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Category: Essays

Loss Haunts A Tribe Called Quest’s First Album in 18 Years

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. — On March 22, at 3 a.m., Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were on the phone. The two rappers — lifelong friends from Queens and half of the influential hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest — were “yucking it up,” Q-Tip recalled, and talking about a project few people outside their inner circle knew was in the works: a new Tribe album, the first in 18 years.

Q-Tip was in the million-dollar recording studio he built in the basement of his stately New Jersey home; Phife was at his place in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Phife was fired up about a potential track: “Yo, make sure you send me that beat. I’ve got to put some verses to it. That beat is fire!” Q-Tip said in a recent interview in the lounge of his studio, surrounded by white shelves holding hundreds of vinyl LPs. The lighthearted conversation ended around 4 a.m. and Q-Tip went back to work. Nineteen hours later, Phife’s manager called. His friend and lifelong collaborator was dead.

The cause was complications from diabetes; Phife was 45. The other members of A Tribe Called Quest were shattered. The rapper Jarobi White was at Q-Tip’s house and heard people screaming. “We broke down,” he said. “There were two puddles of goo on the floor.” The producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad was in Sherman Oaks, Calif., walking out of an Apple store with a replacement iPhone when the call came in. “I was in shock,” he said. Without any of his contacts, he stood paralyzed, unable to reach out to anyone.

“I had no idea that his days was numbered,” Q-Tip said. Retelling this story in the same room where he had had so many conversations with Phife, he became too emotional to speak. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed. Finally he said, “I just want to celebrate him, you know?”

On Friday, Nov. 11, A Tribe Called Quest will do just that, releasing on Epic Records “We Got It From Here, Thank You for Your Service,” the group’s sixth album. It features all four of the group’s members plus a host of guests — André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Jack White and Busta Rhymes, a longtime Tribe collaborator who made a heralded appearance on the 1992 posse cut “Scenario.” Busta Rhymes said he saw Q-Tip and Phife in the studio vibing the way they did in the old days. “I seen them laughing and joking and high-fiving, and you can just see that young, invigorated ‘we’re-just-getting-our-first-opportunity-to-do-this’ energy again!” he said. Q-Tip noted, “I hadn’t seen Phife that happy since we were kids.”

They went through so much to reach that point. Tribe assembled as teenagers in Queens — Q-Tip and Phife, who first met in church at the age of four; plus Mr. Muhammad, who created much of their music; and Mr. White, who Q-Tip has called “the spirit of the group.” In the early ’90s, they made what are widely considered two of hip-hop’s greatest albums: “The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders.” (Mr. White left after recording “The Low End Theory” to pursue a career as a chef.) The group was known for thoughtful lyrics, jazz samples and a more artful, less macho, approach to hip-hop. Q-Tip was the artistic, esoteric, philosophical M.C. while Phife Dawg was the streetwise, confident yet humble rapper with a little Trinidadian “ruffneck” swag. “He’s like your common man’s homeboy,” said André 3000. “He’s like the dude next door that watched sports and is always talking about the game. And he was funny.”

Three of Tribe’s five albums went platinum, and the other two went gold, but the group’s influence extended far beyond sales figures. As part of the Native Tongues movement, which also included De La Soul, they were into Afrocentrism and positivity and showed a generation how to make music that was both fun and substantive. “Tip’s kind of like the father of all of us, like me, Kanye, Pharrell,” André 3000 said. “When you’re a kid, it’s kind of like, O.K., who am I going to be? Can I be Eazy-E? Nah. But Q-Tip? Yeah. He seems more like a common kind of person.”

The Apollo Theater marquee for Phife Dawg’s memorial service in April. Credit: Chad Batka for The New York Times.

Around the same time, a teenager in Detroit was also studying Tribe’s music. “They were trying to break new ground, and they had a musicologist’s attitude toward what they were doing with their samples,” Jack White said from his studio in Nashville. “I mean, you’ve got ‘Can I Kick It?’ over a Lou Reed sample from ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ That really showed that they were miles and miles deeper than most other people in pop music.”

By the end of the ’90s, Tribe’s members had broken up. In the ensuing years, they would occasionally reconvene to do shows, but the relationship between Q-Tip and Phife was difficult at times, as can be seen in Michael Rapaport’s sometimes brutal 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.” Q-Tip said the group had grown so popular that it was hard to maintain the friendships that were at its core. He also felt uncomfortable being cast as the de facto leader. “I’m more of a special-ops soldier,” he said.

