Recently I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. Famous for Tribe albums such as People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders, Phife has gone solo since the group broke up in 1998. With his 2000 album Ventilation the funky diabetic has proven his own lyrical prowess and shown that he doesn’t need anybody’s help to light up the mic. Phife will be performing with another original member of Tribe, Gerobi, on Monday at the Starlight in Old Town.
People were amazed when Tribe broke up in 1998; you guys were one of the best hip-hop groups in the game. Recently MTV News released a story speaking of a possible reunion between you, Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed [the other two members of Tribe]. Has there been any more progress?
It’s definitely a possibility, we’re talking about it but we haven’t spoken with Jive Records. The one thing that’s for sure is that it’ll be on Jive Records ’cause we owe them one more album. Everybody would love to do another album; it’s just getting everything together.
I know that part of the reason the group broke up was because of problems with Jive Records. Are you anticipating problems doing another album with them?
Every label has their faults and every artist has their faults to a point. But with Jive we could barely even see eye-to-eye. We owe them another album under our contract, though, so it’ll be with them.
After deciding to do solo careers, you chose to go with Groove Attack, a German-based independent record label, while Tip decided to go with a major in Arista. What made you make that decision and how has it gone?
You know, the reason why I did that was ’cause they let me have control over the music and that’s what it’s all about. They have offices in New York and Los Angeles too so they were in America, too. Problem with all that is that LandSpeed Distribution didn’t really put their foot behind it, they pulled back. No regrets though, it was a learning experience, everything in life is a learning experience, you know what I’m sayin?
Another problem that was brought to light when Tribe broke up was the stressed relations you had with Tip. He was the hyped member of the group who was supposed to be the one who came out and made it with his solo career, then he released his album and it was mediocre, and a lot of people thought he sold out to the MTV hype.
I never thought Q-Tip sold out. When Tribe started, we was the only ones besides Gangstar to incorporate Jazz Art into our music. Other than LL, we were the first to be doing songs about love, you know? So I never though Q-Tip sold out, we was doing that same stuff back when we was Tribe. But he’s a soloist, ya know? For Q-Tip, “Vivrant Thing” did not show what he was capable of lyrically, but it was hot. It’s what’s hot at the time that sells records in the end.
Your other partner in Tribe was DJ Ali Shaheed; what do you think of his work that he’s done since you all went your separate ways?
I spoke with Ali about a week ago and listened to his new stuff, and it’s really really hot. It’s bangin,’ but that’s all I’m gonna say, though; I’m not gonna tell you any more.
Right now Eminem is obviously what’s hot in the rap game. What do you think of his success and his ability as an artist?
Eminem is the best rapper in the business right now. His technique, cadence, breath control are all amazing. Lyrically, he is ill. And it always helps to have Dre have your back.
Eminem is great ’cause he brings everything to the game. His albums are hot and his stage presence is great. Usually you’ll get somebody with an album with only two or three good songs but whose performance is hot. Or you’ll get a great album and the performances are trash. Eminem brings everything to the table. He’s where it’s at right now.
What do you think of Em’s most recent prot/g/, 50 Cent? I know that with Tribe one thing all the fans loved is the positive vibe you brought to the game. The emphasis was more on the lyrics and beats and less on the violence. Gangsta rap seems to be what the big artists are doing right now.
50 Cent is hot, he’s where it’s at right now and I’m happy for him. He worked his way back up to the top and the anticipation for his album was great. I’m not against gangsta rap, I’m just against people doing the same things or frontin’ when they’re not gangsta, you know what I’m sayin’?
For people like NWA gangsta was their thing. 50 Cent, gangsta is his thing and that’s hot.
Tribe has had overwhelming success overseas. I know that you released a couple of your solo singles over there in the past couple years. What’s the biggest difference between your American fans and your fans overseas?
American fans aren’t as open-minded as overseas fans, but it’s not their fault. The radio stations dictate what’s hot over here, you know what I’m sayin’? The record labels dictate what’s hot. The labels are always lookin’ for the next Redman or the next Method Man instead of looking for the next hot thing, that’s the problem. There’s only one Method Man, you know? A lot of the time the radio will give the trashiest record the most run just ’cause they always looking for the same thing.
It’s like the movie Brown Sugar where the whack rappers got the most play. Mos Def had a great single and it got no attention.
Radio dictates the bullshit. All music is good, but playing the same stuff isn’t.
When you were with Tribe, you had amazing amounts of success. When did you know you had made it?
Coming up with Tribe, it was great ’cause we got the best of both worlds. We came up through the underground but also got the MTV love, too. Lollapalooza in 1994 was definitely a turning point. Touring with the Beastie Boys and George Clinton brought a bunch of different people with different musical tastes together. We had the funk, the rap; it definitely was the point that put Tribe over the top.
In 1994 at the inaugural Source awards Tribe was awarded Group of the Year honors. That must have been an incredible award to receive.
Source was big. I’m really proud of that award and I appreciate it more than a Grammy or something like that. Hah, but I’m not sayin’ I wouldn’t like a Grammy. But at the time that was our award, and by “our” I mean the hip-hop community, you know what I’m sayin’? That was them telling us that in hip-hop we were it. That was hot.
I’ve read before that you would like to do some work with Big Boi from Outkast. What other artists would you be interested in maybe collaborating with?
I like Big Boi and I really like Andre [Andre 3000, the other half of Outkast], too. They remind me a lot of Quest, you know? In that they’re very different style rappers who do it together, it’s hot.
Phife it’s been an honor kickin’ it with you, I’m really looking forward to your upcoming show.
You think you could get me one of your school’s basketball jersey’s for me and Gerobi? We’d like to wear them at the show. That’d be great, dog.
I think I could hook you up with those Phife.