For the first time since the death of Phife Dawg in March, A Tribe Called Quest has opened up to the New York Times about the incredible loss of their brother and collaborator as well as the final album they were so eager to make together.
To say it's a difficult, devastating read would be a gross understatement — Q-Tip breaks down at multiple points throughout his conversations with Touré, and the circumstances of the release of We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service are undeniably tragic as Phife Dawg didn't survive the drop of the record — but it's a testament to just how much went into Tribe's last full-length album, and the final chapter of their legacy that's still being written.
Touré retraces the timeline of the album through his talks with Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Busta Rhymes, a frequent collaborator/“tribesman,” and André 3000 and Jack White, who each contributed to the album. The event that got the gears grinding on what would become We Got It From Here took place on November 13, 2015, when Tribe reunited on The Tonight Show, their first television performance in nearly two decades.
Q-Tip remembers the energy of that set, and how “right” it was: “It felt like we was those kids that had that big show in Paris when they were 19. It felt fresh. It felt exciting. It felt new. Plus, it was just good to be with my brothers after all of that time.” Adds White, “It was like, ‘Oh man, this is the feeling that we’ve all been missing!’”
They recall heading back into the studio, with Phife making regular cross-country tips from his home in Oakland, California to Tip's in New Jersey. “If you wrote your rhyme somewhere else, you still had to come back and lay your verse in Q-Tip’s house,” Busta Rhymes said. “So we pretty much did every song together. Everybody wrote his stuff in front of everybody. Everybody spat their rhymes in front of each other. We were throwing ideas around together.”
Both André 3000 and Jack White spoke to how inspiring it was to work with such legends, with André going so far as to credit Q-Tip for providing the blueprint for his own career — and those of his colleagues, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. “Tip’s kind of like the father of all of us, like me, Kanye, Pharrell,” he said. “When you’re a kid, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, who am I going to be? Can I be Eazy-E? Nah. But Q-Tip? Yeah. He seems more like a common kind of person.’”
The feeling was mutual for Q-Tip, who said that White “got his wizard on” once he picked up a guitar, and the music just flowed from there in the studio: “It’s one of those scenarios where we’re so excited to finally get to work together that it was exploding in a whole different direction. We really didn’t know what we were doing, it was just a ‘Hurry up and press record’ kind of moment.”
But still, as refreshing an experience as the making of We Got It From Here was, this story is less about moving forward and more about moving forward in the wake of an insurmountable loss. The name of the album was Phife's pick, according to White (“We’re just going with it because he liked it”); the album is also one of the forces that wore him down as his health was declining, a fact that Tribe doesn't shy away from. “Doing this album killed him,” Jarobi White explained. “And he was very happy to go out like that.”
We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service is out November 11.