If you can remember back to Nov. 12, 2016, before Robert Mueller, Stormy and steel slats, A Tribe Called Quest appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and basically staged a musical takeover of “Saturday Night Live.” It had been 7,349 days since their last record and yet there stood Tip and Jarobi, backs turned to the camera to salute a sprawling mural of the fallen Phife Dawg, as “The Space Program” kicked in.
Sonically, the song is classic Tribe, built on beats and groove and a Paleozoic sample from an Andrew Hill Blue Note record. But content-wise, “The Space Program” manages to be more of the moment than the moment itself. Never mind that it was probably mixed down at a point in the presidential campaign when white suburbia still believed pantsuit flash mobs would rule the day. Tribe seemed to know what was coming. Only four days after President Trump took the White House, Tip had shifted out of stun mode. He stalked the SNL camera, stage front, to lead a resolute chant of “Let’s Make Something Happen.”
As Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his riveting and poetic new book on Tribe, we shouldn’t have been all that surprised by the group’s reemergence on “We Got It From Here. . .Thank You 4 Your Service,” their sixth and final album:
“Black folks have been creating with their backs against the wall for years, telling the future, speaking what is coming to the masses that aren’t eager to hear it until what’s coming actually arrives, looming over them.”
There are two general models for musical histories: the deeply reported biography (think Peter Guralnick) and the impressionistic takes found in the wildly uneven 33 1/3 series and Rob Sheffield’s stellar “Dreaming the Beatles.” In “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest,” Abdurraqib opens Door No. 3. He keeps to the chronology enough to allow the uninitiated in, charting the birth of Tribe, the parallel and sideways movements that emerged and the group’s slow fizzle, collapse and reemergence. Adburraqib’s gift is his ability to flip from a wide angle to a zoom with ease. He is a five-tool writer, slipping out of the timeline to deliver vivid, memoiristic splashes as well as letters he’s crafted to directly address the central players, dead and living. He is a grown man, a cultural critic, an Important Voice, but he’s also an awkward kid huddled in the back seat of the school bus, that “Beats, Rhymes and Life” cassette wearing out his Walkman. He brings everything to the game, whether a cosmic vignette about Leonard Cohen or an unexpected curveball that somehow morphs into connective tissue.
“Do you know that it wasn’t the ball trickling through Bill Buckner’s legs that lost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series?” he opens a letter to the sports-obsessed Phife, which addresses the rapper’s lone solo record, “Ventilation: Da LP.”
He calls the album “the ball that skipped through your legs, but it was never your fault. You were at the mercy of unfair machinery, the same way Bill Buckner was at the mercy of an unpredictable and unforgiving plot of land, and a ball that decided its own destiny.”
A Tribe Called Quest was formed in the mid-’80s, a collaboration between two kids from Queens, Kamaal Ibn John Fareed and Malik Izaak Taylor, whom we would come to know as Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and MC Jarobi White joined by the time they recorded their debut, 1990’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.”
At a time when the public either got dosed with pop rap (Young MC, Vanilla Ice) or harder, political material from Public Enemy and N.W.A.’s various branches, A Tribe Called Quest and the Native Tongues collective — which also included De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers — offered an alternative. They had a sense of humor, an undeniable talent at grabbing sampled grooves and they weren’t afraid of the music their parents loved, particularly jazz. Tribe would ultimately break up in 1998 for the same reasons most bands collapse, with the tensions between Q-Tip and Phife highlighted in Michael Rapaport’s excellent 2011 documentary, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.” And their unexpected return would serve as a defiant but ultimately heartbreaking coda. Phife’s long battle with diabetes ended in March 2016 – eight months before the album he named, “We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service,” would arrive. He was 45.
We get the full picture in “Go Ahead in the Rain.” We watch Tip emerge as the sonic scientist with his pause tapes – samples built with double tape-decks before he could afford proper equipment – and Phife portrayed as the flaky, even reluctant participant, a sports goof who sometimes has to be pushed to go to the recording studio.
The beauty of being both a true fan and a professional is that you can embrace even the low points and yet analyze with pinpoint accuracy when your heroes have fallen short. And as you search for the perfect ending, you’ll realize there seldom is one.
“Not every story in music ends with a group forced to throw in the towel due to a great and impossible loss, and not every story should,” Abdurraqib writes. “But had it not, I would want A Tribe Called Quest to return again and again, giving me the doses of updated nostalgia that I might need when no other music could provide it. At least now, I think, we can lay them to rest.”
Geoff Edgers is the national arts reporter for The Washington Post.
By Hanif Abdurraqib
University of Texas Press. 216 pp. $16.95.