A Tribe Called Quest were already icons when founding member Malik Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg, died in March 2016 from diabetes complications at the age of 45. When the group capped their career by releasing their final album We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service that November, they completed one of the greatest comebacks in music history. Fans who had grown up listening to Tribe shape the sound of hip-hop in their ‘90s prime rapturously received their final work critically and commercially. Essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib, author of acclaimed collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, has captured the authentic feeling of fandom in his latest book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.
Go Ahead in the Rain is an efficient summary of Tribe’s history, from their origins on Queens boulevards through their occasional contentious live reunions in the ‘00s and into their finale. But the heart of Go Ahead in the Rain is the author’s own relationship with the group and their work. The book’s cover calls it a “love letter to a group, a sound and an era,” and entire chapters are written as letters to principal figures such as Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
Abdurraqib ambitiously blends the universal and the personal: the first chapter traces the roots of hip-hop and jazz back to rhythms preserved by enslaved Africans in the Americas, and the author crystalizes those centuries of history into a story of his father rebuking a micro-aggressive middle school jazz teacher. Tribe’s albums, infused with the jazz from their own parents’ record crates, were among the few hip-hop works approved by Abdurraqib’s parents in an era where media scaremongering around N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew made the genre taboo.
Go Ahead in the Rain further functions as a pocket history of a hip-hop golden age, illustrating Tribe’s importance through collaborators and rivals. It’s illuminating for fans of the group, but even hip-hop novices will be moved by Abdurraqib’s book. It’s a tribute to A Tribe Called Quest and a tribute to the power music has to grow with the listener. It’s a book for anyone who has secluded themselves in headphones, pressed play, and heard themselves singing back in someone else’s voice. VIBE spoke to Hanif Abdurraqib by phone from his native Columbus, OH about grieving for Phife, paying tribute to Tribe, and the deep cut that gave his book its title.
How did your work on this book begin?
The work on the book began when Phife died. At the time I was working for MTV News, and I had to write a quick elegy to Phife. I thought about how uniquely specific A Tribe Called Quest was in shaping a part of my identity that I’ve held onto for most of my life: my comfort in the weird, or comfort in the absurd. Or comfort in the things that don’t feel quite right to everyone. I found myself wanting to celebrate that, even more by the year of 2016.
View this post on Instagram
Got to hold the real-life final copies of this book today. The cover has shiny gold(!) and I am very excited. I so loved working on this book. A project which also involved working on myself and my relationship to loss and nostalgia. It comes out in about three weeks. I would be happy if you got a copy. The link to order is in my bio. Thanks so much to all of the people who believed in this project, particularly when I insisted that I didn’t know what I was doing. Also thanks again to UT Press for letting me get away with this cover design.
Because our new normal, especially around news cycles and political violence, is understood as a low, kind of consistent hum that has interwoven into our everyday lives, it can be forgotten that 2016, at least for a lot of folks, was really draining. It was especially violent, and especially heartbreaking in numerous ways. And I think 2016 saw another reshaping of the current political protest movement, and what I saw as a shift in people’s very clear demand to turn their attention towards protecting those they love, right? Protecting their people first.
I think Tribe’s album coming out, they spoke to every corner of this. I don’t know what I was expecting in 2016 when the album dropped. But I think what I took away with this album was, speaking not only to a singular political moment, but speaking towards the whole of these moments we’ve been living in for a while.
So do you see this book as preservation of that Tribe myth?
Yeah. It all came to the forefront for me because in the weeks before the last album came out, I was in a high school doing a reading to some 15 year olds. And they had really no access point for A Tribe Called Quest.
I needed to write about what A Tribe Called Quest meant to me, as someone who was young, and who for a while could not have a lot of rap in the house, but could have A Tribe Called Quest in the house. How they catered toward an era before theirs. How they catered towards jazz, and sounds that, at least in my house, my parents could appreciate and welcome in. N.W.A. wasn’t getting in the house.
And so, I wanted to write my way to an understanding that what I lived through was real, because I think if I didn’t do that, I would take it for granted.
Take for granted your own memories of your relationship with Tribe?
Yeah. And take Tribe for granted themselves, right? When someone dies, musicians particularly, the question that comes around is “how good a job did people do to honor this musician while they were still here?” I saw myself asking that after Phife died, and wanted to start that path of reconciling that.
