Aging Gracefully – The Cemented Legacies of De La Soul & A Tribe Called Quest {Profile} // 02.10.2017

De La Soul & A Tribe Called Quest; Picture Source

Growing up is a difficult transitional period in the lives of most, if not all human beings. There is a constant struggle between finding your maturing voice while maintaining the optimistic youthfulness that we were so eager to shed when we were younger. I can’t tell you how many times that I had uttered the phrase “I can’t wait to be older” when I was a prepubescent child. As I rapidly approach the quarter century mark in age, I find myself wistfully reminiscing about the days of yesteryear when life was less…complex. Every once and a while, the thought of going back in time for just a snapshot of a moment enters my mind. “I would have done this differently, I could have I spent more time with this person, I should have asked that girl out,” are examples of common regrets that flicker when revisiting the movie reel of your life story.

De La Soul Members From Left to Right – Pos, Maseo, Dave; Picture Source

Becoming older is truly is a catch-22; with each passing birthday, a stronger sense of independence comes over us. Also paired with a budding independence is an increasing amount of responsibility such as maintaining a career, staying current with monthly bills, and developing serious relationships that could turn into a nucleus of a family.  The prospects of these responsibilities are equally intriguing and terrifying. Intriguing because of the endless possibilities that this life has to offer us, yet terrifying because of the uncontrolled unknowns of the future. The hardest part of getting older, in my opinion, is experiencing the loss of loved ones. It’s an inevitable process in the cycle of growth, but that fact doesn’t mitigate the hurt that’s experienced. When we were all younger, we blissfully lived life without fear of repercussions. As we mature from being teenagers to young adults with a final transition into complete adulthood, an increasing awareness of our mortality strikes our consciousness with several reminders throughout each passing year.

ATCQ Members from Left to Right: Ali, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi; Picture Source

During my freshman year of college, I tragically lost 2 people that were very close to my heart. I’ve experienced loss when I was much younger with grandparents whom I’ve never met (I’m a first generation Ghanaian, about 90% of my family members are still in Africa), but that recent string of events in the Spring of 2011 felt more “real.” Crippling yourself mentally is a default response, which is understandable. The grieving process varies from person to person but it’s a difficult one nonetheless.

Rest in Paradise, Phife; Picture Source

Malik Izaak Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg to the fans, unexpectedly passed away on March 22, 2016, due to complications during his decades-long bout with Diabetes. Unbeknownst to the public, Phife‘s condition tragically exacerbated in an aggressive manner so quickly that it was a shock to us all. None were more taken aback than the rest of the founding members of the 90s hip-hop quartet: A Tribe Called Quest. The reunification process – in terms of mending personal relationships and creative differences within the crew – was well under way before the death of “The 5 Foot Assassin” in 2016. The fracturing of ATCQ, as explicitly detailed in the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life, began around the time of the release of the group’s 5th album, The Love Movement. Not atypical of most relationships, especially those under the umbrella of the music industry, egos are bound to clash in an aggressive manner. In the case of Tribe, the head on collision lead to a frayed relationship between not only premier lyricists, but most importantly, childhood friends. Although the handful of joint stage performances during the Aughts were encouraging, it just didn’t feel like these brothers were ever getting back together. One fateful night in November 2015, the unimaginable happened.

Watch Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali, and Jarobi perform “Can I Kick It?” with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Malik, Jon, Ali, and Jarobi (backed by Questlove and The Legendary Roots crew), performed an energetic and enthusiastic rendition of their magnum opus,”Can I Kick?” in front of a live studio audience on Fallon Tonight. There was something about this performance that felt authentic and electric. Luckily for us, their joint appearance on Fallon in 2015 was simply not the next chapter in their series of “one-offs and see ya’ll in a few years.” This act signified the legitimate comeback of A Tribe Called Quest.

From the November 2016 Village Voice cover story:

“When we did that show, that was the starting point,” Q-Tip says. “I knew if we were connecting with that kind of energy in a performance, it would be easy to go back to the studio.” 

One year later, Tribe’s 6th and final album We Got It From here…Thank You 4 Your Service, was released to critical acclaim. But the release of We Got It From here wasn’t without grief because of Phife‘s passing several months earlier. The excruciatingly personal pain was shared by fellow Native Tongues representatives De La Soul, who also dropped a high-quality album in 2016 after an extended hiatus titled and the Anonymous Nobody….

