It’s been nine years since A Tribe Called Quest disbanded after the release of their fifth album, The Love Movement. But that hasn’t stopped fans from hoping the trio of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad would reunite. Arguably one of the greatest rap groups of all time, ATCQ (along with the Native Tongue crew) ushered in an alternative to gangsta rap in the early ’90s. As the group’s frontman, Q-Tip fused abstract rhymes with socially conscious messages. Phife, on the other hand, added humor with his inventive punch lines. This dichotomy resulted in three hip-hop classics—the gold selling People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), and two platinum plaques for The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993). Those albums would influence an entire sub-genre of “alternative” hip-hop, spawning artists such as The Roots, Black Star, Slum Village and Kanye West.
Tribe’s fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life came in 1996, but was followed by rumors of the group being close to a break up. The industry chatter was confirmed when the Queens, NY collective announced they were disbanding after the release of 1998’s The Love Movement. Mr. Muhammad found success as part of R&B group Lucy Pearl with Raphael Saadiq and Dawn Robinson. Q-Tip released his debut solo disc, Amplified, in 1999. Spearheaded by the surprise hit “Vivrant Thing,” the LP went gold but was panned by diehard Tribe fans because of his departure from more poignant material. Phife, who released his own solo project, Ventilation: Da LP (2000), didn’t agree with Tip’s cleaner, more commercial image either. The two shared words and took subliminal jabs at each other on various tracks.
Over the years, Tip and Phife reconciled, which opened the door for rumors about a possible reunion. The first signs of real progress appeared when the trio embarked on the 2K Sports Bounce Tour late last year. Seeing the group back on stage brought hope to many Tribe fans, but to date there has yet to be any solid word on a new album. XXLMag.com decided to go straight to the source about a possible ATCQ resurrection and spoke with Phife about the future of the group.
People haven’t heard from you in a while. What have you been working on?
I was waiting to see what we were going to do, as far as A Tribe Called Quest was concerned. That’s been pretty slow, so I’m working on my new album now—Songs in the Key of Phife, Vol. 1. I’m only two songs deep, so it’s in the early stages.
What’s the status of a Tribe reunion at this point?
We were doing shows [the 2K Sports Bounce Tour in 2006], so I thought by doing that, we would be able to go in and knock out an album. But it didn’t happen yet and I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen.
What’s holding everything up?
I really don’t know but it would be nice to do it. I know that much.
How’s your relationship with Q-Tip and Ali?
Everyone is still cool. There is no beef. But I guess people aren’t ready to do the Tribe album, so we gotta move on.
Do you regret breaking up after The Love Movement?
Definitely. I thought it should have never happened. I remember one time, Tip said, “We’re breaking up because we’ve said everything we can say.” At first, I didn’t understand that. I didn’t appreciate it. Then I thought about it, and I was like, “You know what, he’s right. We’ve said all we can say as a group and it’s time to move on.” At least that’s how I thought at the time. But now that I think about it even more, we should have kept going. I think we could have done some damage.
We would have sold some more records. We would have been one of those groups people look at as the best. I really feel that way.
You don’t think people look at Tribe as one of the greatest groups ever?
I really don’t know. I’m not too sure. As an artist, you really don’t want to look at that. You want people to judge that for themselves. But for me, I really don’t see it.
If there was nothing left for you to say back in ’98, how would that change if you guys reunited now?
That’s a very good question and I’m not sure how it would be different. But it’s something we need to do. That’s the only way we’ll find out. When we were on the road, the chemistry was great. You couldn’t tell there was any ever beef when you see us on stage.
A lot of fans say you guys should get back together for the sake of hip-hop because the culture needs you. Do you think it’s fair to place that burden upon you guys?
Yeah, I do, actually. I think it’s fair to say that because you’re getting the original. You’re not getting anything made up. We would go into the studio and be ourselves—having fun and taking it back to where it was and how it should be. So I have no problem when people say that.
It sounds like this reunion rests on convincing Q-Tip.
I think so. It’s all about him wanting to do it. We can’t do it by ourselves. You gotta hope that he’ll be with it.
Did he say he was down on tour?
We never had that conversation on tour. We just wanted it to coincide, but it never really came up. I don’t know, man. I’m kind of fed up with it, but hopefully it will happen. It’s worth it.
Is it sad to see how negative hip-hop is today?
I’m kind of used to it. I think hip-hop has different stages. I don’t think it should be all positive. You have different walks of life, so you are going to have N.W.A, Mobb Deep and C-N-N. We label them as negative, but I enjoy those records. But I’m also not with hip-hop being all negative. Cats just have to learn to be themselves. That’s the problem. There are too many cats that want to be like Mobb Deep. You have to be yourself. Everybody can’t preach it like a KRS-One or Brand Nubian. And everybody can’t be killers like Mobb Deep and N.W.A. That’s the bottom line. You gotta be yourself. There is enough money in this for everybody to be themselves. But I don’t think it’s going to change, [even though] I wish it would. I blame the labels, because instead of looking for the next best thing, they are trying to duplicate [what’s hot].
If you guys don’t get back together, how will ATCQ be remembered?
I hope we’ll be remembered for being ourselves. That’s my main thing. We had fun doing what we did. Because when we did it, we didn’t look at it like, “We’re gonna be No. 1 on SoundScan.” We were hoping that happened, but we did it because we really liked to do it. When you’re naturally doing it, all the accolades come about and that’s when you really feel good about what you’ve done. But a lot of people are forcing the issue, like, “I gotta do this, so I can be this.”