“Phife and I were best friends growing up since we were four-years-old. We had the same musical taste and all of that. We both loved to rhyme. This was in 1980. I was a huge fan of the Treacherous 3. The Jungle Brothers and I all went to school together. Me, Ali [Shaheed Muhammad], Afrika and Mike G [attended] Mary Burcham High School in New York in Downtown Manhattan. We were all rhyming together in school. So Red Alert (legendary hip-hop radio DJ) had a hook-up with a small independent label and presented an opportunity for Jungle to record a single. We were all still in school when it came out. The JB’s put out ‘Jimbrowski’ and that took off for them.
I never recorded in a real professional studio early on. It was always a home vibe kind of thing. I was used to the start-up studios. When I did both ‘Black is Back’ and ‘The Promo’ with the Jungle Brothers there was this record out back in the days by a group called Bad Boys featuring K-Love. It was called ‘Inspector Gadget.’ They was the first crew that used that Inspector Gadget [riff] from the cartoon. And that was produced by Tony D, who owned a studio in Brooklyn in Coney Island where Jungle was recording. And that’s where I recorded ‘Black Is Black’ and ‘The Promo.’
I remember it was a 16-track studio. I already had my rhymes written in my little rhyme book. That was the thing back then…every MC had a rhyme book [laughs]. Making a first impression was an important thing for me. It was important for me to stake my claim. I wanted people to know who I was and the group I came from. I made sure that I put the Tribe name out there. Once I said it, that’s what it was: A Tribe Called Quest. Later on, I had a New Birth record that said the words Native Tongues on it. So I was just scratching the name and Afrika was like, ‘Yo, that’s what we should call ourselves! The Native Tongues!’
It was me, Ali, and the Jungle Brothers, who by then had already put out Straight Out The Jungle. And then we heard De La Soul’s ‘Plug Tunin’’ and like the rest of the world, we kind of stopped and said, ‘Who the fuck is this???’ Jungle had a show in 1988 in Boston and I didn’t go, but they were like, ‘We are going to do a show in Queens, New York around your way, Tip.’ And that’s when we first all got together…Tribe, Jungle and De La. This was July 4th 1988. On that day, they were telling us about a rapper from New Jersey named Queen Latifah and they were like, ‘Yeah, Latifah would be down, too. You got to hear her stuff.’ We met her after that, and Latifah was the next person to join the Native Tongues.”
“Phife, Ali, Jerobi and myself didn’t have any ideas coming into this album. It just kind of happened. A lot of the samples we used were just the shit I grew up with. I was just thinking about the records that I was drawn to as a kid and what our songs needed at a certain point in certain sections. It was important that we had the right music to convey the messages we were trying to get out. I did a lot of People’s Instinctive Travels already on pause tapes before we started recording when I was in the 10th grade at 16-years-old. Actually, I did ‘Bonita Applebum’ when I was 15. I had a different couple of versions of that song and then I flipped it to another version when I turned 18.
Being a record collector had a major impact on me as a producer. My musical scope has been widened and sculpted by all the great artists that had come before me. Without them, I would be nothing. Tribe wouldn’t have been Tribe. It was crazy going to record shops and trying to capture that particular moment for a song. It was my idea to use ‘Walk on the Wild Side’] for ‘Can I Kick It?’ The shit that made it fly to me was the fact that hip-hop artists weren’t using Lou Reed [laughs]. But I didn’t really care. I never cared to fit into anyone’s box for what is popular.
When it came time to work on ‘Footprints’ I always loved that Donald Byrd song ‘Think Twice.’ And rest in peace to Fonce Mizell (the late influential jazz funk producer who worked on ‘Think Twice’ and various other groundbreaking tracks) who recently passed. His brother Larry and he were amazing producers. That song ‘Think Twice’ was a song I would always hear at the house and I loved it. As a kid, I would always listen to that breakdown part like, ‘Wow…who is this?’ ’So that was the foundation of ‘Footprints.’ Then I got the idea to use those Public Enemy drums from ‘Public Enemy No. 1.’ I had a couple of other drums that I could have used, but I was in love with those P.E. drums. I used to cut the 12-inch extended version of that song called ‘Son of Public Enemy.’ It was Flava Flav just talking…he would go, ‘That’s the way the story goes! That’s just the way the story goes!’ It would echo out and the beat would be naked, so a lot of the DJ’s back then used to cut up that part on the turntables. I was in love with that shit! That beat was just so raw to me.