Another excerpt from the Village Voice piece:

“I had seen him a few weeks before, so I was in total shock,” says Pos from De La Soul, who has known the Tribe since they were all teenagers. “When it happened, we made our way to Tip’s house in New Jersey. We cried together, hung out, and just celebrated our brother. It felt good knowing that Q-Tip and Phife had been in segue with one another and knocked out some great stuff. After all those years, Tip and Phife were finally in a good place with each other.”

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For those not familiar, The Native Tongues was an East Coast hip-hop collective spawned in the late 1980s that centered around positive, influential lyrics over jazzy beats that promoted Peace, Love, and Unity throughout the African-American community. The antithesis of a bludgeoning upstart of a subgenre at the time in gangsta rap. Some of the seminal members of the Native Tongues Movement included: Queen Latifah,  The Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Zulu Nation, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. In addition to the core members of this 90s Outfit, notable affiliates such as Brand Nubian, Common, and The Pharcyde had a tremendous impact on the reincarnation of the Native Tongues in the early 2000s: Backpack Rap.

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2017 marks the 30-year anniversary of the formation of De La Soul. Originating from Long Island, NY, the legendary hip-hop trio consisted of rhymesayers Posdnous (aka Plug One), Dave (aka Plug Two; fka Trugoy the Dove), and their DJ, Maseo (aka Plug Three). De La are highly regarded as the pioneers of alternative hip-hop and paved the way for respected acts such as Mos Def, Little Brother, Kanye West, and many, many others. Their tight bond as high school friends led them to the route of music upon graduation. The culmination of shared ideologies eventually manifested itself into one of the most revered hip-hop albums of all time: 3 Feet High and Rising. Because of De La Soul‘s presentation combined with the aforementioned Afro-centric subject matter paired with groovy and sample heavy instrumentals, they were referred to as “hippies.” Although the designation wasn’t meant to be a pejorative, the crew dismissed the label and reinvented their sound with each new project over the next decade as a form of retaliation against those who referred to them as such. Forever changing their sound, yet remaining constant in their uniqueness and authenticity, Pos, Dave, and Maseo were truly ahead of their time for what they stood for as not only musicians but as figureheads of the Native Tongues Movement. De La Soul were trailblazers in terms of carving their own alternative lane in the raw, gritty, boom-bap filled highway of East Coast Rap. In a time where the Biggies‘, the Nas‘, and the Jay Zs of the area dominated the airwaves, it was an unprecedented feat for styles such as De La and Tribe to not only co-exist, but also garner respect and admiration from their colleagues on the opposite side of the spectrum.

The aesthetically interesting cover of 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul; Picture Source

It has been over a decade since either of the last members (as collectives) of the core Native Tongues movement have released an official studio album. The preparation was stewing for years to come for both cliques with small appetizers in the form of loose singles, mixtapes, and guest features being delivered to us en-route to 2016’s main course. Having a unique and atypical journey on the path to their most recent CD, and the Anonymous Nobody…, is right on brand for the trio hailing from Long Island.  For a plethora of years, De La’s entire catalog of music was in a strange type of limbo – a purgatory of sorts. The most paramount of reasons as to why their hundreds of songs on 6 studio albums spanning 3 decades weren’t and still aren’t available for digital purchase (e.g. ringtones, iTunes) or streaming consumption (e.g. Apple Music, Spotify) is because of their extensive use of sampling. Their debut classic 3 Feet High and Rising alone, remarkably had 60 samples from various well-known songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

From Finn Cohen’s 2016 New York Times article detailing De La’s digital woes:

“We’re in the Library of Congress, but we’re not on iTunes,” Mr. [Kevin] Mercer (Pos) said, adding that when the group interacts with fans in person or online, they always ask the same question: “Yo, where’s the old stuff?”

That old stuff — which also includes “De La Soul Is Dead” (1991), “Buhloone Mindstate” (1993) and “Stakes Is High” (1996) — may be fraught with problems, according to people familiar with the group’s recording and publishing history. In 1989, obtaining the permission of musical copyright holders for the use of their intellectual property was often an afterthought. There was little precedent for young artists’ mining their parents’ record collections for source material and little regulation or guidelines for that process.

To prevent a similar situation from occurring with the group’s latest project by circumventing sample clearances, and the Anonymous Nobody… features original composition from Rhythm Roots Allstars, a band that the trio toured with extensively three years prior to the release of this project. The live instrumentation provided an extremely novel sound that was contrary to previous De La Soul records. Oddly enough, as they did with new releases when they were younger, this album could not be any more De La: a complete reinvention of style, sonically, while keeping the same core values and high standard of integrity with their rhymes. Cleverly witty, humbly braggadocious, and subtly wise (without preaching or talking down), Pos, Dave, and Maseo did not compromise values in for the finished product to adhere to the sensibilities of the current generation.

