As a member of A Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed Muhammad played a pivotal role in the evolution of rap music throughout the 1990s, factoring in the development of the jazz-rooted, sample-based production approach that epitomized Native Tongues, the beloved collective of unorthodox groups that also included the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul. During and following the activity of Tribe — whose six studio albums, from 1990 to 2016, went either gold or platinum and bagged a handful of Grammy nominations — the DJ, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter has been vital on his own and with other collaborators. Muhammad co-wrote and co-produced the Top 40 pop hit that instigated the neo-soul movement, D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" (1995), and earned another Grammy nomination via Lucy Pearl's "Dance Tonight" (2000). After releasing his lone solo album, Shaheedullah and Stereotypes (2004), Muhammad continued performing and recording with the sporadically active Tribe, and also paired with Adrian Younge for the score to Marvel's Luke Cage series (2016-2018), The Midnight Hour (2018), and the Jazz Is Dead sessions (2020).
A native of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Ali Shaheed Muhammad first DJed at the age of eight, when he relieved his uncle on the turntables at one of his mother's house parties. Within a few years, thanks in part to the availability of his uncle's studio equipment, Muhammad and Q-Tip — eventually joined by Phife and Jarobi White — were laying the foundation for A Tribe Called Quest. Muhammad was still a teenager when Tribe debuted with People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), an album that set off one of the richest and most inspiring discographies in rap music, crowned by the undisputed classics A Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993). Tribe split ahead of the release of fifth full-length The Love Movement (1998), but almost 20 years later regrouped to record their final statement, We Got It from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service (2016), before Phife died of complications related to diabetes. Tribe amassed gold or platinum RIAA certifications for each one of their LPs and were nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Best Rap Album for The Love Movement.
Muhammad's outside pursuits commenced during Tribe's rise. Although Fu-Schnickens' F.U. Don't Take It Personal (1992) assigns credit to A Tribe Called Quest on three tracks, including the Phife-featuring single "La Schmoove," Muhammad alone was responsible for their production, invested more in his group's name than his own. By the end of Tribe's '90s run, his birth name was on dozens of other recordings, including work by Young MC, Shaquille O'Neal, Da Bush Babees, and Gil Scott-Heron. Most significantly, Muhammad co-wrote and co-produced D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" (1995), a Top 30 pop, Top Five R&B/hip-hop hit. Shortly after that success, Muhammad and Q-Tip forged a studio alliance with emergent beatmaking wiz Jay Dee (aka J Dilla), naming themselves the Ummah. The production team worked together on the fourth and fifth Tribe albums and in varying configurations either produced or remixed material by an assortment of artists for a few years. Meanwhile, Muhammad placed solo productions on a couple of the decade's biggest solo debuts, namely Angie Stone's Black Diamond and Mos Def's Black on Both Sides (both 1999).
Around the time the Ummah were winding down, associate Raphael Saadiq and Muhammad conceived a short-lived R&B group that added En Vogue's Dawn Robinson. Titled after their name, Lucy Pearl (2000) peaked within the Top 30 of the Billboard 200 and went gold, propelled by the Top 40 pop, Top Five R&B/hip-hop hit "Dance Tonight," which was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Muhammad's next project was the solo album Shaheedullah and Stereotypes (2004). Produced with Chris Dave, it showcased Muhammad's multi-instrumentalist and rapping skills with Sy Smith and Mint Condition's Stokley Williams among the featured guests. Around this time, Tribe reactivated for festival performances and touring that occurred irregularly through the next several years. Muhammad concurrently recorded with some of the Shaheedullah co-stars, as well as Kanyu Tree, ZZ Ward, and John Legend.
Muhammad and fellow producer Adrian Younge established a deep partnership on Souls of Mischief's There Is Only Now (2014), for which the former provided narration and later remixed five of its tracks for a separate release. The two continued to work extensively beyond Tribe's sixth and last album, heard on collaborative scores for both seasons of Marvel's Luke Cage series (2016-2018) and The Midnight Hour (2018), an expansive synthesis of orchestral soul, post-bop jazz, and hip-hop. After they connected with admired and elder Brazilian and African-American musicians ranging from Marcos Valle to Roy Ayers, Muhammad and Younge returned with the Jazz Is Dead series (2020). ~ Andy Kellman