A Tribe Called Quest On Losing Phife Dawg And The Work Ahead The death this year of a founding member means that the group's long-delayed new album may really be its last. But as Q-Tip and Jarobi White put it, "Musicians don't retire."
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'Musicians Don't Retire': A Tribe Called Quest On The Work Ahead

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'Musicians Don't Retire': A Tribe Called Quest On The Work Ahead

'Musicians Don't Retire': A Tribe Called Quest On The Work Ahead

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After almost two decades of silence, last week A Tribe Called Quest released a new album. It's called "We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIS GENERATION")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Rapping) Handle rocks with a capital G, ball on the beat. Status, Chris Paul or John Wall in the league. Grabbing mic till the knuckles will bleed 'cause I believe the potent that I'm quoting will have you geeked like speed.

SIMON: It was your dream long deferred. Tribe, as they're known, broke up in 1998. And though they've reunited for a number of performances over the years, an album just never came together. Then earlier this year, founding member Malik Phife Dawg Taylor died of complications from diabetes. But before he did, Phife Dawg joined fellow Tribe members Q-Tip, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad in the studio. And they began to lay down tracks for this album. Q-Tip and Jarobi White join us now in our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

JAROBI WHITE: Thank you for having us.

Q-TIP: Hey. How are you?

SIMON: Fine, thanks. Your appearance on "Saturday Night Live" last Saturday has gotten a lot of attention, a lot of plaudits. Album, of course, is getting rave reviews. How was it like to go through that without your old friend Phife?

Q-TIP: He's actually the one who was the most spirited about us getting back together and was probably the most ardent about it for many years. When it finally happened, he was just so filled with joy. Like, you saw the joy every day. So I know that, in spirit, he's here. And, you know, we all say those things 'cause not only we feel that and believe it and is the right thing to say - but you know, we know it's true - but we also are spoiled. And we wish that he was physically here...

WHITE: Yeah.

Q-TIP: ...As well. That's just to be real.

SIMON: Let's listen to something from this new album. Let's listen to a track called "Lost Somebody."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST SOMEBODY")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST AND KATIA CADET: (Rapping) Never thought that I would ever be writing this song. Hold friends tight, never know when those people are gone. So, so beautiful, opined indisputable. Heart of a largest lion trapped inside the little dude. Took me quick to granny house. Now we eat the curry food. Talking hopes, dreams, plans, leak ice, never scared.

SIMON: So this is the story of you and Phife?

WHITE: This was one of the hardest songs I've ever had to do.

Q-TIP: Yeah. And he says, actually.

WHITE: I says it.

Q-TIP: Like, Jarobi says it in the opening of his bars - never thought I would ever have to be writing this song.

SIMON: You end this song in the middle of a chorus.

Q-TIP: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST SOMEBODY")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST AND KATIA CADET: (Singing) Have you ever lost somebody way before y'all got to dream? No more crying.

SIMON: So why do that?

Q-TIP: Well, for me, I couldn't finish it. You know what I mean 'cause - my boy's not here, so while it's done, it's still not finished. Does that make - I don't know if that makes any sense (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

Q-TIP: So it'll always have an open end for me really. You know what I mean? I think maybe when we start doing shows and stuff, it'll feel a little better, you know what I mean? So we'll be able to grieve with a bunch of people at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DONALD")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, BUSTA RHYMES AND KATIA CADET: (Rapping) Yo, yo, yo...

SIMON: I got to ask you about the guest appearances, the collaborations that are on this albums because you have Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli - also Elton John and Jack White.

Q-TIP: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: How did that come about?

Q-TIP: Jack, first of all, who - my dear brother - you know what I'm saying? Like, he's somebody who reached out to me because he wanted to do one of our songs from off of "Low End Theory." And of course I agreed 'cause I'm just a huge fan of him. I think he's just a virtuoso and a great artist...

WHITE: And a good guy.

Q-TIP: ...And a solid, solid brother. So we did that, and we just immediately connected. He's, like, into gear and, like, vintage stuff. And I'm into gear and vintage stuff (laughter).

WHITE: They fully nerded out, you know - fully nerded out.

Q-TIP: (Laughter) Right, right, right - no doubt, no doubt. We kind of geeked out.

And then in terms of Elton, we lifted a little piece out of "Bennie And The Jets." If any of you guys remember that song, you know there's that part - we're going to have electric music, solid wall of sound. So I just loved that part always as a kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BENNIE AND THE JETS")

ELTON JOHN: (Singing) You're going to hear electric music, solid walls of sound.

