“A Tribe Called Quest are just as important as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones”.
It’s quite a statement. The pinch of salt comes when you realise it’s made by Michael Rapaport, the actor turned director / producer behind the Grammy-nominated 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.
"Hip-hop is now popular music, just like classic rock", says Rapaport. "And without A Tribe Called Quest you wouldn't have Nicki Minaj or others. The sensibility of their music changed things, and that's why I make that comparison. The next generation hold them in the same regard as those classic rock musicians I've mentioned".
Cue producer and recording artist Pharrell Williams, who's said: "Myself, Kanye [West]… we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Tribe albums".
Notions such as these make this year's Wireless Festival a must-attend for rap fans of all generations living in the UK: it's set to host the first live show from the group in the country for 20 years.
Their last long player, the Grammy- nominated The Love Movement (1998) ended a sequence of five variously gold and platinum-selling albums that had begun with 1990's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Throughout, Tribe's poetry and percussion engineered a strong bridge between their parents' jazz and soul collections and the host of acts they themselves were to later inspire.
They've since performed together only a handful of times, one of the last being at March's South by South West festival in Texas, where they opened for Prince.
The group has three chief members: rapper Phife Dawg, rapper-producer Q-Tip, and DJ rapper-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The fourth member, rapper Jarobi White, is a sometime contributor who true blue fans are always quick to remember as a debut album stalwart. Between them they plucked basslines and wove drum loops from the most eclectic of sources; Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side one moment, Lou Donaldson's Pot Belly the next.
Overlaid with lyrics that sought to step outside an eighties brag culture some had begun to find stifling and stagnant, Tribe, along with others in a self-styled New York collective known as Native Tongues (including De La Soul and others), became exponents of the idea the MTV generation might enjoy more 'enlightened' fare.
"I think the consciousness was very organic", says Rapaport. "They didn't beat you over the head…"
He cites Sucka Nigga from the Midnight Marauders album (1993) as a case in point. The lyrics touch on how the n-word, reclaimed by young African Americans, was causing concern within their community. "If you listen to a song like that, it's just one of the most conscious, thought-provoking records", the director insists.
By the time Midnight Marauders was being recorded, Tribe had not only secured the attention of millions of listeners worldwide; they had also held it for some time.
Early on, Q-Tip's velvet-voiced guest spots on modern classics such as Deee-Lite's 1990 hit Groove Is in the Heart welcomed hordes of the formerly uninitiated into the fold.
On their own tracks, games of verbal tag played between Q-Tip and childhood friend Phife Dawg proved infectious. Phife's near-breathless, urgent style offered a perfect counterpoint to Q-Tip's more laid-back routine.
"The chemistry was unlike any other", remembers Phife, now 42-years-old, adding: "I think that's attributed to us being friends before. I could finish Q-Tip's sentences and he could finish mine, that's how close we were".
Phife and Q-Tip were kids with Caribbean links who had grown up in the Linden area of New York's Queens.
Rapaport describes them as coming from 'good families', and Phife has no qualms about discussing being brought up on the right side of the tracks.
"Where I lived with my parents was Linden and 192, and where my grandmother lived was Linden and 178, but there was a railroad track in the middle. It was the same area, but I spent more time on her side than our side", he explains.
"It was a cool upbringing. But I had to fight to get involved in music, because of my grandmother's religion.
"Seventh-Day Adventist Christians are really, really strict: they're not into secular music. Not only that, but she's from Trinidad and Tobago so she wasn't having none of it. You put those two together – you can forget it.
"But I loved what I loved… I had to be a part of it.
"My parents being from Trinidad, there was a bunch of calypso being played", says Phife. "There was a bunch of reggae, and the disco era, like Chic and Sister Sledge, D.Train and a lot of the SalSoul and Solar labels' music.
"Jazz was more of a Q-Tip thing", he explains. "His father was an avid collector and of course [Q-Tip] followed suit".
Whilst records played in Q-Tip and Phife's homes differed in style, they nonetheless spun in the same direction.
Brooklyn DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad helped bring the music together in an alchemy that made their sound dense in riff and reference; rich in critical acclaim.
"The sampling is some of the best", Rapaport says, adding: "The production is seamless, timeless…it's like listening to good jazz".
