Jarobi Finds New Path in Miami After A Tribe Called Quest

Photo by Bill Wadman
Few things match the excitement of discovering that Jarobi of A Tribe Called Quest has been holding down a weekly Monday-night party at Wynwood's Asian food hall, 1-800-Lucky. Putting it in terms that hip-hop-agnostic readers might understand: It's the equivalent of learning Ringo Starr was hosting a recurring karaoke night at the local pub and neglected to tell anyone.

Tribemania never took off the same way Beatlemania skyrocketed, but if you ever find yourself in a debate over the greatest rap group of all time, A Tribe Called Quest will inevitably be one of the last acts standing. Beginning with 1990's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Tribe made a name for itself in the realm of conscious rap. Q-Tip's smooth flow, Phife Dawg's clever pop culture references, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad's impeccable samples have prompted many listeners to stand with the Tribe. So New Times had to check out what has been Miami's biggest open musical secret of the past year: Tribe's fourth member, Jarobi White, has been quietly DJ'ing Monday nights.

At 8 p.m on Presidents' Day, Jarobi was setting up behind his Mac laptop adorned with bumper stickers emblazoned with phrases like "Jazz is dead" and "No requests ever." Laid-back and unassuming, Jarobi said DJ'ing was a relatively new thing for him.

"I wanted to do more than just rapping to keep my passion for music going. I'd been practicing my chops for two years doing it at home. [1-800-Lucky's owner] Sven Vogtland is a real good friend of mine, so I started doing this about a year ago."

Jarobi said he goes by mood and has no preconceived playlist when he enters the Monday-night gig. "I don't know the first song I'm playing going in — depends how I'm feeling." On this night, he was feeling "I Know You Got Soul," Bobby Byrd's 1971 funk classic. A peek at his music library, organized by beats per minute, showed everything from Frank Ocean to Ghostface Killah to Michael Jackson. At one point, he played Tribe's "Scenario," but throughout the night, listeners are likelier to hear music the group sampled — sounds from Jarobi's '70s youth. "Like most black kids that grew up when I did, my parents put on music when they were cleaning the house. My stepmother played classical; my dad was into funk and jazz. My mom loved Chicago. Stevie, Marvin, and the Isleys raised me. And Prince."

Early in the night, several mostly older hip-hop heads stopped by the DJ booth to pay their respects or pass Jarobi a hit from their blunt. He had time to talk about the past while his DJ'ing partner, Tillery James, managed the soundtrack.

"He's from Brooklyn," Jarobi said of James by introduction.

"Did you grow up together?" a New Times reporter asked.

"No, I'm from Queens," Jarobi responded.

"That's right," said the reporter, remembering the opening line from Midnight Marauders. "Linden Boulevard represent."

Jarobi nodded.

"Is it weird strangers know where you grew up?"

"Yeah, it's weird people know my street," Jarobi replied. "There's a mural of us where we hung out that's now a tourist attraction. We'd be on that corner doing what dudes do drinking 40s. Now that street is named after Malik [Izaak Taylor, AKA Phife Dawg]. Tour buses stop by there now."

The members of A Tribe Called Quest were young when they hit it big. Upon the 1990 release of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Jarobi, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were only teenagers. "I was 17 when we did it," Jarobi recalled. "I was 13 when we did our first demo. 'Bonita Applebaum' and 'Pubic Enemy' were on those demos. Everyone said they sucked. They were a little dirtier, but they were the same songs."

Jarobi said neighborhood connections snagged them a record deal in that pre-internet age. "Tip went to high school with the Jungle Brothers. We had a direct line with the industry." Success didn't go to their heads despite the early critical and commercial recognition. "We grew up in an extraordinary situation. Our neighborhood was LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C. We knew how to go up. There were classy people showing us the way. We were insulated from the BS."

But as they were clearing a path to a legendary career, Jarobi cut himself loose from Tribe to go to culinary school in 1991. A snippet in Midnight Marauders, where a robotic voice states, "A Tribe Called Quest consists of four members: Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, and Jarobi A E I O U and sometimes Y," memorialized his limited involvement in the group's next three records.

Jarobi said he has no regrets about his decision. "Thankfully, I'm a good chef. I did that to show that people can reinvent themselves." But wasn't seeing his crew get so much love while he was perfecting Asian-style cooking difficult? "I was around the studio during those three albums. I just wasn't touring while I was doing my chef thing."

The situation changed during the making of what Jarobi describes as their first last album, 1998's The Love Movement. He joined the group on a farewell tour that wasn't. The 21st Century would see more reunion tours, but the bandmates couldn't make enough peace to get back into the recording studio. The rift between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg was the centerpiece of the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. The movie celebrates the music of Tribe but is also heartbreaking in showing how two people who created such beautiful music together fell so far apart. The flick gets Jarobi's thumbs-up. "I thought it was a dope movie that encapsulates the era."

An era seemed to end March 22, 2016, when Phife Dawg died of complications from diabetes. But before he left this world, Phife left his fans one last gift. He, Q-Tip, Ali, and Jarobi had recorded one final Tribe record in the months before his death. "The idea was going in without any pretense," Jarobi said. "If it sucks, we won't put it out. It was about spending time together."

This writer had been burned on too many reunion albums from favorite bands, from the Pixies to Jane's Addiction, to get too hyped about this record. But right from the opening track, it was clear 2016's We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service was something different, something special, something that definitely didn't suck.

The lyrics were angrier, more defiant about injustices, but still undeniably Tribe. It debuted as the number one record on the charts. The band gave a blistering performance of "The Space Program" on Saturday Night Live the weekend immediately after Donald Trump's election, giving the refrain "Let's make something happen" added meaning. They went on a short tour in 2017 (which, sadly, never made it to Miami), which Jarobi said will definitively be Tribe's last. "There's no chance we tour again. It was too difficult without Phife, too emotional. We were crying after every show." Jarobi also said We Got It will also be Tribe's swan song for recording. "Phife is gone. There's no more. There are songs that didn't make the album, but there's a reason they didn't make the album."

So for Jarobi, Tribe is the past. The Monday-night 1-800 Lucky DJ gig is the present. What else? As far as more music, Jarobi was mute. Tillery James, his DJ'ing partner, said they're launching an event called the Love Movement, where they'll take their musical libraries to cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, and New York for one-night events similar to the weekly set at 1-800 Lucky. James also said he's pestering Jarobi to do a solo album.

Jarobi was mum about future rapping, but he was effusive about his relocation to Miami. "My wife was living down here. She said she can't do winters, so I moved down here three years ago. I wish I did it earlier." He also has two teenagers. His son, now 14, is about the same age as Jarobi when he began rapping. "He's good at rap. I was hoping he sucked. I want him to do anything but this." Listening to A Tribe Called Quest's albums makes telling a kid to do anything else a difficult task.

8 p.m. Mondays at 1-800-Lucky, 143 NW 23rd St., Miami; 305-768-9826; Admission is free.