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A Tribe Called Quest: A Soundtrack to Change

Thoughts on their new album We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

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Two significant things happened during my recent time in New York: A Tribe Called Quest released their first album in eighteen years, and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.

By the time the pre-release listening party for ATCQ’s new album took place, the news that Trump had defeated Hilary Clinton had begun to sink. I’ve listened to the album daily for five days now and I’m still unsure whether my overwhelming positive feelings for this record are due to the need to offset the overwhelmingly negative vibes that purvey everywhere in this city at this moment. To be honest it is difficult to tune out from the post-election noise in order to properly tune into anything, new Tribe record included.

Being able to absorb oneself into a body of music that comes from a place that is pure in intention is a great thing and the state of the world right now reminds me of the importance of music. One of my friends here, a respected music journalist, commented that the day after the election he was extremely depressed and that spending time digesting this record was the one positive that he could find. Great music can serve as a much needed, temporary escape from reality as much as it can vocalise thoughts of opposition and provide the soundtrack to a movement.

To be honest I can’t write about this record without discussing the political climate surrounding the US election. I tried to just make this piece about the music, however I think this album, at least to my mind, will always be linked to this moment in time. We Got It From Here… has released at the end of a year that showed the world an insane number of police shootings of people of colour and the subsequent momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also shown us the white American reaction to that movement that has undoubtedly, partly contributed to the votes for Trump.

Hip-Hop grabbed me as a teenager in large part due to the anti-establishment narrative attached to the genre, the expression of African American rage at a political system designed to hold people of colour back. And whilst the overtly political conversation has largely disappeared from hip-hop (at least in mainstream terms), it has remained a characteristic of the music in the minds of anyone that deep-dived into the genre during the late eighties and nineties.

The We Got It From Here… listening party was a reminder of that era. A time when a fresh-faced Tribe debuted with an upbeat, fun record, that was not militant but was empowered and conscious. Dotted amongst a crowd of millennial music writers dripping with Williamsburg privilege and record label machinists, were familiar nineties era faces from the likes of Boot Camp Clik and Brand Nubian. The room was a reminder of how far hip-hop has moved away from that period in time and you could sense the hope that everyone had for this album. Perhaps even more so since every liberal hope in the building had been dashed just hours earlier. Everyone was looking for an uplifting soundtrack.

This album isn’t a political record per say but does keep up the Tribe legacy of social consciousness surrounded by uplifting music. It’s also a party and an adequate tribute to Phife Dawg (RIP). It’s a feel good record that I think successfully taps into the group’s established sound without coming off outdated. The guests all make total sense, and some owe a drink or ten to Tribe for opening metaphorical doors to their own careers. The likes of Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, and more recently Kendrick Lamar have carried the standard forward for positivity in hip-hop.

Almost without exception, the people that I’ve connected with in New York have discussed their despair at the result of the election and almost as many people have asked me if I’ve heard the new Tribe album. These conversations remind me of the special place that A Tribe Called Quest holds within the heart of this city and the world beyond it. Their albums have provided the soundtrack to many lives here We Got It From Here… will provide a soundtrack to a new generation who’s developmental years have been experienced under the Obama administration and who have just woken up under the leadership of the most publicly bigoted President since the 1960’s. Recent generations of Americans have fooled themselves into believing that prejudice was a thing of the past, on the way out of their progressive nation, but then this happened.

The rage of Public Enemy has long since declined into the collective periphery and while I’m not the type to campaign for a return to the so-called “golden era of rap” this moment does feel like the time is ripe for consciousness to make a comeback. We Got It From Here… isn’t about to light any revolutionary fires, it’s not the best Tribe album ever recorded but it is a really good record that seems to have the endorsement of Tribe’s fellow New Yorkers and the music media.

This record might just encourage hip-hop artists to aspire to be better. It shows us that we can have albums that make us smile when the world gives us little reason to. It’s also a reminder that the same records that help us to feel good can also make us think, question, and discuss when the majority of music encourages us to do anything but.

  • Words: Andrew Montell

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