Q-TIP: So we built something around that motif, and we expanded it. And then we reached out to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLID WALLS OF SOUND")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST AND ELTON JOHN: (Singing, rapping) You're going to hear electric music. What you going to hear? You're going to hear electric music, solid walls of sound, solid walls of sound. Solid wall of sound, solid wall of sound...

Q-TIP: And he couldn't have been more gracious, more...

WHITE: Accommodating.

Q-TIP: Just - he was like man, I'm just a huge fan. And I was like (imitating exaggerated gulp) - you know what I mean? Really? Like, Elton John, like he's...

WHITE: He's royalty.

Q-TIP: Like, literally.

WHITE: Literally.

Q-TIP: You know.

SIMON: Well, he's been knighted, yeah.

Q-TIP: Well, yeah, you know. And he's like, you know, I had a show in Sydney two nights ago, he said. And when we found out - you know, 'cause we found out about Phife and we dedicated "Candle In The Wind" to him. So just - he was just the sweetest guy, you know.

SIMON: Yeah. That's nice to learn that about people you admire.

Q-TIP: Aw, man.

WHITE: Absolutely.

Q-TIP: It really is. It really is.

SIMON: A tough song, I want to ask about in here, "The Killing Season."

WHITE: That song's a toughie. I started that song, and the funny thing about it is that I can't even recall which killing it was.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. That says something.

WHITE: Yeah, I can't even remember which one it was.

Q-TIP: Yeah.

SIMON: I mean, was it Trayvon Martin? Was it the little boy in Cleveland? Was it Baltimore...

Q-TIP: No, it was...

SIMON: Or was it Chicago? Was it Freddie Gray in Baltimore?

Q-TIP: I think it was Freddie.

WHITE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And when I started writing this, the first thing that came to my mind was the song "Strange Fruit." I say - these fruitful trees are rooted in bloody soil and torment. Things haven't really changed, though they're dormant for the moment. Marks and scars, once we own, only makes for tougher skin, helps us actualize the actual greatness held within. Been on the wrong team so much, can't recognize a win; seems like my only crime is having melanin.

So I just think that a lot of people are walking around in a state of perpetual healing. And I'm never getting healing from all the marks and the scars that we're getting. But it's a general sentiment of a lot of blacks. And this - they feel like it's killing season.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE KILLING SEASON")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, TALIB KWELI, CONSEQUENCE AND KANYE WEST: (Singing) Soldier, soldier, soldier. They sold you, sold you, sold you. They sold you, sold you, sold you. They sold you, sold you, soldier.

Q-TIP: Yeah. I mean, just to add on top of that - I mean, the fact remains that you have to talk about systemic racism. And I think that we have to be introspective, and I think we have to be open and really address this. We can't act like, you know, our ancestors weren't brought here from another continent against our will to help build and shape this democracy.

And once slavery was abolished, it was just about segregation and it was Jim Crow and then it's the civil rights movement. And now we see it's the prison industrial complex. And now, even further, today is just outright getting rid of us. And when I say us, I'm speaking specifically to African-Americans.

And so why can't we kill the killing season? - is what we propose. And I think the way that we start doing that is through communication and real dialogue because when you study history and you look at every great nation that stands, through most of them, it falls usually at the hands of the people who live there. And I don't want that to happen to this country 'cause I believe that this country is great and we should celebrate that. But at the same time, it can't be a true celebration unless we look at it and really address it.

SIMON: This is not your last album, is it? You've got a lot to say.

WHITE: I mean, as A Tribe Called Quest, I - you know, Phife - he's gone. You know what I mean?

SIMON: Yeah.

WHITE: But, you know, musicians don't retire.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST SONG, "WE THE PEOPLE....")

SIMON: Q-Tip and Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest - their new album, "We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service." Gentlemen, thank you for your service.

Q-TIP: Thank you. Thank you.

WHITE: Thank you very much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE THE PEOPLE....")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Rapping) We don't believe you 'cause we the people are still hear in the rear. Yo, we don't need you. You in the killing-all-good-young-young mood. When we get hungry, we ate the same-same food - the ramen noodles...

SIMON: My colleague and friend Rachel Martin will host her last Weekend Edition Sunday tomorrow morning. She's moving on to a show called Morning Edition. We'll miss her company up on the fourth floor - Rachel's laughter brightening editorial meetings, her warmth with guests and with all of us. You'll get to know Rachel even more, but we hope she'll visit her old friends from time to time and thank her for the way that she made Sundays even a little sunnier.

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