Even still, Phife repeatedly asked about doing another group album; Q-Tip would respond, “Not now.” He was on a self-imposed sabbatical. “I wanted to rethink my life as an artist and as a man,” he explained.

He stepped out of the spotlight to re-energize himself and flowed into a yearslong period of spiritual rejuvenation. He studied music theory. He read a lot — Duke Ellington’s “Music Is My Mistress,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” George Orwell’s “1984,” the fiction of Paul Beatty, the poetry of Nikki Giovanni. He worked on his own poems. He tried all sorts of things.

From left, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Jarobi White at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, in 2013. Credit: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

“I was celibate for like a year,” he said. “I just wanted to ensure my mental health as a human being.” Then one day he said to himself: “How much longer are you going to be here? It’s good that you sat and you’re reading these books and you’re leaving the girls alone but, like, get over yourself.” It was time to get back to work.

Shortly afterward, in November 2015, the group was asked to perform on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its debut album. It was the group’s first television appearance in 15 years, and everyone agreed. “It felt right,” Q-Tip said. “The energy was right. It felt like we was those kids that had that big show in Paris when they were 19. It felt fresh. It felt exciting. It felt new. Plus, it was just good to be with my brothers after all of that time.”

Mr. White said the group easily slipped back into the zone: “It was like, oh man, this is the feeling that we’ve all been missing!” That was the night when Q-Tip finally said: “Let’s just do an album! Let’s just start tomorrow!”

But just because you put out the bat signal doesn’t mean everyone can come running. Q-Tip and Mr. White were ready to work on a new album but Mr. Muhammad was in Los Angeles working as the music supervisor for Netflix’s “Luke Cage.” And Phife was in Oakland, recording his own music and dealing with his health problems.

Jarobi White, left, and Q-Tip at Q-Tip’s home recording studio in New Jersey. Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times

Since 1990, Phife had been dutifully managing life with Type 2 diabetes. He was receiving dialysis three times a week and eating right. “He wasn’t in any pain,” his wife, Deisha Taylor, said in a recent interview from the home she and Phife shared. “He hadn’t been in the hospital in years. He was in a really, really, really good place before he transitioned.”

Phife was working on his craft every day — he finished a solo album that Ms. Taylor said should come out next year. (The single “Nutshell” is out now.) And while he was ready as a musician to work on a new Tribe album, his relationship with Q-Tip needed work. “I went through a lot of internal and family persecution around the group,” Q-Tip said. “A lot of people faulted me for breaking it up.”

So Phife flew out to Q-Tip’s home, and they sat and talked for hours.

“He came here, and we was bonding,” Q-Tip said. “We went through all of the stuff and apologized, and it was just so good, man. We were so back.” Ms. Taylor said Phife was encouraged by the meeting: “They were developing that chemistry again. He was excited about that.”

Phife found a clinic in New Jersey where he could receive dialysis, and in December 2015, just weeks after the triumphant Fallon performance, he began flying between Oakland and New Jersey twice a month and staying at Q-Tip’s house for weeks at a time to work on the album. The music was inspiring, but Q-Tip believes Phife was primarily focused on repairing their relationship.

From left, Jarobi White, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad in New York in 1990. Credit: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

All of the recording sessions for “We Got It From Here, Thank You for Your Service” took place at Q-Tip’s studio, which Busta Rhymes called “phenomenal.” Soft design touches like bamboo floors and pink mood lights contribute to the warm aesthetic. But a vibe also flows from the history in the room. The main recording board has captured the music of Blondie, the Ramones and Art Blakey. There’s a tape reel that was used by Frank Zappa and equipment from the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

Q-Tip had one major rule for the album: He insisted that everyone who was a part of it come work in the studio. “If you wrote your rhyme somewhere else, you still had to come back and lay your verse in Q-Tip’s house,” Busta Rhymes said. “So we pretty much did every song together. Everybody wrote his stuff in front of everybody. Everybody spat their rhymes in front of each other. We were throwing ideas around together.”

When Jack White came to the studio, things fell right into place. “We recorded so many tracks and ideas,” he said. “It’s one of those scenarios where we’re so excited to finally get to work together that it was exploding in a whole different direction. We really didn’t know what we were doing, it was just a ‘hurry up and press record’ kind of moment.” (Q-Tip and Jack White connected when he asked to do an old Tribe song called “Excursions”in his stage show. They learned they were mutual admirers of each other’s work.) Jack White came to the studio without his own gear. “He just took a guitar off the wall and plugged it in and just got his wizard on,” Q-Tip said.

