Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) and Phife Dawg (Malik Izaak Taylor) were childhood friends who grew up together in Queens, New York. Initially, Q-Tip performed as a solo artist under the name MC Love Child, occasionally teaming up with Ali Shaheed Muhammad as a rapper and DJ duo. While the duo frequently made demos with Phife, then known as Crush Connection, Phife only became a full member once Jarobi White joined. The group's final name was coined in 1988 by the Jungle Brothers, who attended the same high school as Q-Tip and Muhammad. Q-Tip made two separate appearances on the Jungle Brothers' debut album, Straight Out the Jungle, in the songs "Black is Black" and "The Promo".
In early 1989, the group signed a demo deal with Geffen Records and produced a five-song demo, which included later album tracks "Description of a Fool", "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" and "Can I Kick It?". Geffen decided against offering the group a recording contract, and the group was granted permission to shop for a deal elsewhere. After receiving lucrative offers for multi-album deals from a variety of labels, the group opted for a modest deal offered by Jive Records. Jive Records was then known as an independent rap label that partly owed its success to building the careers of artists Boogie Down Productions and Too Short.
Less than a year after signing with Jive, the group released their first single, "Description of a Fool", which was managed and produced by Ben Woods. Their debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was marked by a playful lyrical approach, as on the call-and-response-inspired "Can I Kick It?"; light-hearted content like safe sex, vegetarianism, and youthful experiences; and to a lesser extent, an idiosyncratic sense of humor which was free from much of the posturing of both hardcore hip-hop and the more left-wing aspects of conscious hip-hop.
People's Instinctive Travels was initially met with mixed reviews. Count Dracula of The Village Voice called the album "upliftingly dope" and "so sweet and lyrical, so user-friendly. You could play it in the background when you're reading Proust." The Source gave it five mics, the magazine's highest possible rating. However, Chuck Eddy of Rolling Stone wrote that the album "is one of the least danceable rap albums ever", and he went on to say "it's impossible to imagine how people will put this music to use."
The album only gained momentum after the release of the singles "Bonita Applebum" and "Can I Kick It?", and went gold six years later. After its release, White left the group for personal reasons. A remastered 25th anniversary edition of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is now available on Legacy Recordings and RCA Records.
The group continued to gather a loyal fan base through touring and guest appearances such as on De La Soul's "A Roller Skating Jam Named "Saturdays". The group's second album, The Low End Theory, was released on September 24, 1991, with "Check the Rhime" as the lead single. Based around a sample from Average White Band's "Love Your Life", the song largely established the vocal interplay between Q-Tip and Phife; until then, most of the group's songs had only featured vocals by Q-Tip.
The two MCs began to focus on a range of social issues, from date rape ("The Infamous Date Rape") to consumerism ("Skypager"). The songs were noticeably shorter, more abrupt, and bass-heavy. Guests on the album included Leaders of the New School (which included Busta Rhymes), Brand Nubian, and Vinia Mojica. Their innovative sampling, layering, and structuring of jazz records led many critics to label their style as jazz rap–a term which Q-Tip disapproved of, as he felt that while it described groups such as Stetsasonic well, it misinterpreted A Tribe Called Quest, who (aside from the song "Jazz (We've Got)") did not base their songs around jazz.
Around this time, the group began to make experimental and visually stylish music videos with director Jim Swaffield, among them the promo clip for "Check the Rhime," set in their childhood neighborhood of St. Albans, Queens, the black-and-white "Jazz (We've Got)" which cuts abruptly into its colorful B-side "Buggin' Out," and the anthem "Scenario," which simulated a computer desktop. A live performance of "Scenario" with Leaders of the New School on The Arsenio Hall Show lead to greater popularity.
The album was produced by A Tribe Called Quest along with Skeff Anselm (on two tracks). Pete Rock created the original rough draft version for "Jazz (We've Got)". In contrast to most of the hip-hop albums released in the early 1990s, which featured rough beats at relatively fast tempos, such as Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted or Dr. Dre's The Chronic, The Low End Theory featured low-key, bass-heavy, and plodding beats which emphasized the pensive nature of the record. The recording sessions and mixing for the album was handled by Bob Power at Battery Studios in New York City.
