Plenty of millennials were late to the party when it came to A Tribe Called Quest. By the mid-90s, when they had albums like Midnight Marauders on rotation and were playing go-to feel good tracks like “Award Tour” on repeat, the group had already been around for almost a decade (which is especially astounding considering their official formation was in 1985, when Hip Hop was just a mere twinkle in the super-culture’s eye).
Sure, they may not have even been born yet, but by the time they arrived it still felt like Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and (sometimes) Jarobi had created a universe of their own— a mood, feeling, center of cultural consciousness. But like most good things, it’s better to show up late than never.
A Tribe Called Quest created such warm and lush compositions they sound just as fresh and inviting on the hundredth listen, as they do on the first. There’s both a texture and dialogue when listening to ATCQ; a fluid, interpersonal dynamic that can’t be recreated or emulated because these aren’t just songs— they’re moments in time. That’s a quality that’s probably rarer now than ever; when it comes to an era where singles are marketed the way albums once were, and the plastic is practically audible in the majority of radio-pop songs.
While tracks like “Can I Kick It” from 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm were beginning to permeate global consciousness, A Tribe Called Quest was already answering questions nobody else had even asked. Yes, a Lou Reed sample can be flipped into one of the most remarkable Hip Hop productions of all time, and yes, there is a way to make Hip Hop human, vulnerable and sexy all at the same time.
While a truly comprehensive A Tribe Called Quest retrospective could easily weigh in at 10,000 words and still only scratch the surface of one of the most formative Hip Hop groups to ever record, last week’s passing of the legendary Phife Dawg (aka Malik I. Taylor) made us all take a moment to pause and reflect on his legacy, the genre and those ethereal moments that allow the components of timeless music to come together.
A Tribe Called Quest didn’t make waves just because they sounded so tightly knit, but also because they perfectly counterbalanced a different Hip Hop sphere that relied on aggression over introspection and camaraderie. ATCQ was a breath of fresh air on a summer’s day and songs like “Jam” on 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life are still warm to the touch.
When Phife comes out swinging over the funky bass lines of “Buggin’ Out” and utters “styles upon styles upon styles is what I have” in one of the greatest lead-off verses ever recorded, he isn’t boasting without merit. By the last track on that very album, 1991’s Low End Theory, on the widely celebrated “Scenario,” Phife’s confidence has already been proven dozens of times over.
He’s well aware of his blazing tongue and adjacent skills, capitalizing within his final verse to ensure we understand the sentiment, as well: “My days of paying dues are over/acknowledge me as in there.” A mere split-second later, the listener is met with an overwhelming choral response: “YEAH!” With Phife, there’s simply no room for debate.
Phife wasn’t on the fringe or even close. He’d already reached the belly of the Hip Hop epicenter by the time Tribe officially broke up in 1999. And while it may have once been preemptive to try and stack up Phife Dawg and A Tribe Called Quest’s total success, it’s now the stuff of legend, which will only continue to grow as more time passes.
There are so few moments across history where timing, locale and personality combine to create something quite as archetypal as A Tribe Called Quest. While the official posthumous press release pays homage to Phife by stating: “His music and what he’s contributed is seismic and hard to measure,” it doesn’t mean that we won’t try.