The best part of Michael Rapaport’s 2011 A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life wasn’t the inspiring story of the Queens rap greats first coming together in high school or the unflinching depiction of the internal tensions that eventually drove them apart. It was the footage of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg meeting up in a rehearsal studio after a long time apart, trying out goofy synchronized dance steps and just glowing in each other’s presence. I saw Tribe twice in the late ’90s, when Tip and Phife were apparently barely even talking to each other, and their onstage chemistry was still a sight to behold. Last night, the rap greats closed out the second day of the Pitchfork Music Festival by playing their first full show together since Phife’s passing, and while his presence was sorely missed, that chemistry — now between Tip and old compadres Jarobi and Consequence, along with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed — is still strong. And so is the commitment to performance. It’s been eight months since Tribe released the shockingly great We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service, and these guys have clearly spent that time sweating up rehearsal-studio floors.
Last night’s reunion set could’ve gone all sorts of different ways. The group could’ve cashed in on their boundless goodwill, calling in all sorts of guests to add reinforcements. God knows plenty of their peers would’ve been happy to jump onstage and do something. Back in the VIP section before Tribe came onstage, Ice-T and MC Serch, two of the heads in headphones on the Midnight Marauders cover, were spotted. (Also: Taraji P. Henson! Also: Xzibit!) (Busta Rhymes, the group’s most energetic advocate and part-time member, would’ve doubtless loved to be there, but he had a couple of shows of his own in the Netherlands last night. Q-Tip did a pretty great impression of him at one point, though.) Or it could’ve been an awkward and sad affair, three aging rappers struggling in real time with the loss of a friend. It could’ve been a theatrical production, full of props and gimmicks. Instead, the group’s headlining set was a low-tech celebration, a seamless and energetic victory-lap sprint that also served as a rowdy wake for a lost friend. And other than a big screen behind them showing old video footage and slapdash CGI images, it was a bare-bones affair visually. Coming to the stage, one of the rappers — I didn’t see who — said that A Tribe Called Quest doesn’t need a disco ball, a possible shot at previous-night headliners LCD Soundsystem.
Onstage between the three rappers, there was a lonely mic stand, standing untouched — the Christmas-dinner table setting for the departed family member who’s still there in spirit. And a big point of the show seemed to be shoring up Phife’s legacy, giving the surviving Tribe members a chance to show how much his voice meant to them. Rather than cutting the tracks off before Phife’s verses, the show instead showcased some of his best moments, with his voice booming in over the speakers while his old friends happily rapped along. “Buggin’ Out” was a highlight, and I loved when all three rappers left the stage and an a cappella version of Phife’s “Like Butter” verse rang out through the park. Phife wasn’t the only old rap legend being mourned last night, either. The show was sprinkled with quick, quiet tributes to past collaborators J Dilla and Prodigy. (Without making a big deal out of it, Consequence spit P’s “I break bread, ribs, hundred dollar bills” verse from “Keep It Thoro” over Tribe’s “Mobius” beat. I don’t know how many people in the park caught it, but a few of us nerds were happy.)
Death was obviously a presence during the show. But this was still a party, a flash of joyous energy. The group had clearly planned out every moment of the show, with Ali Shaheed cutting from one track to the next without any breaks in between and the rappers doing fun little bits of stagecraft where they’d all suddenly be crouching at center-stage together or throwing Black Power salutes on the same beat. These guys are seasoned, precise performers, and Q-Tip, who’s been performing for 30 years even though he barely looks 30, was working hard out there. He was soaked in sweat by four songs in, and that didn’t stop him from charging out into the crowd by the end of the set. It was almost exhausting just to watch him.
The set, beautifully programmed, drew from all six of the group’s albums, along with Q-Tip’s solo hit “Vivrant Thing” and Consequence’s verse from Kanye West’s “Spaceship.” And the energy built gradually, starting with recent tracks and deep cuts and building toward the undeniable, foundational classics. Weirdly enough, the always-monstrous “Scenario” never arrived; maybe Tribe ran up against park curfews, or maybe that’s just not a song you can do without Busta. But even without that song, the encore was an absolute explosion of euphoria. If you’ve never been in a huge group of people listening to “Can I Kick It?” and “Award Tour,” then you should figure out how to correct that oversight. But instead of ending with one of their canonical works, Tribe closed out with We Got It From Here’s stand-strong single “We The People,” and it fit right in with the decades-old anthems. And that sums up maybe the most amazing thing about last night’s set: This was a feelgood nostalgia-fest and a tribute to a beloved fallen icon, but it was also a show from a living, breathing entity that’s still, defying all possible expectations, near the peak of its powers. I walked away from last night thinking that Tribe, even without Phife, could continue doing great things for as long as they want.