Because I loved Phife. Phife was immensely important to me. Not just as a rapper, but how he sat in the makeup of A Tribe Called Quest, and how he was in some ways rebellious, and hard to control, but magical all at once. All those things meant such a great deal to me, but I didn’t articulate that nearly enough when he was still alive.
And with this book I am thinking, what can I do beyond the grief to honor a group I love? In doing that I wanted to also be clear in saying, yes, this is about Tribe, but it’s not only Tribe. It’s Native Tongues, it’s Mobb Deep, it’s N.W.A., it’s Wu-Tang. It is inside an ecosystem in an entire era that truly shaped me, and deserved my returning to it in a state beyond grief.
So you returned to the sound of that entire era, not just Tribe?
Because so much of Tribe is at the beating heart of what has happened in hip hop ever since they became prominent, they’ve been pace-setters for the genre, and particularly for a lot of production techniques that exist and are still being utilized now. I found myself returning to hip-hop from ’87 to ’96 primarily, because I think I had to do that in order to make sense of the A Tribe Called Quest album trajectory. How do we get from People’s Instinctive Travels to Beats, Rhymes and Life?
You have to immerse yourself in the music happening around Tribe. I’m a Beats, Rhymes and Life apologist or whatever. I don’t think it’s as bad as people suggest it is. I also understand that it’s not their seminal work. But in a way, that album was made in response to what was happening around it in hip hop. I write about this in the book, that album failed for some as a Tribe album because it was the first one that wasn’t setting trends, but it was responding to trends.
Listening in this context, listening to bridges I wasn’t getting to hear before was important. It was important for me to listen to Mobb Deep, and see how Mobb Deep is kind of like A Tribe Called Quest in a funhouse mirror. It was critical listening that I had never thought to apply to this particular musical lineage.
In the book’s conclusion you mentioned quite a few modern acts that you see as sort of descendants of Tribe: Anderson .Paak, Joey Bada$$, Isaiah Rashad, Danny Brown. Is there any one common thing that they all share with Tribe?
I think that, even beyond what they share with Tribe sonically, all of them are invested in risk. Tribe made a template for risk taking. Risk taking was the idea that failure is an impossible thing, right? When you look at old interviews of Q-Tip, especially around the making of The Low End Theory, at no point did it occur to him that there would be failure. There’s that iconic Q-Tip quote where a reporter asks him if he was afraid of a sophomore slump. And he responds, “Sophomore slump? What the f**k is that? I’m making The Low End Theory.” It’s like, I can’t even fathom a sophomore slump because I’m making the most important thing I’ve ever made.
I think that there is something about that energy that’s on Malibu with Anderson Paak, where he was like, “Why are you talking about anything else? I’m making the most important thing I’ve ever made.” Especially for him, someone who was homeless, who is actually trying to build a legacy that will sustain him for a long time. I see that urgency in him, and in Danny Brown and Isaiah Rashad, where even their misses are coming off the back of a really big swing.
I think the overarching critical response to Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement felt like some kind of drop-off because failure is fine if you’re taking a big swing in the process. But if you’re kind of just coasting and you still kind of stumble, it’s not as appealing. It doesn’t look as sexy.
What is the difference between We Got It From Here versus their last two records, in terms of the swing, the effort that they’re putting forth?
I think We Got It From Here is more monument than album. They spent a career climbing the mountain, and We Got It From Here is them chiseling themselves into the mountain one last time.
What’s amazing about We Got It From Here is that it’s so angry. A lot of people don’t think of Tribe as an angry group, at least not explicitly angry. Even though The Low End Theory is teeming with political commentary, it’s also balanced by the very basic tongue-in-cheek nature that comes with being in Native Tongues. We Got It From Here balances anger and grief in a very uncanny manner. When you spend an entire career, an entire life playing to the very intricate subtleties of the sonic landscape Q-Tip was shaping, and the very aesthetic landscape Tribe sat in, lengthwise you just run out of fucks. When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered on back to back days of the year, when the American political system sold people yet another bad cheque. I was so heartened by the unbridled anger that exists on We Got It From Here, because I think so many other groups would have chosen a lot more gentle send-off.
They put out an album that viscerally responded to the absurdity of the times we are living in. And that’s what they chose to ride off into the sunset, very literally. The last music video “The Space Program” ends with three of them walking off into the sunset. In the grand kaleidoscope of black emotion, anger is one of many that America wants to reckon with least. So to see that with a face and with those songs was beautiful.