It was thrilling to the guys to watch stars like Jack White, Mr. Lamar and André 3000 come through and record. It was even more exciting to have their brother Phife around all the time. But now some of the group members think that all that traveling may have contributed to grinding him down, physically. “Doing this album killed him,” Jarobi White said simply. “And he was very happy to go out like that.”

In the months since Phife died, Q-Tip has worked to finish what he called “the final Tribe album.” Its title is the one Phife wanted. What does it mean? “I don’t know,” Q-Tip said. “We’re just going with it because he liked it.”

Q-Tip said it was tough to finish the album. From April until late October, he recorded and tweaked his way to the end, but one part was never easy. “It’s so hard for me to sit in there and hear his voice,” Q-Tip said. “Sometimes I just have to like take a break and walk away. It gets heavy. It doesn’t necessarily get sad, it just gets heavy. I literally feel the energy from him when I hear his voice.”

Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Mr. Muhammad and everyone in the Tribe family are still in mourning. The wound is fresh. “I’m gonna be missing him for a while,” Q-Tip said, with an audible lump in his throat. He paused. “God is in control,” he said. “And I feel at peace. I feel hopeful. I feel Phife with me.”

Credit: Chad Batka for The New York Times
Correction: November 13, 2016
An article last Sunday about the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest misstated the location of the home of the rapper Phife Dawg, who died in March before the group’s new album was completed. He lived near Oakland, Calif. — not in Oakland.

No Such Place As Post-Racial America: New York Times (2011)

Dear America,

Please, I beg you, stop using the bankrupt and meaningless term “post-racial!” There’s no such thing as “post-racial.” There’s no place that fits the description “post-racial America.” There’s no “post-racial era.” It’s a term for a concept that does not exist. There’s no there there.

We are not a nation devoid of racial discrimination nor are we a nation where race does not matter. Race and racism are still critical factors in determining what happens and who gets ahead in America. The election of Barack Obama ushered in this silly term and now that he’s begun running for re-election, I’m here to brusquely escort it out of the party called American English because it’s a con man of a term, selling you a concept that doesn’t exist.

“Post-racial” is a mythical idea that should be as painful to the mind’s ear as fingernails on the chalkboard are to the outer ear. It’s an intellectual Loch Ness monster. It is indeed a monster because it’s dangerous. What people seem to mean by “post-racial” is: nowadays race no longer matters and anyone can accomplish anything because racism is behind us. All of that is false. But widespread use of the term lends credence to the idea that all of that is true—I mean, why would we have a term for an idea that’s not real? In that way the lie becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and thus feeds the notion that it’s O.K. to be somnambulant about race or even aggressively dismissive of it.

Race is like weather — we only talk about it when it’s extreme but it’s always there.

If, as “post-racial” suggests, race no longer matters, then we no longer need to think about race or take the discussion of it seriously. In this way the concept becomes a shield against uncomfortable but necessary discussions allowing people to say or think, “Why are they complaining about racism? We’re post-racial.”

This barrier to conversation is dangerous in a nation where race and racism still matter very much. A place where black unemployment is far higher than white unemployment, where profiling and institutional racism and white privilege and myriad other forms of racism still shape so much of life in America. If we don’t need to discuss race then it’s allowed to fester and grow unchecked like an untreated malignant tumor. Race is an issue every American must care about. It’s not a black issue, it’s everyone’s issue. It’s relevant and important for whites because we all live here together and because the issue hurts everyone. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, or gets foreclosed, you have a problem. If your neighbor’s soul is on fire you have a major problem.

Only through being aware of racial disparities and talking about race can we have any chance of forward movement. Because nowadays there are many white people who are not racist, who are perhaps anti-racist, but who still benefit from white privilege without even meaning to. So you may not be racist but still receiving the spoils of racism. That still doesn’t make you racist. But it makes you part of the system and reveals why it’s also your responsibility to interrogate and examine how our society works and be aware of the biases that keep white supremacy functioning. The term “post-racial” is the enemy of communication, understanding and progress. (“Post-racial” is not at all synonymous with “post-black,” a term from the art world that explains modern black identity and the complexity of being black today and is the guiding force of my book “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?”)

