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.
It was a dream long deferred. Tribe, as they're known, broke up in 1998, and though they 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 to lay down tracks for this album.
Jarobi White and Q-Tip joined NPR's Scott Simon for a conversation about the new record and the loss of their friend. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited transcript below.
Scott Simon: Your appearance on Saturday Night Live last week has gotten a lot of attention, a lot of plaudits. The album, of course, is getting rave reviews. What was it like to go through that without your old friend?
Jarobi White: It's definitely a bittersweet situation, because he laid his life down to do this, and for him not to be able to enjoy the spoils and the fruits of his labor — I really wish he could have been here to see that.
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. You saw the joy every day. I know that in spirit, he's here — and you know, we all say those things because not only we feel that and believe it and it is the right thing to say. We know it's true. But we also are spoiled, and we wish that he was physically here as well. That's just to be real.
The track called "Lost Somebody" — this is the story of you and Phife?
Jarobi White: This was one of the hardest songs I've ever had to do.
Q-Tip: Yeah, and he says it, actually — Jarobi says it in the opening of his bars, "Never thought I would ever have to be writing this song."
Jarobi White: Yeah, it was difficult. I wanted to say so much — give something but not too personal. But I know I had to be uber-personal just to talk about his spirit and the man he was and the person he was and the feelings that he shared. I walk around every day and people are always like — even now, they're like, "Man, I'm so sorry for your loss." I know I had to honor that, so it was really difficult to write that song.
You end the song in the middle of a chorus.
Jarobi White: Yes.
Why do that?
Jarobi White: Well, for me, I couldn't finish it. Because my boy's not here. So while it's done, it's still not finished. I don't know if that makes any sense.
Jarobi White: So it will always have an open end for me, really. I think maybe when we start doing shows and stuff, it'll feel a little better. We'll be able to grieve with a bunch of people at the same time.
Q-Tip: We're doing shows?
Jarobi White: I mean, hopefully!
Q-Tip: Oh wow! No, I'm just kidding.
Q-Tip: Jack, first of all, is a dear brother. He's somebody who reached out to me because he wanted to do one of our songs from Low End Theory. And of course, I agreed, because I'm just a huge fan of his and I think he's just a virtuoso and a great artist --
Jarobi White: And a good guy.
Q-Tip: And a solid, solid brother. So we did that and we just immediately connected. He's into gear and vintage stuff, and I'm into gear and vintage stuff.
Jarobi White: They fully nerded out. Fully nerded out.
Q-Tip: No doubt! We kind of geeked out. And then, in terms of Elton, we lifted a little piece out of "Benny and the Jets." If any of you guys remember that song, there's that part, "We're gonna have electric music, solid wall of sound." I just loved that part always as a kid. So we built something around that motif and we expanded it and we reached out to him. And he couldn't have been more gracious, more accommodating. He was like, "I'm a huge fan," and I was like, "Really?" Elton John!
Jarobi White: He's royalty!
Jarobi White: Literally.
He's been knighted, yes.
Q-Tip: Well, yeah. And he's like, "You know, I had a show in Sydney two nights ago," he said, "and because we found out about Phife, we dedicated 'Candle in the Wind' to him." He was just the sweetest guy.
That's nice to learn that about people you admire.
Q-Tip: It really is.
A tough song I want to ask about here — "The Killing Season."
Jarobi White: That song is a toughie. I started that song, and the funny thing about it is I can't even recall which killing it was.
Oh my gosh, that says something.
Jarobi White: Yeah, I can't even remember which one it was.
Was it Trayvon Martin, was it the little boy in Cleveland, was it Freddie Gray in Baltimore ...
Jarobi White: 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, or they're dormant for the moment / Marks and scars, we own it, 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." I just think a lot of people are walking around in a state of perpetual healing — and are never getting healing from all the marks and the scars that we're getting. It's the general sentiment of a lot of blacks; they feel like it's killing season.
Q-Tip: Yeah, just to add on top of that, the fact remains that you have to talk about systemic racism. And I think that we have to be introspective and we have to be open and really address this. We can't act like 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 the Civil Rights movement, and now we see it's the prison-industrial complex. And now, even further today, it's 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. I don't want that to happen to this country, because 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.
This is not your last album, is it? You've got a lot to say.
Jarobi White: I mean, as A Tribe Called Quest — Phife is gone, you know what I mean. But musicians don't retire.