In a year filled with so much loss, pain and confusion, perhaps the best surprise of all is that this bottomless well of blecch could actually produce one of the best and most unexpected musical releases of 2016.
Phife Dawg—the gritty, self-described Trinidadian “original rude boy” who, alongside his Queens grade-school friend Q-Tip, made up half of A Tribe Called Quest’s unparalleled mic-wielding frontline—passed in March at age 45 of complications from the diabetes he had battled most of his adult life, and that he rapped about on “Oh My God” long before anyone outside the group truly grasped the enormity of his health challenges. And with him went the hopes and dreams of many hip-hop fans: Tribe could never truly reform again. The group’s fitful reunion shows had been captured on the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest, and the palpable tension between Tip and Phife throughout the film made it clear that there wasn’t any kind of sustainable détente coming anytime soon.
Which is what makes this record—the group’s first collection of original songs in nearly two decades, and its last together—and the backstory behind its creation all the more remarkable.
As the story goes, since that tour, Q-Tip had embarked upon a self-imposed “sabbatical,” studying music theory, reading bios and novels for fun, trying on poetry for size and even going through a year of celibacy in an effort to challenge and reinvent himself while stoking the creative fires once more. After reuniting for a one-off performance on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2015, Phife and Q-Tip finally began exploring the possibility of recording again for the first time in 18 years, a task made more arduous by their respective coastal locations (Q-Tip in New Jersey, Phife in Oakland, Calif.) and Tip’s insistence that any new material be recorded in the basement studio of his house, a space he had custom-fitted with equipment that included a recording board used by Blondie, Ramones and Art Blakey, a tape reel that once belonged to Frank Zappa and equipment originally owned by the Stones and Hendrix. Given Phife’s health issues, the back-and-forth travel required to abide by their self-imposed rule began to take a toll fairly quickly.
The vintage vibe implied by Tip’s recording space is sprinkled liberally across We Got It From Here. Yes, there are significant guest appearances from artists ranging from Andre 3000 (who drops yet another killer cameo, as he did earlier this year on Frank Ocean’s album, on the rap-masquerading-as-conversation “Kids…”) to Jack White, Talib Kweli, Anderson Paak, Kendrick Lamar and the incomparable Busta Rhymes, who sounds as energized here as he did back when the Tribe first introduced him to the world via 1991 posse cut “Scenario.” But what’s at the very heart and soul of this album is the old-school, standing-face-to-face-spittin-shit-for-just-us collaboration between Tip and Phife, whose contributions are as alive and energized as if he were still standing here rhyming “Malik” (his given name) with “Five-foot freak.” So on the album’s opening cut, “The Space Program,” this takes the form of a very front-and-forward approach to Phife’s hook: “We got to get it together forever, got to get it together for brothers, got to get it together for sisters, for mothers and fathers and dead niggas, for non-conformers … let’s make somethin’ happen.” The Just Do This ethic permeates the rest of the album like a battle cry, infusing cuts such as “Solid Wall Of Sound” (what with its epic Elton John “Bennie And The Jets” sample) with lightning bolts of energy or tracks such as the self-sampling “Enough!!” (“Anita Applebaum” is cleverly sliced into the mix, natch), “The Killing Season” and “Lost Somebody” with classic Tribe beats and soul even as the group completely reinvents itself for a new era and for an audience that likely wasn’t even born during its first go-round.
Ultimately, what I hear on We Got It From Here are two of the best we’ve ever had, doing that thing they did with joy, love and passion, rebuilding their relationship in public and for a worldwide audience. Only, as grown-ups, which is a phaselet of the rap game we’ve had yet to experience so far. It may not be as indelible as Midnight Marauders, but in its way, it’s every bit as classic and all the more audacious for even existing at all. It’s the sound of loss; that loss is huge, and it’s speaking to us. Sail on, Phife Dawg—it’s not so much “rest in peace” as “rest in beats.”