behind the scenes

Watch A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Jarobi Rap Phife Dawg’s Brilliant Lyrics

Photo: 2016 Getty Images

The night after Donald Trump won the presidency, A Tribe Called Quest gathered at MoMA PS1 in Queens (where they’re from) to prove there were still things to celebrate. The seminal rap group had overcome decades of bad blood to release their first album in 18 years, which is also their last, and were prepping to appear on Saturday Night Live this week with Dave Chappelle. Technically, this was a listening party for the new album, We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, and there were plenty of excited fans in the room scrambling to get selfies with Q-Tip. But the vibe was still weird and contemplative. Tuesday had been a lot to handle, especially as a black person in America, and here Tribe was celebrating an album they’d made with their brother and lyrical beast, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, less than a year after he’d died of complications from diabetes, possibly exacerbated by the strain of making this album.

“You know, it’s bittersweet because of Phife and then obviously the election,” said Q-Tip when I asked him to describe his mood. But Jarobi White, who’d quit Tribe in 1991, added that he couldn’t miss Phife because he hadn’t gone away. “Look, wherever we’re singing, Phife is here,” said Jarobi. “Everybody who knows Tribe’s history knows that’s my boy. He guides me. He’s the wind beneath my sails. He’s gone in the physical sense, but he’s always with us.” Busta Rhymes, an unofficial Tribe member who’s appeared on many an album, went even further. “Phife never left,” he said. “It’s bittersweet because we can’t see him, but we heard his voice every day being in that studio. And now the world is going to experience what we’ve been enjoying from our brother every day for the last 11 months. He’s super-proud. He shines tremendously in this moment.” Then they proved it, by spontaneously rapping his brilliant lyrics onstage.

Q-Tip had been talking about the album’s origins; how the energy had been so good after a reunion backed by the Roots on The Tonight Show a year ago that everyone decided to just keep it going. He and Phife had a lot of phone calls or conversations at Q-Tip’s New York crib discussing how to maintain the essence of Tribe without getting caught in the past, and Phife was always the voice of reason, Q-Tip said, with admiration and sadness: “With the beats he was always quick to be, like, ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down,’ and he would usually be dead on.” And then they’d geek out on everything from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to Rakim looking for sonic inspiration.

But it was really Phife’s lyrics that blew his mind. “I mean, he said, ‘Now am I supposed to be dead or doing life a prison?’” Q-Tip said, looking at the crowd like, Can you believe this motherfucker? and started rapping as Jarobi joined in. “Just another dummy caught up in the system / unruly hooligan who belongs in Spofford / as opposed to getting that degree that’s preferred from Harvard? / Granted by my work ethic, the way I see yo / am I mentally weak versus being Malik?’” Malik was Phife’s name, Q-Tip explained, but it also means king. “So it’s, ‘Should I be mentally weak versus being a king?’ So when he said that it was like, ‘Okay, this is baller!’” Busta was so impressed he apparently rampaged around the room shouting, “Are you fucking with me right now? Answer me!”

Every time he talked about Tribe, Busta, the youngest ancillary member of the group other than Consequence, was on the verge of tears. He’d thought the reunion talk was “bullshit.” “I didn’t think it was gonna happen,” he said. But he wanted to do anything he could to be in that room if it did. “Besides the significant contribution they’ve made to music, what they’ve done for me personally, my life changed once I met them,” he said. “They’ve got me through a lot of personal shit, whether it was me going through something with my little girlfriend at the time, when I was a little dude, or an argument with my brother, or my mom had slapped me upside the head and told me to get the fuck out, I would call them or I would go to their houses or I would go to the studio sessions. I would get the opportunity to share, to put my emotion and my energy into the bunch of records that y’all heard me collab with Tribe on. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for them. These dudes have been around for the most priceless, meaningful moments of my life, continuously, from me being a kid to me being a grown ass man.”

The best part of this album, Busta and Jarobi agree, was seeing Q-Tip and Phife remember their brotherhood. They’ve known each other since they were babies, after all. And because Q-Tip insists that all Tribe recording happens at his crib in New York, and refuses to email music to anyone to do things remotely, they had to be in the same room, in each other’s faces. The past melts away fast like that. “Being with Phife and hearing him and watching him write and we laughin’ and jokin’ and we respectfully competing,” said Busta, “It was exactly how Q-Tip described it. He would saying the most amazing shit and then everybody would be like, ‘Oh fuck! I gotta get my shit together!’ because he was really coming at these records like he was coming for blood. He was so on his shit. And he was the happiest that I’ve seen him in at least 15 years.”

“It was just a joy and a beauty to see those guys come together and patch everything up,” said Jarobi. “Not for the sake of music but for the sake of friendship. When Phife would come through doing his little stupid dances and him and Q-Tip would be buggin’ out on some shit that they’d been buggin’ out on, it was very, very fulfilling to see. Sometimes Busta and Jarobi would be heading downstairs to join Q-Tip and Phife in the studio, but had to stop themselves.”

“You’d see them in the middle of their creative vibing with each other and they’d be laughin’ and joking, and you’d be like, ‘You know what, let them have this moment,’” said Busta. “We were just so happy to see them enjoying each other like they was young again.”

Just thinking about that, Busta started tearing up again. He told me to listen back to our conversation once I’d heard the album, so I could truly understand all the love he’d been trying to describe, the love that fueled him and made him believe that everything was going to be all right even as shit in the world was getting dark. “I’m super-proud. I’m living a dream right now,” he said. “I’m not coming out the bathtub of this incredible moment for as long as I can hold it.”

Watch Q-Tip, Jarobi Rap Phife Dawg’s Lyrics