This record has a vibe that feels matured and grown, but not like it was made exclusively for 40-somethings. It’s a reserved and polished record that exhibits youthfulness that can keep the listener’s attention, regardless of demographic or age group. Features from all over the musical spectrum are neatly placed within this 67-minute presentation. Guest spots include fellow Long Island native Roc Marciano, the evergreen feature destroyer 2 Chainz,  hip-hop legends Pete Rock and Snoop Dogg, and RnB titans Jill Scott and Usher. Unlikely collaborations from David Bryne (of Talking Heads), Little Dragon, and Damon Albarn (of the Gorillaz and Blur) further solidified the innovative spirit they always strive to create with each new project. Because of the immediate financial support from the fans via Kickstarter, full creative liberties, in terms of the art direction of the CD, were available to De La Soul without demanding constraints of a major label placed upon them. The result: a highly ambitious, one of a kind album that led them to their 2017 Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album; it’s their first nomination since winning “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals” in 2005 for their joint effort with the Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc.”

Had it been released several months earlier in time for Grammy consideration, We Got It From here, would have undoubtedly been nominated in multiple categories for the 2017 awards show. The 6th and final studio album from A Tribe Called Quest is arguably one of their strongest and most complete projects in an already impressive resume. It would not be a blasphemous thing to mention We Got It From here in the same breath as Midnight Mauraders and The Low End Theory.


Appearances by frequent Tribe collaborators from yesteryear Consequence (Q-Tip’s cousin, and previous G.O.O.D. Music signee who was featured on several prominent Kanye West tracks) and Busta Rhymes (who was once a member of the Native Tongues crew Leaders of the New School, before embarking on a highly successful solo career) only bolstered the authenticity of the final product. In addition to the aforementioned unofficial members, superstar acts such as Andre 3000, Jack White (of the White Stripes), Anderson .Paak, Elton John, and Kendrick Lamar had standout contributions on the latest album from A Tribe Called Quest. Although Phife Dawg‘s untimely death happened 8 months prior to the release, his eclectic energy was ever so present throughout the entire double disc. You could hear that he was laboring but that did not deter the “ruffneck Trini Man.”

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Even when his health was deteriorating, Phife exerted 110% to music and literally gave his life to the art form he so deeply cared about. The surviving members – Q-Tip, Ali, and Jarobi – endured the most arduous of tasks whilst completing the album. It’s one thing to complete an incredible piece of work. It’s also quite devastating to lose one of your best friends. It’s unfathomable to have the stress of both things weighing on your conscience, especially when repeatedly mixing vocals of the one who has passed. While Jarobi‘s hidden talents were on full display (where were the bars all these years, Jedi?!?) and Q-Tip‘s impeccable production and silky smooth delivery were something to admonish, Phife Dawg was the undisputed MVP of We Got It From here. A proper send off of the highest order, A Tribe Called Quest not only preserved the legacy of the Native Tongues, they ensured that Phife Dawg went out on top with a historical contribution on an album that will be discussed for ages.

native-tonguesEach passing year is a time to reflect on the previous one with life lessons that have been handed to us. These lessons do not always come in the form of a textbook. Most of the time, real experiences play the role of an unrelenting College Professor. The lessons will either make you or break you. When faced with the decision to either fold or bounce back, it’s very easy to regress, crumble, and give up. Some could take the simple route by compromising their morals for the appearance of favorability of those in their immediate circle. But that’s not how successful individuals operate as they get older. Internal squabbles may arise after a period of brewing animosity. That could lead to a fracturing of partnerships. Maybe a business venture did not work out and potential lawsuits hung over the head of the proprietors in such a way, it had a crippling influence on future endeavors. When faced with adversities, successful adults improvise and hold onto proper core values that have been instilled in them since youth. With and the Anonymous Nobody… and We Got It From here, Thank You 4 Your Service, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest have aged gracefully, thus cementing their legacies within the culture of not just music, but more importantly, Black History.

Since both collectives were collaborating in their late Teens, Tribe and De La have been left of the norm. From the jazz-infused production, bold and alternative aesthetic, and their positive, uplifting, inspirational, Afro-centric message during an era where gun violence was romanticized, these Native Tongues acts have stayed true to their M.O. 30 years later. Hip-Hop does not typically age well, but these brothas did not receive the memo. They are just as important and innovative now in 2017 as they were in 1987.


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