When A Tribe Called Quest reunited to perform on The Tonight Show last fall, the group — Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White, and Phife Dawg — couldn’t know what 2016 would bring. They were pioneers returned from hip-hop’s golden age, but not prophets. They couldn’t see Donald Trump taking the White House. They couldn’t see the rise of the alt-right as a significant corner of the electorate. And no one could foresee the personal tragedy the group would face: Phife Dawg’s too-soon death from diabetes.
One year later, we have President-elect Trump and an ascendent alt-right, but we also have We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, ATCQ’s first album in 18 years and also its last. It’s an album that celebrates the group’s past and looks consciously towards to future. It also honors the memory of Phife Dawg himself, who gave the record its title. But most of all, it’s a powerful protest album from start to finish, whose force is only heightened by the result of this past Election Day.
Honestly, what else could an album be when its first track, “The Space Program,” laments there being “no space program for niggas?” Q-Tip and company grab us by the throat almost immediately and make us wonder who Elon Musk’s ambitious Mars settlement plan is made for. There can be no moving on to the stars for the disenfranchised or the imprisoned locked on Earth. And by track two, the group is already making a searing indictment of the intersectional hatred that swept Trump into office:
All you black folks, you must go
All you Mexicans, you must go
And all you poor folks, you must go
Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways
So all you bad folks, you must go
There’s a clear revolutionary thread running through the entire album, as it addresses racism, sexism, the media, police violence, and the need to resist. Trump needn’t have won the election for the album to feel essential. Living in America over the last few years has lain the country’s cultural sickness bare. But an empowered Donald Trump only makes the album’s message more potent.
The album’s politics would be enough to make its message worth hearing. But the music is so suffused with a heartbreaking love for craft, hip-hop’s history, and especially for Phife Dawg himself that it comes across as a love letter to the spirit of wokeness that drove the group in their early days and continues to drive today’s crop of socially conscious rappers.
Donald Trump’s “populism” is rooted in the idea that we need to return to the Good Ol’ Days, that illusory shared past when things were simpler and no one wanted for anything. A Tribe Called Quest, itself a product of a New York City gripped by the crack epidemic and state neglect, knows better. “Movin backwards,” like the track implies, means more suffering and more violence for nonwhite men and women.
What was good about Tribe in the ‘90s, though, is just as good today. I mean, just listen to Busta Rhymes spit in rapid-fire patois over an Elton John sample on “Solid Wall of Sound.” But this isn’t one generation claiming righteous seniority. It’s a meeting point of past and present, politically, lyrically, and often sonically. They know the new class has its place in the continuum. Just listen to “Dis Generation”:
Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow
They are extensions of instinctual soul
We got it from Here... always looks forward, even in the face of overwhelming strife and even death. That it does so with such joy, as Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, and their many collaborators takes turns at the mic, makes it feel like a triumph after this first week in Trump’s America. It’s why, on the album’s final track “The Donald,” Phife Dawg’s name is heard whenever we expect to hear the word “Trump.” A Tribe Called Quest is using his memory to galvanize their base, except they’re armed with love instead of hate. For some of us, it’s exactly what we needed to hear.