Tribe was all about being original, from our music to even the clothes we wore. When I think back to that time, we were very Afrocentric. Everybody now makes fun of the shit we were wearing back then [laughs]. But we were young. When I was raised my parents had me wearing dashikis. I was a ‘70s baby, so it was all about black awareness. When you wear the Kente cloth and the other cloths from Africa as an American it signals out to the rest of society. When they look at you, they see that you probably come from some sort of consciousness and that you are aware of who you are.
I look back at that late ‘80s era with pride. Yeah, the color coordination could have been better [laughs]. But it was a great time. There are moments that I am really happy with Tribe’s first album. I couldn’t say that if I had the chance that I would have done anything differently. Because if I changed anything from People’s Instinctive Travels, I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking to you.”
“Pos (Posdnous of De La Soul) hit me up one day and was like, ‘Yo, we got this joint we need you to spit on.’ He wanted me to kick that ‘Black is Black’ flow. But he was like, ‘This time, the song is going to be about meeting a girl.’ Pos was always into concepts. We thought alike when it came to music. I just went in the studio and did ‘Saturdays’ right there on the spot. We never worried about the spotlight or who was going to rhyme on a track first (Tip actually kicks off the classic De La Soul track). We just wanted to make great records.
Tribes’ chemistry with De La is what connected us just being boys. We all came up together during the same time period. We saw a lot of the same things and had a lot of the same thoughts about music and life. We wanted to be in the same situation as De La. They were getting the nice tours. They were on the LL Cool J Nitro tour back in ’89. They were doing The Arsenio Hall Show. So we saw that we needed our career to go in that direction. We left Red Alert who was Tribe’s manager at the time. Jungle didn’t fuck with us (Jungle Brothers member Mike G is the nephew of Red Alert) and everybody in the crew was hurt. Chris Lighty—who was the road manager for Jungle—also didn’t fuck with us. But Chris started working with us again around Low End Theory. We took him out and he became our road manager and I introduced him to Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons and that’s how he got his whole thing going on with Violator.
By this time I felt like the Native Tongues crew was starting to split. Latifah was joining up with Shakim [Compere] to do Flava Unit. Jungle was doing their own thing. But Tribe and De La were always the tightest out of everybody, and we’re still tight to this day. Back then, we did little college tour runs together. We had a show in the early ‘90s with De La and the Souls of Mischief and we did a show in San Diego where we combined our shows into one. We would come out and do songs and then De La would come out, and Souls would come out and do two songs. It was a great show.
We played Madison Square Garden with Public Enemy and that whole experience was amazing. At that time it was us, PE, Geto Boys, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Ice T, and Latifah. Leaders of the New School was also on that tour. I remember Ice and Treach (from Naughty by Nature) got into a big fight with the police in St. Louis. Ice had yoked up one of the policeman out there. It was funny. Then we were in Milwaukee for a show and we were all staying on the same floor, and I had my door open. I was doing my little exercise for my bird chest and Ice walked by with some girl, looked in my room and said, ‘You getting your swoll on, huh young nigga?’ [laughs] And he just kept walking. That whole time was just bugged out.”
“I’m an artist and I have visions that I try to capture on records, but they don’t always come out the way I see them. For me it’s about being invested in the work and striving for the best music that you can put out there. But Tribe was never thinking about what we could do commercially on The Low End Theory. We didn’t think about any of that. Of course you want to make a gold or platinum album, but we just had confidence in what we were doing. And we had confidence in our music, so that allowed us to stay in our lane musically and still be successful.
My opening verse on ‘Excursions’ was very personal. It was all about my dad. A lot of people don’t know about my father, but we had a real tight relationship. When he passed away it was just tough. So that song was about my excursions of traveling in my mind. It was my travel man manifesto. I remember listening to the Treacherous Three with my dad. I was playing the record where they were going, ‘Rock the body, body, rock the body, body…So Special K, hey, what’s it gonna be?!!!…’ And my dad was like, ‘Man, this sounds like someone scatting on a jazz record.’ He saw the connection.
I remember when we shot the video for ‘Check the Rhime.’ It was very hot that day; I think it was 105 degrees and we had to get through the shoot before it rained! That’s all I was thinking about. My head was on business: ‘Let’s get these shots off. We’ve been out here since 5 in the morning…let’s get it done before it rains.’ When you are in the middle of history you don’t really take time to smell the roses. I really didn’t have time. Everything was happening so fast.