“Post-racial” is just one of several terms that only pervert and distort the discussion of race and give people who wish to disrupt the conversation a place to park their ideas. Others include “race card” and “reverse racism” and “race baiter.” The naïve term “race card” always refers to a black person racializing a situation that the person using the term thinks doesn’t need to be racialized. It’s as if race was not part of the situation, and no one was being black or white, and everybody was being color blind, and whistling sweetly, until a black person came along and ruined everything by pointing out race. But race is like weather—we only talk about it when it’s extreme but it’s always there.

Interestingly, “race card” is never used to signify a white person using race—as they do when they use the term race card thus trying to repudiate or silence discussion of race. I wonder why that is. The ludicrous term “reverse racism” has been around for a long time but has gained new force in this era in which people use the term “post-racial.” It seems to function like some sort of rallying cry. “We no longer need be cowed by your accusations of racism! We have the antidote! We have a concept called reverse racism! Whenever you cry racism we’ll retort reverse racism! Then we don’t have to take you seriously! Muahahaha!”

From a linguistic standpoint the term is meaningless: something is either racist or it’s not. Reverse makes no sense. There’s no stipulation within the definition of racism that it need be white to black. Ultimately this is another term that seeks to replace potentially productive discussions of race with noise. “Race baiter” works in the same way, as an attempt to reject the conversation about race.

I suspect “post-racial” was born benignly from the hope that Obama’s electoral success meant that the racial problems that have long plagued America were over. Kumbaya. Surely Obama’s victory revealed something had changed in America, but it was not a signal that we’d reached the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop world where race no longer matters and equality has been achieved. During the Obama administration “post-racial” and “race card” and “reverse racism” have run amok like gremlins in the language, obfuscating race and making discussions about it harder. America still has so much work to do regarding race and racism and “post-racial” is only making that work harder to do. That’s why “post-racial” and its cohorts must be stopped posthaste.

Thank you, Touré

How Hiphop Was Shaped By the Drug War: Washington Post (2012)

If you’re wondering why hip-hop has often been angry, sneering, nihilistic and dystopic, you can blame the war on drugs, and how it feels to be on the wrong side of it.

President Nixon announced a war on drugs, but it was President Reagan who started the modern battle in 1982, when hip-hop was in its infancy. This fight would not only shape the black community but also mold hip-hop, a music and culture whose undercurrent remains black male anger at a nation that declared young black men monsters and abandoned them, killing any chance they had at the American Dream.

As Nas rhymed on the recent song “Triple Beam Dreams”: “I would be Ivy League if America played fair.” Instead, he’s trapped in a virtual prison. “New York is like an island, a big Riker’s Island,” he says in another recent song, “The Don.”

In the early 1980s, most of the socially conscious hiphop records mentioned drugs as one of the many problems affecting black Americans, not the central one. When they did touch on drugs, they were almost always depicted negatively; doing drugs was a character failing, and the songs usually portrayed the speaker as a bystander trapped in a ghetto, observing it, not participating in its ills. They were like griots, storytellers. Take Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” which begins: “Broken glass everywhere!” — a mirroring James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “broken window theory,” which holds that a building with broken windows invites serious crime because it signals neglect. The song offers a litany of societal ills, with drugs being just one of them.

Run-DMC’s 1983 hit “It’s Like That” follows that pattern, discussing inner-city troubles from a bystander’s perspective and focusing on economic woes, not drugs. “Unemployment at a record high,” Run begins, and he and DMC go on to rhyme about dropouts, homelessness and street violence, never overtly mentioning drugs.

Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” from 1983 is one of the few early hip-hop songs to deal directly with drugs. Mel focuses on cocaine rather than crack, which was not yet a major problem in American cities. Mel speaks in the first person and breaks the bystander norm, taking on the role of a user, although ultimately as an artistic device rather than truly implicating himself as later MCs would. And he uses the song to implore listeners to avoid cocaine — unlike so many future MCs who would try to make selling and using drugs look sexy.

Hip-hop’s journey between those two mind-sets happened as the unemployment rate among black men soared to twice the level among whites, passing 21 percent in 1983. A year later, the FBI’s antidrug funding increased more than tenfold — just in time for the start of the crack epidemic in 1985. (That’s right, the war on drugs was declared before the crack epidemic began.) The battle helped bolster Reagan’s tough-guy image; he was a valiant hero fighting wild black criminals. “Blame Reagan for makin’ me into a monster,” Jay-Z rhymed on the 2007 song “Blue Magic.” “Blame Oliver North and Iran-contra/ I ran contraband that they sponsored.”

