The poet and essayist's new book is a fan's account of A Tribe Called Quest

Hanif Abdurraqib still remembers what he was doing when he learned Phife Dawg had died in March 2016.

At the time, the Columbus native was living in Connecticut and working from home. “I was just kind of doing what one does in the modern American workforce, which is I had several tabs open [on the computer browser], only a couple of them related to actual work,” Abdurraqib said.

One of those tabs was Twitter. When he saw Phife's name trending, he assumed the worst: That the rapper and member of A Tribe Called Quest had died.

“It was one of those moments when, I think this person might be dead, but I'm gonna hold out hope that he's not,” Abdurraqib said. “To grow up as a fan of a music group is to kind of attach yourself to a member, and I was a huge Phife fan.”

Phife was short — dubbed the Five-Foot Assassin — and so is Abdurraqib. Phife had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, much like Abdurraqib, who writes about everyone from Drake to Johnny Cash to Carly Rae Jepsen. Abdurraqib eulogized Phife in a piece for MTV News. He would write two more pieces about A Tribe Called Quest — one after its November 2016 performance on “Saturday Night Live” and another after its 2017 Grammy performance.

The University of Texas Press took note and approached Abdurraqib about writing a book. He initially declined. Writing a traditional biography didn't appeal to him. Still, he began thinking about a book proposal and wrote several sample chapters. He realized what he was writing was far from a traditional biography; it was a fan's narrative. Those chapters would turn into Abdurraqib's third book, Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest.

The University of Texas Press was on board with his approach, but Abdurraqib admits he worried about getting it wrong. He has written two books: poetry collection The Crown Ain't Worth Much, and They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, an essay collection. Go Ahead In The Rain was new terrain for him.

“With this book it was like, how do I find not only multiple doorways into the same topic, but multiple doorways into a moving topic, a shifting target that spans decades and that spans a world changing with it?” Abdurraqib said.

Go Ahead In The Rain is about A Tribe Called Quest, but it's also about fandom, black music and growing up with a band. It's about Abdurraqib as much as it is about Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Fans of Abdurraqib's writing will recognize his ability to seamlessly weave together stories about multiple, often disparate topics. Whether he's reminiscing about his failed attempt to master the trumpet as a child, or geeking out over the history of sampling in hip-hop, or dissecting a 2011 Tribe documentary, each story serves the larger purpose: recounting the life of A Tribe Called Quest through a fan's eyes.

“[The book] fell in line with that, where a biography would be positioning myself as an expert on that group, and I am not. But I am a fan who had very specific experiences tethered to the group's lifespan, and that felt more worth exploring to me. … Largely I was interested in building an entire ecosystem around what being a fan of Tribe Called Quest meant for my entire life.” 

Hear Abdurraqib read a chapter from Go Ahead In The Rain.