I always knew that Phife was a dope MC, otherwise I wouldn’t have fucked with him [laughs]. But it was all about drive. I told him that he had to come with it on Low End Theory. And he did. He killed it. I think you really hear it on ‘Butter.’ That was a great song for him. Back then, using jazz samples on songs like ‘Jazz (‘We’ve Got’)’ was still uncharted territory socially for our generation and musically as well. There was a lot of improvisation going on. I just found that whole jazz artform interesting.
People always talk about the [illustrated] lady on The Low End Theory cover. It was my idea at that time because I just felt like everything of beauty is related to a woman when it comes to our civilization. We usually speak of things of beauty as women. And to me hip-hop is a thing of beauty, so the cover shows a red, black and green black lady on the cover. She was a woman that was naked on the cover, but she represented hip-hop. By the time The Low End Theory came out, everybody started to take notice of Tribe. Everybody was talking about the album from Dr. Dre to Chuck D. When Rakim said he liked Tribe that was amazing to me!”
“As a producer, it was important for me to not limit myself. Back then nobody was shocked that I produced Apache’s ‘Gangsta Bitch.’ But maybe now people are shocked that I had something to do with that record because [people now look at Tribe as being really socially conscious]. ‘Gangsta Bitch’ came together because Queen Latifah was a part of the Native Tongues. She was doing her Flava Unit thing and Apache (who passed away in January of 2010) was definitely one of her up-and-coming artists. He was somebody that she loved and respected, so she asked me to go fuck around with Apache, and I just went in the studio and banged it out. ‘Gangsta Bitch’ was the first track we did. That was crazy.”
“We named the first song on Midnight Marauders ‘Steve Biko’ because we wanted people to ask who he was? Who was Steven Biko and what did he do? Then they would look him up and find out that he was an amazing freedom fighter in South Africa. He basically gave everything for the liberation of his people. We wanted the fans to find out about his story. There’s no better way to bring attention to something than through music.
If you could describe the Tribe snare sounds on this album they sound like nigga drums. These are some epic drum sounds that will tear your fucking head off. And there are ways you can get that sound on different levels too. The drums don’t always have to be super loud. When you listen to ‘Electric Relaxation’ the drums are not trying to kill you. It’s [very much] controlled. But even if it’s a smaller sounding beat you want the tone to be like at any moment the tone of these drums can go from 5 to 10! That’s the whole vibe of Tribe’s drum sound I was trying to go for.
And I love the drums on ‘Award Tour.’ And then there’s the sample I used from Jade’s ‘Don’t Walk Away.’ It’s all about that bassline. I just wanted to flip it, so I went through some more records and I got that Rhodes to counter the melody in the bassline. I wanted some drums that would smack that shit out the park. When Trugoy (from De La Soul) heard it, he was like, ‘Oh, this is dope…I’ll get on it.’ He just jumped on that shit. I got some funny takes of Trugoy doing the chorus.
I also have to take responsibility for that weird computerized voice throughout Midnight Marauders [laughs]. We just wanted to do something different. Everybody was used to hearing that kind of voice whether they were calling a phone company or they were on hold. There was always some type of monotone female voice that had a computerized vibe that was giving you information. So I thought how cool would it be if you called to pay your bill and then you would hear this female voice started rattling shit off like, ‘Keep bouncing?’
Working with Large Professor [on ‘Keep It Rolling’] was great. He’s an amazing, genius producer. I don’t give too many people that title, but he’s definitely one of them. Large Professor showed me how to work the SP 1200. I had all my pause tapes and ideas, but he used to show me how to actually make tracks. It wasn’t even about giving Large Pro the spotlight on that song. It was par-for-the-course for the track. Large Professor ended the song because he was dope. It’s different now. Today music is all about getting that spotlight. It’s about who goes first or last on a track or who gets the biggest billing. But back then it was just about getting your shit off as an artist.”
“The Beasties are my homies. We were just wilding out in the studio when we did this song. And although some people thought I produced it, ‘Get It Together’ was their track. It started when I was there in Cali visiting them. The Beastie Boys were always supporters of Tribe. I used to always hang out with them in New York and play basketball. I would go to L.A. and we would have cookouts. We would skateboard and all that. I remember the Beasties had this dope recording studio in the Valley with this crazy skateboarding pike. They had all of these instruments set up on a stage. It was just crazy. I got crazy high during that session [laughs]. I freestyled that joint and the Beasties chopped it up. Next thing I know, it was on their record (Ill Communication). I didn’t even realize they were going to use it. It was definitely one of the more memorable things that I’ve done.”
