Just minutes into A Tribe Called Quest’s headlining Pitchfork set Saturday night, when Phife Dawg‘s vocals streamed out of the speakers during what would’ve been his first big turn, the jumbotron right of the stage showed a crane shot of an empty space and unattended mike stand in front of Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s DJ setup. Phife Dawg, born Malik Taylor, died on March 22, 2016, a few months after he and rapper-producer Q-Tip got the group back together to play The Tonight Show in November 2015—a performance that convinced them they were meant to make music again. Tribe’s first album since 1998’s The Love Movement, titled We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service, came out November 11, almost a year after they reunited. Since Phife’s death they’ve reconvened only twice in public, with Pitchfork making three—in November they did two songs on Saturday Night Live, and in February they played a medley at the Grammys. Saturday’s set was Tribe’s first full show without Phife, and it succeeded because the group approached their past and present with clear eyes.
Lots of band reunions fail to capture what made the group magical in the first place—especially when the lineup that conjured that magic is incomplete. A Tribe Called Quest without Phife Dawg is like Led Zeppelin without John Bonham’s drums, or Parliament Funkadelic (who also played Pitchfork on Saturday) without Bootsy Collins’s bass. Tribe’s best material, including much of We Got It From Here, is great because of Phife as much as anyone else—and because of the brotherly chemistry that Toure’s November New York Times profile says the group reignited nearly two decades after their initial breakup.
At Pitchfork, Tribe acknowledged the loss in the only way they could—by recreating onstage the hole Phife’s death had left in their lives. Throughout the night Q-Tip, rapper Jarobi White (who left the group after their debut album but returned for We Got It From Here), and rapper Consequence (a cousin of Q-Tip’s who contributed to three Tribe albums) stepped aside to make room for Phife’s presence whenever Muhammad triggered a recording of their deceased member’s voice. Tribe probably have the means to produce a technologically impressive tribute, but no hologram or other wizardlike imagery would resonate quite as much as this austere display—they know nothing can replace Phife.
Tribe found a way to carry on in Phife’s absence, but not without some bumps. An a cappella break in “Find a Way” (from The Love Movement) exposed White’s sluggishness on the mike. The kind of sound issues that plague so many festival performances threatened to muffle Tribe’s golden instrumentals, though the group’s compact melodies still shined through. When Tribe closed their encore with the We Got It From Here single “We the People . . . ,” the instrumental sputtered and stopped, but Q-Tip appeared all too happy to hit replay. The second time, the song nearly ran its course, but then Q-Tip signaled Muhammad to run the track back to the beginning again—third time’s the charm, or perhaps charming. Q-Tip cracked jokes about his age while beatboxing (“Nobody does this anymore”), screamed Phife’s name as if suddenly compelled to by something rumbling deep in his body, and circled the stage with the attentiveness of a drill sergeant—he looked like he didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Q-Tip seemed driven by a desire to do right by Phife. When I listened through Tribe’s discography in the days before Pitchfork, I was struck by a brief moment on “Mr. Muhammad,” off the group’s 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Just before a pitched-down sample of the vocal harmonies from Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Brazilian Rhyme” bubbles up in the mix, Q-Tip raps, “Muhammad push the button / Sample sing the score.” Tribe’s music recognizes the power history has over us—that we couldn’t get to where we are without knowing where we started. And the group’s approach to sampling gives the source material room to breathe—Q-Tip’s line, which Phife repeats later in the song, suggests as much—while allowing Tribe to create something new.
In the middle of Tribe’s set, Muhammad broke the silence between songs by firing up a recording of Phife’s a cappella vocals from The Low End Theory cut “Butter.” The stage was dark, save for a few white spotlights focused on Muhammad. Phife’s line “Smooth like butter” began to echo at the end of his verse, and Muhammad let that sample sing—allowing us to hear Phife anew, if only for a moment.