Rolling Stone lauded the album, saying, "Each time Q-Tip rhymes over Carter's bass lines, the groove just gets deeper." The publication also named it #154 among their Best 500 Albums of All Time, and also as one of the Essential Recordings of the 90s. Further praise was given by Spin, which listed it among the 90 Greatest Albums of the '90s. AllMusic calls the record "one of the best hip-hop albums in history", and "a record that sounds better with each listen." Pop Matters music editor Dave Heaton said of the album:
Anything really worth writing about is nearly indescribable; that's the conundrum of writing about music. Any 30-second snippet of The Low End Theory will go further to convince of the album's greatness than anything I can write. I could easily write an entire book on this one album and still feel like I've hardly said anything. Still, I could do worse things with my time than try to capture even an iota of the enthusiasm I feel each time I play this album. The Low End Theory is a remarkable experience, as aesthetically and emotionally rewarding as any work of music I can think of.
The album was rated:5 Mic Album award from The Source (1991)
#2 in Ego Trip's Hip Hop's 25 Greatest Albums by Year 1980–98 (1999)
#53 in Blender's 100 Greatest American Albums of All time (2002)
#56 in Pitchfork Media's Top 100 Favorite Records of the 1990s (2003)
#154 in Rolling Stone's Best 500 Albums of All Time (2003)
#32 in Top 90 Albums of the 90s (1999)
#38 in Top 100 Albums of the Last 20 Years (2005)
#87 in 100 Alternative Albums (1995)
The Low End Theory performed very well on the charts and was RIAA-certified gold on February 19, 1992; it reached platinum status by 1995. In the aftermath of their success, the group once again toured and contributed the song "Hot Sex" to the soundtrack for the film Boomerang in 1992.
The new jack swing group Wreckx-N-Effect did take exception to "Jazz (We've Got)", misinterpreting some lines as a diss:
I'm all into my music cuz it's how I make papes
Tryin' to make hits, like Kid Capri mix tapes
Me sweat another? I do my own thing
Strictly hardcore tracks, not a new jack swing
This misunderstanding resulted in a melee in which Q-Tip sustained an eye injury. Thus, during the shooting of the promo clip for "Hot Sex", he wore a ski mask to cover up the abrasion. Soon after, Q-Tip was chosen to play the part of Markell, Janet Jackson's ill-fated partner, in the John Singleton-directed drama Poetic Justice, which also starred Tupac Shakur. The film lead to a friendship between Q-Tip and Jackson, and they would go on to collaborate on her song "Got 'Til It's Gone" from her album The Velvet Rope, in 1997.
Trugoy of De La Soul appeared on the refrain of "Award Tour", the group's lead single from their third album Midnight Marauders, released on November 9, 1993. Coming on the heels of The Low End Theory, the album was highly anticipated. Boosted by their raised profile, "Award Tour" became the group's highest charting single to date, and helped to land the album in the US Top Ten. Entertainment Weekly called the album "as fresh as their first... rappers Phife and Q-Tip manage to hold attention without resorting to gun references or expletives..." NME Likewise, Melody Maker said "A Tribe Called Quest have expanded their vision with a lyrical gravitas and a musical lightness of touch that has hitherto eluded them across a whole album". The album was voted #21 by The Village Voice in that year's Pazz & Jop Critics Poll.
Musically, Midnight Marauders built upon many of the ideas present on The Low End Theory, although the results were noticeably different, and the music was more immediate. Whereas Theory had been an exercise in subdued minimalism, and simplicity, the grooves found on Marauders are mostly up tempo, and full of charging drums, suave basslines, melodious riffs, complementary horns, and catchy hooks, all delivered in an efficient 50 minute time frame. The intermittent voice of a tour guide (the titular 'midnight marauder') also serves to add further cohesion to the album.
The lead single "Award Tour" contained a loop taken from Weldon Irvine's "We Gettin' Down". Irvine, a little-known but well-respected jazz musician, assisted with the sampling of the song. Another outside musician to contribute to the record was Raphael Saadiq (credited as Raphael Wiggins) of Tony! Toni! Toné!, on the song "Midnight". Producers Large Professor and Skeff Anselm also worked on two tracks, "Keep It Rollin'" and "8 Million Stories", the former also rapping over his production.