“I specifically produced ‘One Love’ for Nas. I knew he was special even before Illmatic. He was the MC who could capture the picture of everything he was rhyming about. His approach was incredible…he had the perfect cadence. You related to Nas because you felt he was from around the way. And people forget that Nas was a prodigy…he was younger than all of us at that time. So I told him, ‘Yo, I’m going to give you some spooky sounding shit for your album.’ And Nas was like, ‘Yeah, I need that to capture the feel of what I’m saying. I need that crazy, mysterious shit.’ So that was the vibe of ‘One Love.’ I knew that it was going to be a classic track. I just knew it. It’s one of those special songs that when you work on it you know what it’s going to be.”
“I actually did the ‘Crooklyn Dodgers’ beat over at Special Ed’s studio in Brooklyn. Everybody wanted to meet at his spot, so I brought my equipment over and I banged it out right there. I was just in one of those dark vibes. Sometimes I don’t know where it comes from. The inspiration just comes out and you just go with it. It was Spike Lee’s idea to use the ‘Brooklyn Wins!’ part from an actual Brooklyn Dodgers game. We had a screening for the Crooklyn movie for a whole bunch of Brooklyn MC’s. Originally we all wanted ‘Ol Dirty Bastard to be on it. He came to screening and in the middle of watching the movie when the little girl went to visit her other family Dirty was like, ‘This ain’t no Brooklyn shit!’ He got up and walked out. I guess he didn’t want to be in that boat [laughs].”
“Havoc is a really dope producer. I always knew he had it. Initially it was Matty C, Havoc and Scott Free that reached out to me because they wanted me to be a part of The Infamous. I was only supposed to do one track, but I winded up being there for the whole record. I helped out with the mixing of Mobb Deep's record and I produced around three tracks. Just being in those sessions with Prodigy and Havoc was huge. My favorite track that I produced was ‘Give Up The Goods.’ Again, the drums come at you so hard. I’m blessed to have been a part of that album and other classic albums in general whether they were with Tribe or with other artists. Being a part of The Infamous did a lot for me. I know Mobb Deep have said they would not have been able to make that record without me. That really means a lot.”
“I hear everybody making it seem like there was a lot of problems in the group during this time. I hear Phife and them talking about how there was all these issues during Beats, Rhymes and Life. But the issues weren’t really that dire. If they were they weren’t brought to my attention. If Tribe was really breaking up we wouldn’t have been able to make this album. One issue might have been that there was a new dynamic in the group because we had J Dilla (late groundbreaking, celebrated producer and musical mastermind behind Slum Village) producing on some songs and Consequence on some tracks.
But the biggest thing that definitely weighed on that album was my conversion to Islam. It made the atmosphere much more serious. I was really ardent about my practice. Seeing me pray in the studio definitely made Phife feel a little uncomfortable. But it was never a he hates me, I hate him conflict. I think that’s been overblown. The conflicts were all around the changing dynamics of the group. But I was never bringing Consequence in to take Phife’s place. He was my little cousin who lived next door. He always wanted to rap and I was just giving him that opportunity to see how it felt to ride the big boy bike.
My thing with Jay Dee (Dilla) was I just really wanted people to hear his sound, his genius, and his approach to music. He definitely had some things that I would have done, but he took them to the 10th power. I was like, ‘Man, people have to hear him.’ I would tell De La about him. I would tell Mobb Deep about him…I would tell Common about him. Beats, Rhymes and Life was a showcase for Dilla.”
“I really love the Roots. I remember it being a really great, easy session to be in. We recorded it in Battery Studios in New York. Before this song, me and Amir (Roots drummer and producer Questlove) would talk about doing something together. He was like, ‘Yo, we like to re-produce stuff when we play, so if you find a dope loop let me hear it and we will get it.’ I sent them that [‘Cat’ by Teruo Nakamura and the Rising Sun] sample. They re-cut it and played it over. It just felt right. And Tariq (Black Thought) is a monster MC. He’s amazing.”
“When I think about ‘Find a Way’ I think about Dilla. At that time, we started to really collaborate on things. I remember him having that track and me kind of taking it, finishing it off and adding certain things. We started getting into that way of working during this period, and that was a great thing because Dilla was really doing 80 percent of it while I was just adding my little thing here and there to take the track over.
When I did ‘The Love’ it just felt like the song title…it felt like true love. Originally, the song was supposed to be a track for Biggie (the Notorious B.I.G.). I did that one for him for his last album Life After Death. I came through to the studio to let him listen to the track and Biggie was like, ‘Damn B…I finished the album already. But let me hear it anyway; maybe I can still fuck with it.’ So I played it for him and Biggie was really feeling it. He told me, ‘Damn, I wish I could throw that song on there. But we finished the album…look at all these champagne bottles around.’ BIG was so funny [laughs].