The prevalence of drugs alongside the dearth of jobs made joining the drug trade hard to turn down.It was a road many young black men chose because they lacked better options. Crack, a sort of fast-food version of cocaine, allowed some the chance to earn as much as they would have by owning a McDonald’s franchise, when their only other option was working at one. The crack trade allowed some young men to support their families. In the 2001 song “Renegade,” Jay-Z rhymed about being a young dealer in the 1980s: “My pops left me an orphan/ My momma wasn’t home/ Could not stress to me I wasn’t grown/ Specially on nights I brought something home/ To quiet the stomach rumblings/ My demeanor 30 years my senior/ My childhood didn’t mean much, only raisin’ green up.”

MCs who grew up in the 1980s would brand themselves veterans of the drug trade because drugs dominated their economic possibilities, and those of an entire generation of young black men. But by the end of that decade, hip-hop had been transformed in response to a world filled with crack, rich and ruthless drug lords, militarized police forces, a level of violence not seen in the country since Prohibition, prison sentences as long as basketball scores, and lives ruined by a drug that was insanely addictive.

By the mid-1990s, the U.S. incarceration rate was the highest in the world, damaging or destroying countless black families. Studies show that the number climbed from the 1980s, when less than 500,000 Americans were imprisoned, through the 1990s, when more than 1.5 million were locked up. (Many of those who contributed to the rise were black men ensnared by the war on drugs: In 1995, 16 percent of non-college-educated black men in their 20s were incarcerated, and the percentage rose in the decade that followed.)

Instead of stories from detached bystanders, hip-hop swelled with gruesome first-person accounts of selling, addiction, gangs, guns, the police and prison — from KRS One, Ice-T, Public Enemy, Kool G. Rap, N.W.A. and others. These were tales from the war on drugs. In 1991, De La Soul released “My Brother’s a Basehead,” the true story of rapper Posdnuos’s brother who became a crackhead. The song is a metaphor for how crack invaded the black community. By then, the stories had to be in the first person — the drug was literally in the house.

Hip-hop is the product of a generation in which many black men did not know their fathers. How did these fatherless MCs construct their masculinity? For some, it was by watching and idolizing drug dealers. Many would make it as rappers by packaging themselves as former dealers — either because that is what they were or because that’s who they revered. I’m talking about the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, the Clipse, Rick Ross and others. By then, it seemed as though an MC needed to claim drug-trade stripes to earn acceptance among hip-hop’s elite.

In her 1999 book “The Color of Crime,” legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown speaks of the myth of the “criminalblackman,” coining a new word that smashes together two concepts already linked — incorrectly — in the American consciousness. The criminalblackman is supposedly the source of all crime, proof of the natural connection between race and criminality. She pointed out that, in the 1990s, whites comprised 70 percent of those arrested and 40 percent of the incarcerated, but that white crime did not reverberate outward to say something about the character of all white people. By contrast, black crime suggests something is wrong with the entire race.

Bizarrely, hip-hop embraced this notion. Why?

It’s a classic psychological strategy. As Michelle Alexander writes in her recent book, “The New Jim Crow,” embracing your own stigma is a political act, “an act of resistance and defiance in a society that seeks to demean a group based on an inalterable trait.” These men saw themselves in a nation that assumed they were criminals — so they went with it. As Redman said in his 1998 song “I’ll Bee Dat!”: “If you gotta be a monkey, be a gorilla.”

This strategy also encompasses the challenges, or possibilities, of product marketing. In the 1980s, hip-hop’s primary audience was black, male and urban. In the 1990s, as in this century, young suburban white men were hip-hop’s dominant audience; they bought more of the music than any other demographic.
When its audience was black, hip-hop embraced black nationalism, Afrocentrism and social consciousness; it was rebellious and almost always antidrug. After the audience whitened, many MCs embraced criminality and sold the image of the criminalblackman. Black nationalism was out, embodying drug dealers was in.

Hip-hop could have grown into a challenge to the war on drugs but instead accepted it as a fact of life and told bluesy, or braggadocious, stories about its part in it. In the 2010 smash “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” Ross enthusiastically embodies the drug dealer and in the chorus, likens himself to two gigantic drug-world figures: “I think I’m Big Meech! Larry Hoover! Whippin’ work! Hallelujah!”