Lyrically, the album benefited from an even more confident verbal interplay between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip used to its fullest on songs like "Electric Relaxation" and "Oh My God". The opening song "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)" is named in honor of slain South African human rights activist and revolutionary Steve Biko. Some of the other topics on the album are police harassment and nocturnal activity ("Midnight"), religious faith ("God Lives Through"), and hip hop, as in "We Can Get Down", where Phife raps:
How can a reverend preach, when a rev can't define
The music of our youth from 1979
We rap about what we see, meaning reality
From people bustin' caps and like Mandela being free
Not every MC be with the negativity
We have a slew of rappers pushin' positivity
Another song, the sometimes controversial "Sucka Nigga", deals with the candid use of the word "nigga". In the song, Q-Tip notes the negative purpose of the word but subsequently emphasizes its subjective nature when he says:
It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy
Other niggas in the community think its crummy
But I don't, neither does the youth cause we
Em-brace adversity it goes right with the race
And being that we use it as a term of endearment
Niggas start to bug to the dome as where the fear went
The three singles for the album had memorable music videos, for example the second single "Electric Relaxation", which was shot in black and white in a diner. The third single was "Oh My God", with a video showing the group in a neighborhood setting and surrounded by young fans. It also included a cameo by a typically manic Busta Rhymes. The group performed as one of a handful of rap acts at the 1994 Lollapalooza Festival, among acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Stereolab and The Verve.
Also in 1994, one of the sparks of the East Coast and West Coast hip-hop rivalry occurred at The Source Awards, when Tupac pushed A Tribe Called Quest from the stage. It was later found that this apparent act of disrespect was accidental.
Midnight Marauders remains A Tribe Called Quest's fastest-selling album; it was certified platinum on January 11, 1995, less than two years after its release. The album's success allowed the group a greater financial freedom and the members took a short break before the recording of their next album. Q-Tip produced several tracks for other artists including "One Love" for Nas, "Illusions (Remix)" for Cypress Hill, and three tracks on Mobb Deep's The Infamous.
Phife, who rapped on "Oh My God" that he owned "more condoms than TLC", made cameo appearances on that group's hugely successful album, Crazy Sexy Cool, in 1994. That same year, he also married his fiancée and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. Ali Shaheed Muhammad worked on outside projects with artists such as D'Angelo ("Brown Sugar"), Shaquille O'Neal ("Where Ya At?"), and Gil Scott-Heron ("Don't Give Up"). The group contributed to The Show soundtrack in 1995, before returning the following year with their fourth album.
While on tour, Q-Tip's friend Amp Fiddler introduced him to a young producer from Detroit named Jay Dee. At the suggestion of Q-Tip, Jay Dee joined him and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, forming a production unit known as "The Ummah" (Arabic for "the [worldwide] Muslim community"). The Ummah handled the production of the following two albums.
Beats, Rhymes and Life, the group's fourth album, was recorded during the turbulent East Coast–West Coast hip hop rivalry with "Get A Hold" and "Keep It Moving" referring to it.
The Ummah's production style was a smoother (but darker) hybrid of the group's previous albums, where the snare possessed a much sharper crack on most tracks. Ali added:
"Everything's too technical now, too overdone, says Ali "We're sampling less on this album. Nothing extravagant, nothing far out."
Jay Dee, a big fan of the Tribe, appeared to have had a hand in re-shaping the sound, charting new rhythmic territory with songs like "Keep It Moving", or "Word Play". Consequence, Q-Tip's cousin, and an aspiring rapper, was present on six songs, including the second single "Stressed Out". Phife Dawg later stated that this was when he began to lose interest in the group:
I really felt like with Midnight Marauders I came into my own. By the time when Beats, Rhymes and Life came out I started feelin' like I didn't fit in any more. Q-Tip and Ali had converted to Islam and I didn't. Music felt like a job; like I was just doin' it to pay bills. I never want my music to feel like just a job. They would schedule studio time at the last minute. I'd catch a plane from Atlanta to be in New York and when I got to the studio, no one would be there. They would have canceled the session without telling me. Seemed like the management was concerned with other folks not me. But I never lost my confidence.
