(photo courtesy of Starita Music)

Michael Starita remembers when Phife Dawg came to Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios back in 2016 to work on some new, mysterious record.

“I hear the beat come in and I’m like, ‘Wow that sounds a lot like Tribe.’ Then I heard this little hook line,” says the two-time Grammy-nominated producer and owner of Starita Music, from Awaken Cafe in downtown Oakland. First, he hears Jarobi. Then, the indelible Q-Tip. “I look over at Phife and he’s on his phone writing lyrics and I said, ‘Is it safe to say that this is a new A Tribe Called Quest record?’ He looks up from his phone and goes, ‘Shhhhh.’ And the hair on my body just stood up.”

Both that studio and Phife are gone now, those sessions immortalized on ATCQ’s sixth record’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service and on Phife’s much-anticipated posthumous album, Forever. The Five-Footer may have left his earthside location, but Starita’s relationship (he released a song with Jarobi White called “Rules” in 2017) and affiliation with ATCQ wasn’t slowing down just yet.

“I started putting feelers out for bands and Starita’s like, ‘Dude, why haven’t you called me yet?’ but in nicer words,” laughs Lyz Luke, co-founder and executive director of UnderCover Presents, sitting across from Starita. Partnering with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for this year’s UnderCover Presents A Tribute to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders (out this week) Luke knew their first golden era hip-hop production (UnderCover paid tribute to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in in 2017) had to go big and expanded the celebration beyond just the three live performances. There’s an entire A Tribe Called Quest Week, Phife Dawg Day, the release of a commemorative double-vinyl pressing with a slated Jarobi record signing day. It’s been almost two years since Luke’s break from UnderCover, dedicating more time to getting Second Line Vinyl off the ground. “I want to come out the gate swinging. And I think we’ve done that with this album.”

Luke first met Starita at Faultline Studios, back when the Oakland facility was a partner for UnderCover’s Radiohead Kid A and Bob Marley Exodus tributes. His ATCQ history notwithstanding, Luke knew Starita was the right person to revamp UnderCover’s show-first, album-second approach. With Starita’s 20-year studio experience, they decided to take an inverse route — “To me, you make a kick-ass album, then everything else falls into place,” he says.

Starita and Luke worked with 13 local bands, seven MCs, over 100 artists and nine engineers over five studios and a vinyl pressing plant. Names like Gift of Gab, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Gina Madrid are sprinkled throughout the track list, but rest assured this isn’t a hip-hop album. The James Brown “Just Enough Room for Storage” opening guitar lick on “Lyrics to Go” gets reimagined as bhangra; “Clap Your Hands” is remade into a piece of psychedelic soul and the uber laid-back “The Chase, Part II” gets a dance floor treatment courtesy of Starita. That song was the most unfamiliar ATCQ track for RyanNicole, who’s voice appears three times on the album, but Starita asked her to do it anyway.

“One of the benefits of not doing songs I knew well was that I had to be me,” she says in a phone call. “My tongue where it went, allowed me to be myself and really do my own interpretation.” Her work as an actor is what appealed to Starita, who constantly blew him away. “She’s like a chameleon; she can morph into all these different styles, it’ll sound like a totally different person. It’s all these characters,” he says. “It’s wild. I was very, very impressed.”

Originally, Luke wanted to do Low End Theory. But Midnight Marauders won out, partly due to timeliness (it celebrated 25 years in 2017) but mainly for the diversity, inclusivity, and innovation the group was pushing back in 1993. The precise drum programming and connoisseur-like sampling equalized alongside Phife’s charisma and punchiness are present on songs like “Award Tour,” “Electric Relaxation” and even “Sucka N*gga,” proving these dudes couldn’t just write rhymes and have some fun with it. They had become masters at making polished radio rap imbued with a deeper message and sophisticated craftsmanship. Above all, the music was accessible, Starita remembers, and broke down this notion that you had to be brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, or Haitian to get it.

“They didn’t go in the same old ways, doing the same old shit that everyone else was doing and that was another reason it was like, ‘Holy shit’ when you heard the record,” Starita says.

“A lot of other people who weren’t into hip-hop felt that it was people of color resenting white people or that you had to be part of the demographic to be hip to it,” Luke adds. “And ATCQ wasn’t about that. They were very inclusive, excessively so. They weren’t anti-anybody, they were just about acceptance.”

And those ideals are part of what makes Luke and her team of “music enablers” more than UnderCover executives and organizers. Doing this project, Starita says, is more about letting these artists channel ATCQ’s spirit. The energy, ingenuity, and to just let these bands be themselves in a place where artists regularly contribute to the culture but rarely get to thrive. Infusing confidence, RyanNicole says, is what happens when bands pass through UnderCover’s tutelage. “UnderCover gives us the task of approaching these gargantuan, goliath works and says, we believe you’re up to task to take on these iconic albums and even surpass them,” she says. But of course, she tosses up all the credit to Luke. “Lyz figures out a way to hustle vision in the smallest ways.”

“Whenever we have a band commit to UnderCover, we really emphasize that this isn’t about you sounding like A Tribe Called Quest or Bob Dylan or Green Day or Amy Winehouse. This is about you sounding like Wolf & Crow, Royal Jelly Jive, or RyanNicole,” Luke emphasized. “The small role I try to play with UnderCover is I can at least get you in front of 1,800 people who have never heard you before, who will fall in love with you.”

YBCA & UnderCover Presents: A Tribute to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
May 16-18, 2019
8:30pm, $39.50 – $49.50