How To Talk To Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin: Time Magazine (2012)

Eight talking points about the potentially fatal condition of being black.

  1. It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could save your life. There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It’s possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity. Being black could turn an ordinary situation into a life-or-death moment even if you’re doing nothing wrong.
  2. If you encounter such a situation, you need to play it cool. Keep your wits about you. Don’t worry about winning the situation. Your mission is to survive.
  3. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re amazing. I love you. When I look at you, I see a complex human being with awesome potential, but some others will look at you and see a thug — even if their only evidence is your skin. Their racism relates to larger anxieties and problems in America that you didn’t create. When someone is racist toward you — either because they’ve profiled you or spit some slur or whatever — they are saying they have a problem. They are not speaking about you. They’re speaking about themselves and their deficiencies.
  4. You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. I’m not saying you can’t wear what you want, but your clothes are a red herring. They’ll blame it on your hoodie or your jeans when the real reason they decided you were a criminal is that you’re black. Of course, you know better. Racism is about reminding you that you are less human, less valuable, less worthy, less beautiful, less intelligent. It’s about prejudging you as violent, fearsome, a threat. Some people will take that prejudice and try to force their will on you to make sure you feel like a second-class citizen and to make certain you get back to the lower-class place they think you’re trying to escape. The best way to counter them involves not your fists but your mind. You know your value to the world and how terrific you are. If you never forget that, they can’t damage your spirit. The best revenge is surviving and living well.
  5. Be aware of your surroundings. Especially when it’s dark. Or bright. Some people are on the lookout for muggers or rapists. You need to be on the lookout for profilers who are judging you. Don’t give them an opportunity to make a mistake.
  6. If you feel you are being profiled and followed or, worse, chased by someone with a vigilante streak — if you are hunted in the way it seems Trayvon was, by someone bigger than you who may be armed and hopped up on stereotypes about you — then you need to act. By calling the police. That is the exact time to snitch. I know there are times the cops will be your enemies, but sometimes calling 911 and letting the threatening person know that you’re doing so could save your life.
  7. What if it’s the cops who are making you feel threatened? Well, then you need to retreat. I don’t mean run away. I mean don’t resist. Now is not the time to fight the power. Make sure they can see your hands, follow all instructions, don’t say anything, keep your cool. Your goal is to defuse things, no matter how insulted you are. We’ll get revenge later. In the moment, play possum. Say sir. They may be behaving unjustly, but their lives aren’t in danger. Yours is. If you survive, you will be able to tell your lawyer what happened. If you don’t …
  8. Never forget: As far as we can tell, Trayvon did nothing wrong and still lost his life. You could be a Trayvon. Any of us could.

The Legacy of A Tribe Called Quest: New York Times (2016)

I GREW up in the suburbs of Boston, where I was the top-ranked singles player on my prep school’s tennis team and obsessed with rap music by Run-DMC, LL Cool J and KRS-One. But I felt like I was eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation when I listened to them. Those guys were streetwise kings of the hood from mighty New York, urban jungle warriors so ultra masculine they were like comic book superheroes.

At that point in the mid-1980s, hip-hop promoted a narrow vision of blackness marked by bravado, machismo, egocentrism and, for most, a bodacious New Yorkness. I looked at hip-hop and wondered where I fit in. Until A Tribe Called Quest arrived on the scene.

The legendary hip-hop group lost a core member this week when the rapper Phife Dawg (born Malik Taylor) passed away from complications of diabetes. He was 45. The remaining members include the group’s leader, rapper Q-Tip, their DJ/producer, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, an occasional bandmate.

The rappers from Tribe were far from urban jungle warriors: They loved to read and wanted to smoke weed, not sell it. They wore their intellectualism lightly, but proudly, and they made hip-hop for people who were as interested in ideas as in rhymes. Questlove, the drummer for the Roots, told me that when he was a teenager, Tribe was critical to his seeing himself as someone who could be in hip-hop.

But more than that, Tribe was vital in helping to spread the Afrocentrism movement to a new, more mainstream generation of listeners.

In the early 1990s, when they started to release albums, I was in college in Atlanta. I majored in African and African-American studies and grew dreads, so naturally, I had a deep relationship with Tribe. Their 1990 debut album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” was steeped in Afrocentrism, as were many songs in later albums.

