A Tribe Called Quest's Revealing NYC Album Launch: 7 Things We Learned

When hip-hop legends' comeback LP took shape, how members pushed each other in the studio and other insights from all-star celebration

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A Tribe Called Quest's Revealing NYC Album Launch: 7 Things We Learned

On Friday, seminal hip-hop act A Tribe Called Quest will release its first album since 1998.  As a testament to the beloved group's sterling reputation, We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service comes chock full of guest stars, including Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and Elton John. During a Wednesday-night listening party at MoMA PS1 in Tribe's home borough of Queens, New York, the new record boomed through the pristine, punishing sound system inside the dome set up in PS1's courtyard, inspiring vigorous head-bobbing in a chatty, boozed-up room of admirers.

The album's release follows the death of Phife Dawg, one of Tribe's MCs, who passed away in March due to complications from diabetes. His comrades paid their respects at PS1. "He set the tone," the rapper/producer Q-Tip told the audience. Q-Tip and Jarobi White – who contributed to the 1990 album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm before departing for culinary school – enthusiastically co-rapped one of Phife's verses, adding touching annotations as they went.

The pair briefly discussed their work on the record, occasionally competing with the sound of subway trains screeching from a nearby stop. The two MCs were joined during the Q&A by an emotional, loquacious Busta Rhymes and Consequence, both of whom are featured on We Got It From Here. Here are seven things we learned from their conversation.

1. Busta didn't think the album would happen.
The initial conversations about We Got It From Here took place last year: the day after Tribe's performance on The Tonight Show, when the group was celebrating the 25th anniversary party of People's Instinctive Travels at New York's Santos Party House. "We just started to talk about how the [new] album needed to happen officially," Busta remembered. "That was the first time that Q-Tip said, 'Alright, I'm with it.' I thought he was bullshitting. I didn't think it was really gonna happen. I thought he was just in the moment, the whole anniversary celebration. The next day, he still said he was with it. Then I really knew: This shit is gonna pop."

2. Tribe tapped into their legacy. ...
Working on We Got It From Here in Q-Tip's studio, the members of the group quickly regained some of their old chemistry. "The drapings of ageism and questions of where we're at, that shit flew out the fucking window," Q-Tip noted. "We fell into science mode. We just locked in. We became fucking kids again."

3. But they didn't set out to make a revivalist record.
"We spoke about it at length, [Phife] and I, about the importance of maintaining the essence [of A Tribe Called Quest] but not getting trapped in that and trying to see it beyond," Q-Tip said. "We would just listen to shit we liked —'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Queen, and then we would listen to 'Money Trees' by Kendrick, then we'd go to Rakim. It was a sonic exercise to hear all those different records and see the common thread."

4. The studio was full of gleeful one-upmanship.
Q-Tip described a playfully competitive recording environment. "There was one point where we were in the studio, and my manager was there, and she walked in and heard Phife and Jarobi bouncing on a joint, and she pulled me [aside], and she was like, 'I don't know what you doing, but these niggas is out for your head,'" he recalled. "'You better get in your shit." 

"You hear Cons[equence] do a couple of bars, you might go back and change a few of your lines," Busta added. 

5. They don't make rap albums like this anymore.
"Nobody don't sit in a room and write with each other no more," Busta declared. "Everybody just send their little ProTools to each other, and you get the verse back in an email. When you write your verse, and you look at your man that's in the room with you, and he's reacting to his own bars that he's impressing himself with? You wanna go over there and hear what he's got to say.

"That was exactly what we did when we wrote 'Scenario.'"

6. Q-Tip served as the group's musical "quarterback."
Busta Rhymes suggested that Q-Tip functioned as the quarterback during the recording process. "The fun shit was taking direction from [him]," Busta explained. "He had a lot of specifics that he wanted. Sometimes you listen to the beat, and you'd be going in one direction, and he'd be like, 'Nah, I need you to do it this way.' And then he'll mumble some shit to you, and you'll take it and you go back [to write more]. Then you come back and he'll be like, 'That's the motherfucking shit you were supposed to do.' He was great at being the director for all of us. He was great at conducting the whole picture."

7. A Tribe Called Quest are still relevant.
Addressing the crowded, buzzing dome at PS1, Busta asserted the long-lasting importance of Tribe's music in hip-hop. "This room is a testament to what Tribe means historically, what Tribe means currently, what Tribe is gonna always mean in the future," he said. "I'm everywhere," he continued. "I'm in everything. I keep my finger on the pulse; I don't miss shit. I'm in the club every day. I'm doing album sessions every day. It's to do my homework. I'm saying all this to say: I haven't seen a room like this for nobody's album in a long time."