The album shot straight to #1 in the charts and went gold by the end of the year; it would go platinum by 1998. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, while the lead single, "1nce Again", was nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Critical reactions were divided but mostly positive. Rolling Stone called it "near-flawless", going on to say that "few hip-hop acts have so sharply captured the surreal quality that defines what it means to be African-American, a quality in which poker-faced humor and giddy tragedy play tag team with reality." The Source awarded it 4 out of 5 mics and called The Ummah "the most proficient in the rap game at using samples as instruments in themselves". Despite his apparent lack of motivation Spin thought Phife sounded "tougher and more playful than ever", while Melody Maker saw the album as "providing both their best and worst thus far", and "magnetic yet frustrating". In a 1998 farewell article in The Source, Questlove summarized the album's partially frosty reception:
1996 was full of memories whose soundtracks were more "gonna make you dance", whereas Tribe wanted "to make you think". Funny how if this was any other group there would be accolades galore. But by this time most attitudes were, "if Tribe ain't moving the world with each release, then we won't stand for nothing less."
Following Beats, Rhymes and Life, the group appeared on the Men in Black soundtrack with the song "Same Ol' Thing", and released, The Jam, a 4-track EP which included the aforementioned song, "Mardi Gras At Midnight" (with Rah Digga) and two songs from Beats, Rhymes and Life, "Get A Hold" and "Jam". 1997 also saw the first coming together of the three main Native Tongue groups since 1989, when the Jungle Brothers invited both Tribe and De La Soul to guest on "How Ya Want It We Got It", a cut from their album Raw Deluxe. The Ummah continued producing for a diverse range of artists such as Janet Jackson, Keith Murray, Faith Evans, and Whitney Houston.
Before The Love Movement was released the group announced that this would be their last album. In an interview with The Source, the group cited their frustration with Jive Zomba as a significant factor in the breakup. Phife:
I felt like I was happy to be on, of course. It took me a minute to latch on to the business side of things, 'cause it was just a happy-go-lucky time. And then eventually, as time went on, it started to slap me in my face. But as far as record labels, or whoever, they're not gonna do us right... As far as our label, I really have no comment, duke.
The Love Movement was preceded by "Find a Way"; a song memorable for its swirly otherworldly production and catchy staccato hook. Musically, the somewhat somber tone of the previous album was largely absent and replaced by a familiar carefree optimism. Tracks like "Give Me", with Noreaga exemplify the group's approach. Driven by a pulsing beat, the opening song "Start It Up" was perhaps even more minimal than anything on The Low End Theory. Likewise, "Against The World" relies on little more than crisply mixed down drums and a two note bassline. The theme of the album was firmly focused around the topic of love – love for oneself, love for another, love for mankind, love in the face of hate.
Critical reception for The Love Movement was fairly positive, although some viewed it as too subtle. Rolling Stone remarked that "the mature, accomplished niceness of The Love Movement proves that the Tribe still have the skills – they're just short on thrills." The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, in 1999.
In August 2016, Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid revealed that the label would be releasing a new A Tribe Called Quest album in the near future. Said Reid on the album, "[It is] a brand new album that they recorded before Phife Dawg passed away. I'm really happy about it man, it's really something special. It's one of the things I'm most excited about over everything we're working on.' The album, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service was subsequently announced in October for a November 11 release.
The group had begun work on the album following their appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on November 13, 2015, the same night of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Feeling "charged", the group put aside their differences, and decided to record their final album in secrecy. The album was incomplete when Phife Dawg died, but the surviving members continued to work on the album following his death.
To promote the album, the group appeared on Saturday Night Live the day after its release and performed two songs in front of a mural of Phife Dawg. Speaking with Billboard, Q-Tip said the group is considering a final world tour to promote the album before permanently disbanding. The group won the Brit Award for Best International Group.
Under the management of Violator, Q-Tip launched a successful solo career, which saw two sizable hits ("Vivrant Thing", and "Breathe and Stop"), and the Gold-certified album Amplified, released in 1999. The album was produced by Q-Tip and Jay Dee (as The Ummah), and DJ Scratch.