On the song “Excursions,” from their 1991 album “The Low End Theory,” Q-Tip says, “Listen to the rhyme, cuz its time to make gravy/ If it moves your booty, then shake, shake it baby/ All the way to Africa a.k.a. The Motherland.” They talked about philosophy and peace. On “Midnight Marauders,” which they released two years later, they named a song “Steve Biko,” after the revolutionary black South African anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody. They proudly wore dreadlocks and dashikis. They were part of the Native Tongues, a loose collective of rappers bound by their Afrocentrism that included De La Soul, Queen Latifah and the Jungle Brothers.

Phife rhymed less often about Afrocentrism than Q-Tip, but both were more philosophical and humble than their contemporaries from Southern California like Snoop Dogg and Eazy-E. On “Buggin’ Out” from “The Low End Theory,” Phife rhymes, “I never walk the streets, think it’s all about me/ Even though deep in my heart, it really could be.”

A Tribe Called Quest were mellow evangelists for Afrocentrism. They made it cool, without ever seeming pushy or preachy about it. And it wasn’t some marketing tool; they were genuinely interested in it. Although the Afrocentricity movement began decades earlier, they helped to make it more accessible. When I moved to Brooklyn in the mid-1990s, I saw Afrocentricity’s influence everywhere, from African-themed restaurants to the clothing designer Moshood to the bold Afros and long dreads and cowrie shells I saw every day on every block. This is the context in which A Tribe Called Quest emerged and flourished.

Black people embraced Afrocentrism because they needed it. For many, being unable to trace our lineage was and remains spiritually painful. In the journey to America, black people lost their connection to Africa and thus the link to their history. Afrocentrism sought to give that back. It inspired black people to travel to the continent, read about it, put on kente cloth, wear their hair natural and celebrate Kwanzaa.

Afrocentrism shaped my identity. It taught me to think of Africa as my homeland, and to feel a spiritual and familial connection among black and brown people throughout the world, the global diaspora. It taught me to be proud of Africa. It portrayed Africa as beautiful and inspirational, to counteract the images of Africa that Americans received from the media, which were usually tragic.

Afrocentrism was an African-American attempt to make sense of life in this country and merge a sense of Africanness into an American lifestyle. It was a major part of the hip-hop movement at a time when gangsta rap got all the headlines. Tribe’s embrace of its ideology helped to spread it. Getting to know Tribe ultimately meant getting to know myself.

In time, Afrocentrism was seized by Madison Avenue as a marketing tool and a gimmicky way of trying to sell things to black consumers, as if putting red, black and green on the bag makes the French fries inside more authentic. But for those like me who took Afrocentrism to heart, it mattered.

A Tribe Called Quest helped open the door to Afrocentrism for many, just as they helped open the door to hip-hop for me and many others. Lots of different sorts of people are able to succeed in hip-hop now: a superblerd (black nerd) like Questlove; a self-proclaimed Oreo like Childish Gambino; an intellectual like Talib Kweli; a tormented skater-punk like Tyler the Creator; a fashion designer/rapper like Kanye West. We can thank Phife and A Tribe Called Quest for helping to inspire them, and us.

I Would Die 4 U. How Prince Became an Icon.

The cover of “Dirty Mind,” Prince’s ingenious/ingenuous 1980 exercise in self-reinvention, threw down a rose-scented gauntlet. It featured a black-and-white shot of a skinny young man who barely seemed out of his teens (he was 22), looking as much the racially and sexually ambiguous wild boy as a nice Minneapolis lad could. Sporting a thin gigolo mustache, a Joan Jett haircut and an open, oversize jacket that he could have swiped from a doorman at the Grand Hotel, Prince topped off his new image with a kerchief, bare chest and thong with a virile little tuft of hair peeking over the bikini line.

Prince’s Holy Lust

LET me tell you why “Adore” is the central song in the Prince canon. Because in “Adore” you get the commingling of two keys to understanding the man and his music: his sexuality and his spirituality.

In the second verse he paints the picture: “When we be making love / I only hear the sounds / Heavenly angels crying up above / Tears of joy pouring down on us / They know we need each other.” They’re having sex under a sprinkling of angel tears, which are flowing because of the angels’ admiration of their love.

This is the erotic intertwined with the divine. The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other, but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one. Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex.

Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness?

In the age of Obama, racial attitudes have become more complicated and nuanced than ever before. Inspired by a president who is unlike any Black man ever seen on our national stage, we are searching for new ways of understanding Blackness. In this provocative new book, iconic commentator and journalist TourÉ tackles what it means to be Black in America today.