I remember Biggie played me the original ‘Nasty Boy’ that had the ‘Nasty Girl’ sample on it that Prince wouldn’t clear. We were talking about Dilla because I had hooked them up when we met up at Busta Rhymes’ session. Dilla had used that Biggie line, ‘Twist your body round and round, upside down…’ So BIG and I were talking about that session, and he was like, ‘Well, we have to go in the studio earlier for my next album…you, me and Jay Dee. Let’s just rhyme out.’ That was one of the last things he said to me before he died.”
“Dilla and I went in the lab on this album. Amplified was an important statement for me. DJ Scratch did a couple of joints on there. Dilla did about four or five joints; it just really came out dope. I think Amplified is an underestimated album because people were mad at me when I came out with ‘Vivrant Thing.’ I had a bunch of girls in the video and people were tight. That video shocked people. The ‘hood felt me, but all the back pack cats that came up on me were like, ‘Why are you doing that??? You are playing yourself!’
Certain dudes, who shall remain unnamed, were calling me Ziggy Stardust on the low, not thinking that I knew [laughs]. This is when everyone was taking shots at me. Niggas was more mad than anything that I had versatility. Still, the criticism kind of put a dark cloud over Amplified. I was hearing how I was going too commercial. People were cueing in more on my lyrics like, ‘This dude is rapping about fucking girls!’ And I’m like, ‘I was always talking about getting with girls since ‘Bonita Applebum.’ The criticism was just wild, but I think Amplified holds its time period pretty good.”
“I didn’t plan on releasing The Renaissance the same day of the 2008 Presidential elections. It just worked out that way. The Renaissance is a special album for me. I really enjoyed this album. It’s very optimistic. It let people know what time it was for me as an artist. Getting D’Angelo on the album was big (‘Believe’). And I did this track called ‘We Fight/We Love’ with Raphael Saadiq. I sung the words and melodies to Raphael and he killed it.
I have to do what’s in my heart. I have to have a conviction about the music. That’s how I am still to this day. I can’t conform. I’m not going to be one those artists that’s had this career and now is trying to come back by jumping on tracks that sound like what’s going on now. I gotta do me. And that’s what you hear on The Renaissance.”
“The thing about Kamaal The Abstract was right after I did ‘Vibrant Thing’ with Clive Davis (legendary music label head), I told him, ‘I want to come totally left on this next album.’ I wanted to use a live band and make an album that was like how Miles [Davis] did Bitches’ Brew. I knew that Clive had a hand in that album, so I started working on it. It was such an eclectic album…jazz, rock, funk, hip-hop. ’ We were set to release it in 2002, but Clive had got brought out and L.A. Reid came in. I played it for L.A. and he told me he really liked it, so we started sending out copies of Kamaal The Abstract to the press.
We were starting to get good reviews and there was an excitement coming back about the album. But then L.A. tells me, ‘I don’t think I hear a single. Go back and work on some more songs.’ So I went back in the studio to work on more tracks and I played it for him. That’s when I decided, ‘You know what? I don’t think this is going to work.’ I asked for my release from the label because I started seeing L.A. start to change up. But I’m really proud of that album. (Seven years later, Kamaal The Abstract was officially released to the public. Many critics noted that the heavily experimental album, which featured an adventurous Tip showcasing a more melodic vocal range on such tracks as ‘Do You Dig U,’ ‘Blue Girl’ and ‘Caring,’ was a precursor to Andre 3000’s acclaimed 2004 release The Love Below).
I think to have a documentary to represent hip-hop is important. Hip-hop doesn’t have that many. It’s an American artform and it’s time that America accepts it and embraces it. When America does that she embraces the social setting that made the culture spawn out. To tell you the truth, I never really thought to see Tribe or myself in a documentary. I’ve had visions of things, but it was never anything like this. I appreciate the whole positive reaction to the movie (Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest), but I’m not done yet.
Right now, I’m focusing on my new record The Last Zulu. People should expect some good music; that hard shit. I want this album to be very cinematic. I think when people look back at A Tribe Called Quest and the entire Native Tongues we will never be looked at as the first official crew. That goes to the Juice Crew. But Native Tongues will be looked at as being originals. We all kind of linked together because we had the same ideas and beliefs. We never got to do an entire album together, but we had fun. And that’s what I’m still trying to [convey] with my music today.”