And although their music relied on the art of making borrowed beats their own, the notion of following that same path lyrically was anathema to them.
"One thing I know is that we were always in our own world", Phife insists. "Biting (plagiarism) was forbidden on all levels".
He equates a lack of originality with "a lack of respect to your forefathers".
"Coming up as a youngster, Stevie Wonder made a difference in my life, The O' Jays made a difference, Tony! Toni! Toné! made a difference. Nowadays there aren't too many people out there who are making that difference".
Of his own crew's approach, he says: "We were probably taking a risk, but it ended up working out, so I'm grateful for that. We were just true to ourselves".
One might look to Phife's family again if in search of an answer to why authenticity was so important to the young man whose birth name was Malik Isaac Taylor.
"As far as my family is concerned: the son is a rapper and the mom is a poet".
His mother – Cheryl Boyce Taylor – served as a strong example of what it takes to make one's voice heard when of a mind you have something worthwhile to say. Not long after the 20-year-old Cheryl had given birth to Malik, the early seventies found her much influenced by a burgeoning Black Power Movement; she established the Boyce Taylor Theatrical Company in Queens just a short ten years after having arrived there from Trinidad as a 13-year-old girl.
Phife's description of her work could easily be mistaken for a description of his own: "She'll hit you with the social issues… childhood themes, and family issues too. I wouldn't say it's abstract, but you have to read a lot between the lines sometimes".
Cheryl remains an important influence on his life; Phife recently followed his mother's advice when accepting an invitation to speak before students.
"It was my colleague DJ Rasta Root's class – I was really his guest", he explains.
The lecture on DJ-ing was given at the University of North Carolina (UNC) back in April of this year.
"My mom had been telling me that I should do something like that, and I just hadn't done it yet, but after this first time at UNC I'm looking forward to doing it at other schools – or strictly at UNC if need be. Next semester or the semester after that they're going to have an MC class that I hope I'll be able to be a part of, because that's obviously my field".
His 'field' or not, he still holds strong opinions on the present absence of a certain DJ-ing skill that young listeners might be forgiven for not recognizing if ever they heard it: record scratching.
"There's a lot of laziness that's come about in this particular industry", insists Phife. "Just like at one time there was a lot of vinyl that you could purchase. These days, you can still purchase it, and things of that nature, but with the CDJs being involved and different types of equipment you can use to DJ, that's what they've started to cater to now. It's not about turntablism like it used to be.
"You have a select few DJs like Kid Capri, DJ Scratch – formerly of EPMD – DJs like that who still put the real in the forefront; Grandmaster Flash, and I'm sure if Run DMC's late great Jam Master Jay was still around he'd be doing the same – he has his Academy. So you still have DJs who put that in the forefront, but there's not enough DJs doing that. That's what I mean by the laziness.
"The CD is a cool item", he adds, "but it's not the same, and I wish it would go back to regular Technics 1200 where your skillset is beyond 'up to par'. Right now, it seems like anybody can DJ because there are so may buttons you can press in order to mix a record nowadays.
"I've not really been a DJ – I know how to do it; I know how to blend records – but they've made it easier for me given that I was never a pure turntablist like that. They've definitely made it easy for someone such as myself. Hence the reason why you have a lot of celebrities that DJ nowadays. And I think it's kind of messing up the game. Not to be a hater or anything, but I want to see Kid Capri use his hands to rock the party: he'll always do that. DJ Scratch…he'll use everything on his body to rock the party – it's not like that any more. It 's starting to dwindle…it's starting to lose its lustre".
Besides making guest lecture appearances on performance, Phife has found A Tribe Called Quest performing live themselves of late. The group's South By South West appearance – complete with their sometime fourth member Jarobi White – caught the attention of old school fans across the globe.
"We toured right before the doc came out, so we were touring in 2010. But SXSW was the first gig with the fellas since 2010.
"It was cool. It was definitely brought together last minute, but when you hear 'opening for Prince'… who's going to turn that down? So we got together. And every time we get together it feels like we never left. Once the music drops, it's all systems go".
Talk of Prince – an artist formerly known just as much for his wranglings with studio moguls as for the peerless recordings he's released over the years – brings us to a discussion on 'the industry' and how things have changed for artists since Tribe debuted on the scene.
