a VH1 ceremony; during the tribute, Lupe Fiasco forgets some of the words to “Electric Relaxation,” causing furore online, since he’d already admitted to not listening to Midnight Marauders. Fiasco responds on okayplayer.com that he was asked to perform my Q-Tip; Tip tells Village Voice that, while he respects the MC, he didn’t specifically request his presence. Phife’s gaunt appearance at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors shocks many; Phife’s close friend and manager Rasta Root has passed the screening process to become a potential kidney donor to the rapper. Q-Tip announces that he’s forming a group with recent tour-mate Common, called the Standard. “We’re just trying to really be honest in our deliveries of expression and not be coerced by commerce, that’s the gist of it,” Q-Tip says. He’s also looking to contribute production to Child Rebel Soldiers, a collaboration between Kanye West, Fiasco and Pharrell Williams, as well as an album by Beyonce’s sister Solange. Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, which been delayed several times, is currently due March 11.




Essential A Tribe Called Quest

A Tribe Called Quest
People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths of Rhythm (Jive, 1990)
This debut platter could be considered a mesmerizing triumph because of its sampling mystery alone. People’s flaunted the Native Tongues’ eclecticism, sourcing everything from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the sound of dancing frogs to form its seductive sonic foundation while much of hip-hop was still fixated with James Brown loops. But the binding force here is Q-Tip, who, taking on the lion’s share of lyrical duties in his effortless nasal drawl, muses wistfully on love (“Bonita Applebum”), misadventure (“I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”) and self-determination (“Footprints”) while brimming with infectiously genuine positivity.

The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991)
Regarded as one of the finest and most influential hip-hop records ever, The Low End Theory represented a quantum leap. Most noticeable was Phife’s lyrical improvement. Phife’s wit and charisma on “Butter” and “Buggin’ Out” and the frenzied posse cut “Scenario” established him and Q-Tip (now dubbing himself the Abstract Poetic) as a formidable 1-2 punch and their charismatic banter is crystallized on “Check The Rhime.” Meanwhile the album’s stripped-down jazzier focus makes it the quintessential melding of rap and jazz. Lyrically, darker issues and their struggle to balance art and commerce brought balance to their initial wide-eyed optimism.

Midnight Marauders (Jive, 1993)
Simply put, this release contains some of the most meticulously and sophisticated hip-hop songs ever recorded. Tribe’s inimitable percussion, inventive sampling and lyrical dexterity and provocative insight are all at their zenith here. Unfortunately, their subsequent output was never able to meet this towering achievement. While tracks like “Electric Relaxation” — arguably the best hip-hop love song ever — merit individual recognition, Midnight Marauders’ strength lies in its awe-inspiring consistency, masterful pacing and seamless sequencing.
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