After Amplified, Q-Tip changed directions and recorded 2002's Kamaal/The Abstract, an album which saw him in the role of singer and bandleader. Unlike his work with A Tribe Called Quest, or his own solo work, Kamaal was constructed around live music, and "abstract" song concepts, all orchestrated by Q-Tip himself. Arista Records refused to release the album, fearing it would be unmarketable coming from a rapper. Undeterred, Q-Tip recorded 2005's Open, a slightly more accessible album, featuring contributions from André 3000, Common, and D'Angelo. Once again, the record was rejected by Arista, after which Q-Tip left the label. He subsequently signed to Universal Motown and released the largely self-produced The Renaissance in late 2008. Kamaal/The Abstract was released a year later on Battery Records.
The most notable of Q-Tip's critics was Phife, who took his former partner to task on his solo album Ventilation: Da LP, released in 2000. The Hi-Tek-produced lead single, "Flawless", contained the lines "Go 'head, play yourself with them ho-like hooks / sing ballads if it's all about the Maxwell look". Ventilation included production by Jay Dee and Pete Rock. Q-Tip and Phife soon patched up their differences. Since then, Phife, who was diabetic, maintained a relatively low profile whilst recording his long-delayed follow-up album, Songs In The Key Of Phife: Volume 1 (Cheryl's Big Son). He died on March 22, 2016 due to complications from diabetes.
Teaming up with two other artists from former groups, Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Dawn Robinson of En Vogue, Ali Shaheed's next project was Lucy Pearl. The group scored two hit singles with "Dance Tonight", and with "Don't Mess With My Man", and their self-titled album was certified Gold a few months after its release in 2000. Following a dispute between Saadiq and Robinson, the latter left the group and was replaced by Joi; however, this new incarnation would only last for the remainder of touring.
Ali Shaheed then focused on developing a stable of artists, most of whom were showcased on his debut solo album Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, released independently in 2004.
A Tribe Called Quest first reunited on August 27, 2004, headlining Street Scene, a music festival in San Diego, California.
In 2006, the group again reunited and performed several sold-out concerts in the U.S., Canada and Japan. A Tribe Called Quest was a co-headliner at the 2006 Bumbershoot festival in Seattle. The group appeared in 2K Sports' Bounce Tour promoting the NBA 2K7 video game and a remix of their song, "Lyrics to Go", was included in the game. According to Phife, A Tribe Called Quest planned to release an album since they owe Jive Records one more in their six-album contract. The date of its release was never confirmed, and Phife urged fans to hold on as the group does not wish to release an LP which might damage their reputation. Speaking about the possibility of a new album showing up soon, Phife said:
Man, we was only 18–19 when we first got started. [When] We broke up we were still like 28. Now we are 35–36. It'd be real different being in the studio. It would be real interesting to see where Q-Tip is. It would all be on a much higher level. But we are all into such different stuff from way back then. We'd need at least a solid month to work on something. Trying to get all of us together for that much time. … I don't see that happening.
A Tribe Called Quest was the headlining act in 2008 at the Rock the Bells series of concerts, and were co-headliners on the 2010 Rock the Bells festival series.
The group reformed to play a handful of select festivals throughout the summer of 2013, including Yahoo! Wireless in London, Splash! in Germany, OpenAir Frauenfeld in Switzerland, and in Los Angeles at H2O Music Festival. In November 2013, two of the four New York shows for Kanye West's The Yeezus Tour featured A Tribe Called Quest as supporting acts. According to statements made by Q-Tip, these were A Tribe Called Quest's final performances.
On November 13, 2015, the group reunited to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. That same day, the group reissued their debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The reissue includes remixes from Pharrell Williams, J. Cole and CeeLo Green. In commemoration of the reissue, they participated in an AMA on Reddit where users asked the group questions. On November 12, 2016, the remaining members performed on Saturday Night Live. The remaining members also performed with Anderson .Paak, Busta Rhymes, and Consequence during the 59th Annual Grammy Awards on February 12, 2017.
The group was the subject of the critically acclaimed 2011 documentary film titled Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, directed by Michael Rapaport.Studio albums
People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)
The Low End Theory (1991)
Midnight Marauders (1993)
Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)
The Love Movement (1998)
We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
Revised Quest for the Seasoned Traveller (1992)
The Anthology (1999)
Hits, Rarities & Remixes (2003)
The Lost Tribes (2006)
The Best of A Tribe Called Quest (2008)