Tribe's 1991 single Can I Kick It? was arguably the first to hit home and make them household names in the US, the UK and beyond. With its playfully eclectic sampling – featuring the likes of Ian Dury, Sergei Prokofiev, and most significantly, Lou Reed's Walk On the Wild Side – it remained astutely radio-friendly, thanks in no small part to a call and response chorus that mixed in a soupçon of Super Ted dialogue for good measure. But it was far from a commercial coup for the group.
"It came down to a clerical error. I mean, it's one of our biggest records. We made a little bit of money from it but the bulk of that money went to Lou Reed, the Walk on the Wild Side creator.
"He wasn't nasty about it, which was cool, because he could have said 'No – you can't use it at all'. And who knows where we would have been if he had said that. But he said 'yeah, sure, you can use it, however… I need this that and the other', and that was basically the bulk of the money.
"We knew that before we even knew it was going to be a smash, but it just so happened to be one of our biggest records. We already knew we weren't going to see much from it".
One can't help wondering if things are better or worse for recording artists today?
"I think things are better now business-wise", he explains, "because there's a lot more independence compared to the late eighties or early nineties. Back then we depended on then labels to put their best foot forward and get the project going… investing in the artist. Nowadays you have no choice but to point the finger to yourself if things go wrong or if things go right.
"So I think it's better now, because for me personally, I'm in my forties at this point – I think I'm too old to be running to labels, begging for certain kinds of deals, or being told what single I should drop first because it's going to make that particular label more money or it's a better 'look'. I'm doing it all by myself and I feel better.
"The one thing I'm looking forward to right now is the distribution. By the time I step to a distributor, I already have everything pretty much done. They can't tell me what I can't do".
Between break up and reunions, Phife has recorded the Ventilation LP (2000) and Songs in the Key of Phife (2011) as a solo artist.
He's soon to release a mix tape, Cheryl's Big Son – the Anomaly, and an EP set to be called Muttymorphisis.
Tribe's final album – The Love Movement – was arguably an ironically-titled one, given that by then the group were already close to breaking point, with relationships strained.
When it all ended, they had one album still outstanding in their contract with Jive Records.
"I guess to make a long story short, we just grew apart", Phife reflects.
As well as the issues with his musical family, Phife also constantly contended with the often debilitating diabetes that had almost stopped him short, even before his career had begun in earnest: "Our first album had only come out for a month when I was diagnosed… I thought my career was done".
Eventually, in 2008, he was to accept a successful kidney transplant from his own wife.
Past stresses behind him, Phife sometimes muses upon the idea of cutting that elusive final album.
"I thought that same album we owe Jive should have been the soundtrack to the documentary that was made", he has said. "They would've bounced off each other: it would've been a successful album, God-willing, and the movie from what I've seen has been very successful. So if you add that soundtrack… just imagine.
"Everybody wasn't on the same page and it didn't happen. So go figure".
Rapaport also remains convinced new music from Tribe would have galvanised the project.
"I was disappointed, especially considering the Oscars only nominated two 'Original Songs' that year", he explains. "If Tribe had done an original song, I would have loved nothing more than for them to have been nominated in that category… it would have been exciting for hip-hop".
One wonders if a new album will ever materialise.
"I have no idea", admits Rapaport. "I got yeses and nos from all of them… it's always different".
Phife offers his own response for today: "It's been almost 14 years now… I don't see it. I really don't. We're as far away from that as possible – shows or no shows".
For now, fans might take comfort in the fact this year's Wireless Festival is set to go some way to filling the void long left echoing with distant voices.
"There was an honesty in their words and music – you felt that you knew them", claims Rapaport. "Q-Tip and Phife had an It-factor and charisma that drew you closer.
"Another reason I make that comparison to the Beatles and The Stones is that if you have a pulse, you like them", he says. "Tribe's music is for everybody, but it's not compromised. That's what separates the good from the great. Certain artists have that, where it just works for everybody.
"That's the stuff you're going to remember".
A Tribe Called Quest play the main stage of the Yahoo Wireless Festival, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, on Sunday 14th July.
'Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest' is available to buy on DVD.