At its peak in the early to mid-1990s, A Tribe Called Quest was a bridge. It showed genre elders how hip-hop was capable of aesthetic evolution while reminding young people of the value of digging in the crates for inspiration. It placed bohemian spirituality and street-corner smack talk on the same level. It made music that was utterly modern and also flawlessly in step with the genre’s traditions.
For this, the members of A Tribe Called Quest — Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi — are admired widely: Nearly everyone in hip-hop can see them as either offspring or ancestors, students or teachers.
That was clear on Tuesday night at the Apollo Theater, during the public memorial service for Phife Dawg — Phife to his friends — who died last month at 45 from complications of diabetes. For about four hours, a rather astonishing collection of hip-hop titans from almost every generation came to celebrate Phife — his talent, his humanity, his influence — for a crowd made up primarily of the rapper’s family, friends and music-business intimates.
“I would have crawled to be here for this,” said Chuck D of Public Enemy during a loving testament early in the night. He was just one of the seminal early hip-hop figures here: Grandmaster Flash delivered a moving speech, and KRS-One performed “I’m Still #1,” which he said was Phife’s favorite Boogie Down Productions song. At the end of the night, DJ Kool Herc, the hip-hop pioneer, stood solemnly on stage, head bowed.
These artists helped fuel Phife and A Tribe Called Quest, who in turn served as inspirations for generations to come. Both André 3000 and Kanye West delivered impromptu homilies, speaking about the influence Phife and Tribe had on their art and their worldview. An emotional Busta Rhymes, wiping tears and sweat away with a small towel, thanked Phife for “being the big brother that I needed, especially when I was at a crossroads in my life.” Black Thought of the Roots delivered a verse written in Phife’s honor, weaving in some of his lyrics. D’Angelo sang a meditative version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” backed by the Roots.
In the audience and on stage were guests from across the temporal spectrum: LL Cool J; Lauryn Hill; Grand Puba; Pete Rock; Scarface; Treach from Naughty by Nature; Dres from Black Sheep; the Jungle Brothers; Kid Capri; Kool DJ Red Alert; Stretch Armstrong; Special K; the executives Barry Weiss (who signed A Tribe Called Quest to Jive Records) and Dante Ross; the comedian Dave Chappelle and the chef Marcus Samuelsson; and the actor Michael Rapaport, who directed the 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” which showed the group in full meltdown mode, though there was no trace of that tension here.
Instead, there were sermons aplenty from host Quest Green, rousing songs of praise by Kelly Price and Angela Winbush, a recording of a poem by Phife’s mother (“Your hand holding flowers not guns”), and an appearance by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, whom Phife famously namechecked on “Can I Kick It?” There was a warm moment when the radio personality Peter Rosenberg likened A Tribe Called Quest’s longevity to Led Zeppelin’s, and a hilarious one when, later, Mr. West said, “I don’t wanna hear Zeppelin mentioned at Phife’s funeral.” There were also video tributes from various NBA players and Scott Van Pelt, the ESPN anchor, as well as the presentation of a custom jersey from the Knicks.
Before the night concluded with the premiere of a new Phife song and video, “Nutshell” (a portion of proceeds from the song’s sale will go to the American Diabetes Association and the National Kidney Foundation), the remaining members of A Tribe Called Quest took the stage. They took turns telling stories and crying. Q-Tip remembered attending his first block party — circa 1976 — then feverishly talking about it on the phone with Phife the next day. Mr. Muhammad directly addressed Phife’s wife, who donated a kidney to him in 2008: “You gave a man a piece of your body. The world should be throwing rose petals at your feet.” Others reminisced about trips to Freaknik, the Atlanta bacchanal of the 1990s, or to the studios of ESPN, a lifelong dream for Phife, a passionate sports junkie.
As happens sometimes during gatherings of hip-hop elders, some took the opportunity to bemoan the current state of the music. But André 3000, in the spirit of A Tribe Called Quest, made a plea for understanding across generations and styles: “We’re all connected.” Later, Q-Tip emphasized how the purpose and feeling that drove the group wasn’t its alone. He motioned out to the crowd, and up to the sky, and reminded everyone, “We’re all the tribe.”
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