While the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul laid the foundation for the highly influential Native Tongues collective in the late 80s, A Tribe Called Quest really took the ball and ran with it in the 90s, becoming the most commercially successful of all the Native sons. Not only did their stunning debut, People’s Instinctive Travels on the Paths of Rhythm (Jive/RCA, 1990) becoming the first album to receive a perfect score of ‘five mics’ in the fledgling Source magazine, but all six of their releases garnered either gold or platinum. sales
As teenagers growing up in the middle-class enclave of St. Alban’s Queens, Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) and Phife Dawg (Malik Izaak Taylor) formed the group in 1985 with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who attended Murry Bergtraum High School with Tip, and part-time member Jarobi White--who left after the first album to attend culinary school, returning in 2016 to appear on their final album. Producer/rapper Q-Tip’s early involvement with the JBs and De La definitely influenced his creative direction in music, also pushing his name to the forefront by the time ATCQ’s debut dropped in 1990. Coming on the heels of those other Native Tongues’ releases, Peoples’ Instinctive Travels, once again, greatly expanded the parameters of hip-hop both lyrically and sonically, introducing all kinds of new influences to the mix and gaining wide critical acclaim for its laid-back bohemian psychedelia.
Never ones to take a formulaic approach to music, the group went back to basics on their second album, The Low-End Theory (Jive/RCA, 1991), stripping down their sound to include avant-garde jazz loops over hard beats creating a template that would influence all of east coast hip-hop. In the process they bucked the so-called ‘sophomore slump’ becoming hugely popular in the mainstream. Some of the innovations they brought included collaborating with jazz legends like bassist Ron Carter, who played live on tracks like “Buggin’ Out” and “Verses from the Abstract.” In addition to solidifying their own standing in rap, ATCQ also spotlighted new talents like Busta Rhymes of Leaders of The New School, whose standout appearance on the posse-cut “Scenario” single-handedly jump-started his solo career.
By the time their third record, Midnight Marauders (Jive/RCA, 1993), dropped, Tribe were certified stars, who started branching out with projects outside the group. While Phife appeared on TLC’s CrazySexyCool album, and Ali Shaheed co-produced the hit “Brown Sugar” for neo-soul artist D’Angelo’s debut, Q-Tip stretched out behind the boards producing “One Love” for Nas’s classic Illmatic, and three tracks for Mobb Deep’s streetwise debut The Infamous.
The group reconvened for 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life (Jive), which, though well-received, marked a definite departure in style and content. Lyrically, they sounded more mature and philosophical while sonically, the album favored more stripped-down R&B, with five tracks produced by Detroit’s J-Dilla. Meanwhile, Tip had converted to Islam and Phife, who had moved to Atlanta, had to commute to contribute to the album. With the members not on the same page, they announced 1998’s The Love Movement (Jive) as their last group effort—also featuring Phife's final appearance before his death in 2016 due to complications from diabetes.
That same year, however, before his passing, the group had decided to put aside their differences and unite for one more album, We Got it From Here…. Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic, 2016), which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. A welcome return for ATCQ, that album’s notable single, “We the People,” was a protest to Donald Trump’s surprise election.