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My ears were still ringing from the bands packing up their ersatz stage when I found a singles bin tucked in the back of the store. The box was packed with hip-hop 12-inches. I flipped past Beyonce, Snoop Dogg, Sir Mix-A-Lot, familiar faces successful enough to warrant a photographic sleeve, but the majority were anonymous promo sleeves where the label took priority. These tracks were released by artists seemingly riding on a tenuous connection to a dynasty, like a Master P associate or a distant Wu-Tang relative. One label doubled down, signing it with “violator” at the top and bottom in shadowed WordArt. Expecting obscurities, I noticed the artists in between, printed in smaller distorted font: A Tribe Called Quest & Erykah Badu.
The song was “I C U (Doin’ It),” copyright 2003. A quick search on my streaming service of choice turned up zero results. How did a collaboration between a contender for New York’s finest rap group and the funkiest singer in neo-soul end up selling for $4 at a punk record shop 15 years later?
Badu emerged from Dallas in 1996 with a new sound that owed as much to the swung hip-hop rhythms of Tribe’s production as it did the traditional soul music masters. By the time she released her third album Worldwide Underground in the fall of 2003, each of her previous projects had gone platinum.
A Tribe Called Quest broke up in 1998 after pioneering a potent mix of minimal jazz sample beats and poetic-yet-affable lyrics. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg blamed difficulties with their label Jive Zomba when they made the announcement before the release of their last album, The Love Movement. The two occasionally sniped at each other on their solo projects before inevitably reconciling, but five years passed without a sound from the group.
“I C U” ended that hiatus when it came out as a promo single at the beginning of November 2003. The track was the first sample of Violator label compilation V3: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Contemporary press coverage promised appearances by Missy Elliott, Mystikal and G-Unit. Though the imprint fit under the Jive Zomba label they had previously bad-mouthed in the press, Tip and Phife were likely lured back through their association with founder Chris Lighty. The New York Times called Lighty “one of the most powerful figures in the hip-hop business” because his Violator empire managed artists like 50 Cent, Diddy, and Missy. Q-Tip playfully dissed the executive on “What?” only a few years before Lighty brokered an endorsement deal between Tribe and Sprite. The first single on Lighty’s imprint was “Vivrant Thing,” Q-Tip’s debut solo track that landed on the inaugural Violator: The Album. It was the label’s most successful single. (Q-Tip was once performing the song in Las Vegas when Prince appeared onstage unprompted to play a guitar solo then disappear. Good song.) The combination of Lighty’s industry clout, Tribe’s reunion and a marquee collaborator must have set high expectations for the success of the result.
“I C U” is a breezy flirtation, almost anticlimactically casual and conversational. Tip and Phife each approach a woman with a grin and a notebook’s worth of lines. Their verses are charming, preoccupied with sex but with a sense of humor about it. Phife lifts from Jodeci to raise the stakes to “forever my lady.” Q-Tip brags about meeting at a sports bar in Times Square for reasons unknown. Critic Shea Serrano wrote that Tribe’s early track “Bonita Applebum” was able to ”master singing to women without placating them or appearing condescending.” Tribe made songs like that their whole career. “I C U”’s lineage also includes “Electric Relaxation.” Phife even uses the same boat-as-anatomy metaphor.
Q-Tip murmurs “I see you doin’ it” for a hook, and Badu harmonizes as a coy response. Despite their ahead-of-the-time attitudes toward women, Tribe rarely featured female performers. The Texan is an eager sparring partner, though she seems handicapped by her low placement in the mix. Even if its in deference to the elder musicians, it’s disappointing that Badu never gets a spotlight for a full verse of her own.
Though Q-Tip was the driving force of A Tribe Called Quest’s production, the “I C U” beat came from Rashad Smith. The Brooklyn beatmaker had previously produced a deep cut from Beats Rhymes & Life. Smith also produced the majority of Worldwide Underground as a member of Freakquency, along with Badu, James Poyser and RC Williams. Smith’s previous experiences working on duets were vastly different: the piano stab drama of Nas and Lauryn Hill’s “If I Ruled The World” compared to LL Cool J and LeShaun cooing at each other as they rep their boroughs in “Doin’ It.” It’s unclear if “I C U”’s parenthetical is a reference.
Ultimately, the four musicians work together smoothly. “I C U” doesn’t carry itself like a masterpiece because it isn’t. It’s not a career highlight for A Tribe Called Quest or Badu. The novelty of their partnership isn’t even enough to make this song more than a footnote.
And the music-buying public agreed. That month Billboard called the Tribe reunion “a dream come true,” yet writer Rashaun Hall also noted that “mainstream R&B stations have been slow to pick up on this.” They never did. The single only spent five weeks on the Billboard charts. The top hip-hop songs were more abrasive tracks by Ja Rule, G-Unit and Lil Jon. The excitement of Tribe’s return was only enough to land it at No. 90 the first week. Buried one spot above Tribe in its debut week was “Through The Wire,” a soul-sampling sing-along by rising Chicago artist Kanye West. Perhaps Tribe came back just a minute too soon.
The planned V3 album never saw the light of day. Besides the initial 12” and CD single, “I C U” only resurfaced once three years later on a Japan-exclusive rarities comp. Today, it’s not streaming anywhere except YouTube. Beats Rhymes & Life, the essential 2011 documentary that shows Q-Tip and Phife’s contentious relationship throughout their on-and-off reunions, never mentions the song.
Badu had collaborated with rappers before linking up with Tribe, but her later work pushed further into hip-hop than ever. Her next album, New Amerykah Part 1, featured patchwork samples by Q-Tip apostles like Madlib, Questlove and 9th Wonder. Mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone balanced its warm cuts with icy synths. Phife spent most of the intervening time with his second passion, sports, popping up on radio and ESPN. Q-Tip made solo albums that sometimes got shelved, joined and left Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music, and worked behind the scenes. A Tribe Called Quest did reunite on record again with a new album in 2016, recorded before Phife’s death at the age of 45.
We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service debuted at the top of the charts and prompted rapturous recollections of Tribe’s entire career. Most writers preferred to bookend the group’s career with The Love Movement, so “I C U” was rarely mentioned. The group, mourning Phife and adding special guests, performed at the 2017 Grammys. The collective upped the stakes for a perfunctory award show, directly protesting President Donald Trump and his policies only a few weeks into his term.
Yet, We Got It From Here received no nominations from the Recording Academy when it was actually eligible. Like their first comeback 15 years prior, A Tribe Called Quest had been left behind. Q-Tip was distraught and indignant. Dave Chappelle spoke for hip-hop fans everywhere when he introduced the Best Rap Album category, demanding the audience “make some noise for A Tribe Called Quest.” At an after-party, the comedian introduced the night’s DJ: Erykah Badu. Midway through her set, she dropped the needle on “Can I Kick It,” and the crowd roared.
Jack Riedy is a Chicago-based writer, comedian, and person. He is also the self-appointed world’s biggest Space Jam fan. Read more of his work at jackriedy.com.