One of the most compelling ways the book works is the way that you continuously tie yourself to the group, and I think one of the through-lines of that relationship is that, in a lot of ways, they were underdogs in the same way you were. They’re willing to be weird and absurd. After some of the accolades and success that they’ve had, do you still see them as the weird and absurd group, or do you think that they’ve taken a more central codified place in the culture?
Oh, they’re more central in the culture. The things that made them weird are the things that now make people beloved. They were one of the handful of groups that were pushing their shoulders up against a seemingly immovable door of weirdness, and whimsy, and not always wholesome but somewhat trying idea of black liberation. And then that door got open and they were one of the first in the room. Now the room is overcrowded, but they’re still the ones who got the door open.
I don’t think of them as underdogs, because their legacy is so built on several moving parts that are still driving the culture forward. But I do think that in a certain time in my life, when I most felt like an underdog, I relied on them to chart a course for me.
How did you decide which portions to write as letters addressed to individual people?
I think all of the time about if I’m doing a good enough job of very plainly saying, “I love what this person has done for my life. I have lived a better life because of the way this person I do not know has enhanced it.” Which on its face is a kind of silly thing. But I wanted to make that sentiment stand up. The way that I found I could do that was to somewhat foolishly enter into a conversation with the central growing heart of this whole affection I have.
I did want to talk to Tribe as if they were responding to me, because for me it feels like we’ve been in conversation for our whole lives, and I wanted to represent that on the page. The only way I knew how to do that was to write those letters to them as if they would respond, or I might be getting something back, or as if I am responding to something they’ve told me. Some incredible secret that I’ve carried for a long time.
Have you sent a copy of the book to Tip, or Ali, or Jarobi?
No. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor has a copy. I might send one to Ali, and then I think I’m just going to let the chips fall where they may, you know? I know this sounds a bit ridiculous on its face, but I didn’t write this for Tribe to read it. And I didn’t write it intentionally as a strict biography that placed me as an expert on Tribe, because they’re experts on themselves.
I wrote this book particularly for people who are fans of a single artist, and have spent any time in their life trying to untangle what it means to honor someone and all their complications, and all they’ve meant for your own complications. How to best articulate the way you see yourself reflected in the songs you love. That’s who the book was written for.
What was it like to get clearance to republish some of Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s work in the book?
She read an excerpt and approved it based off the excerpt, which was really kind, because I was very nervous. I think she’s an incredible poet. And it felt irresponsible to write about Phife as a writer without also writing about the fact that he came from a writing mother, who undoubtedly influenced his relationship with the sound, and with metaphor, and with punchiness, and with his clever maneuvering of language. So it felt really irresponsible for me to write about all these glowing things about Phife’s skill set without also stressing that that skill set wasn’t born out of nowhere. And so, yes, she read an excerpt and gave us permission for the poems. I was incredibly thankful for that.
I’m currently in the process of trying to track down Ventilation, Phife’s solo album, after reading your discussion of it. It’s been a while since we’ve heard more, but there were announcements that Phife had another solo album ready to be released. Do you have any expectations around it if it does ever come out?
My opinion around posthumous releases has changed as I’ve gotten older, because I’ve seen so much music come out that seemed as though the artist maybe would not have wanted it in the world. And I’ve become more immersed in the creation of my own art, and I know that so much of that creation comes down to the final moments.
Last night I sat in my living room and laid out all the poems for my next manuscript on the floor so I could see them, and adjust them, get them into place. If I were not here, if I were not living, I would have to trust someone else with that. And who else has that particular vision but me who wrote those poems, and has a feeling for where they should move, right?
And so I don’t know how done Phife’s rumored solo album is. But if it’s not done, if it’s not like mixed and mastered, I maybe don’t want it at all, because I don’t want to remember anyone I’ve loved by the half-finished art they left behind.
How did you decide on Go Ahead in the Rain as the title?
I loved the lyricism of it, and I love the finality of it as a title. I love the idea of water in that which can make a person clean. I like the imperative of, go ahead into the unknown. That song is like a deep, deep cut. I like that it was asking of a reader. I wasn’t necessarily interested in a known entity. I’m interested in what’s most lyrical and speaks to what the book is asking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.