Disclaimer: I originally published this article on 2011, when Artistic Manifesto was a blogspot website. Recently, I re-read it. Much like Phife’s contributions to hip-hop, the content is still very relevant today.
A Tribe Called Quest has been one of my favorite groups for about as long as I’ve been into hip-hop. From the lyrics to the jazzy loops to their overall positive vibes they project, I’ve had many a reason to keep them in my iPod over the years. So you can only image my excitement when the opportunity emerged to interview the legendary Phife Dawg. A truly dope lyricist, huge sports fan, and an incredible all-around entertainer. Learn from the unique viewpoint of one of the best emcees in the game in the interview below.
If you were describing yourself to a complete stranger, what would you say?
Goofy, witty, just love to have fun. At the same time, there’s another side to me. If I feel disrespected, a lot changes. You definitely don’t wanna get on that bad side.
What inspired your entrance into the musical world?
Growing up in Queens, if you didn’t do music or some kind of sport you were weird. I was a product of my environment. I wanted to be in the in crowd. Being the smallest person in my class, I had to prove myself. The hip hop and sports came natural. And the women, of course.
If you could work with any artist, past or present, who would it be and why?
Stevie Wonder for one, he was just a genius. A lot of people take it for granted when they’re able to do just do things on a whim. Here’s a guy been blind all his life, but still no one can do it like him. He still excelled despite the odds. He always honored his craft, and will always be known as the best.
Prince is another loves what he does. He’s always trying something new. He was never comfortable sounding like anyone else, and he set a lot of trends. Nas is a genius. Production wise, I think Dr. Dre is that guy. DJ Quik is that guy. All that being said, I have no regrets being a part of a A Tribe Called Quest. Q-tip is a genius at production and emceeing. He’s definitely the best lyricist to ever produce a track.
Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
KRS-1, Stevie Wonder, and Chaka Kahn are big inspirations musically. Then you have people like Magic Johnson, Julius Erving. James Worthy and Michael Jordan. I’m a big Tar Heels fan. They make me just wanna wake up every day and go hard. My moms of course.
How do you feel about the state of sports these days?
It’s hard to watch NBA games, compared to back in the day. Like when you had Dr. J and Larry Bird in their primes. They were probably cool off the court, but they went so hard that they’d put their hands up every once in a while and get to brawling. That’s how much they cared. You don’t see that nowadays. Isaiah and Magic were best friends, but they were scrappin’ in the finals. The NBA back then is nothing like it is right now. If there are, say 600 NBA players, only 150 players really care. Whereas, college ball I can still feel like yesteryear like when Jordan hit that shot, and when James Worthy was runnin’ things. You still saw drive and felt intensity. Even now you still feel it because they’re trying to impress and get to the draft. Hopefully it will get back to what it was. Hip hop is the same shit. Nobody really cares anymore.
The first song I heard by A Tribe Called Quest was “Scenario.” It, to me, is just emcee after emcee over this amazingly edgy, creepy beat. And the energy is so amazing. What was it like recording that track with Leaders of the New School?
It was dope, you just had to be on your feet. You pretty much didn’t wanna play yourself and sound silly among a group of talented emcees. Everyone put their best foot forward. We didn’t know it was gonna be so classic, but that’s when you know people care about your craft. It was very, very competitive. We knew good and damn well that Busta Rhymes had to go at the end. Everyone held it down and he just threw it into orbit. We coulda been a group together if the timing had been right.
How would you compare your love dancehall to your love for hip-hop?
That’s my culture. I’m not even Jamaican, but being in NYC, you have your Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and Guyanese. Just a hotbed of West Indians, as well as Haitians. I got into the whole French movement. I’d be in the shower dancing to whatever they were playing, because it was so loud you could hear it down the block. I definitely love dancehall, and hip-hop comes from all that. Kool Herc, who set off the whole hip hop movement, was Jamaican. Not many people know that. He migrated to NY and handled his business, and here we are today.
How important was the friendship between Q-tip, Ali Shaheed Mohammad, Jairobi, and yourself in building chemistry and creativity within the group?
It was so important that I’d say if we hadn’t been friends before rap came into play I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you right now. We would have bottomed out a long time ago if not for friendship. I met them all in my childhood. Friendship means a lot because a lot of groups are just put together on a whim, and they end up not getting along. With us we had our ups and downs, but we lasted this long because of our friendship. There could be a conflict, but we could always squash it at the end of the day.
I was listening to your collaboration with Shaq, “Where Ya At,” a while back. It seems like he’s actually a pretty good emcee. Think he could have held his own, long term?
I do actually, but that wasn’t his meat and potatoes so to speak. It was his macaroni and cheese, his collard greens. Basketball is what gave him that window of opportunity, just like hip hop is giving me an opportunity to go after my sports endeavors. If his life depended on it, he definitely could have been a dope emcee. Out of all the athletes who tried this hip hop thing he’s been the best. Chris Webber even produces on the side, he’s very talented. But when it comes to spittin, Shaq is that dude.
How would you compare your experience as a solo artist to your experience as a member of ATCQ in terms of creative freedom?
It’s fun doing it on your own, being creative and doing things on your own. However, it’s easier doing it as a group because you have the support of people you’re involved with. We haven’t done an album in a while but if we wanted to do one tomorrow it would be easy. All we gotta do is get together, chill, laugh, and hear a hot beat. And it would go like clockwork. It goes back to the friendship. Being a solo artist, is cool but I still look for input from Tip, Shaheed, and Jairobi. I’ll still call them and ask if it’s hot. Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t. Hopefully, we’ll go out as a group. But I’m not gonna stop. I’m a married man with a family to support, and I gotta do what I gotta do.
In the song “Check The Rhime,” it genuinely sounded like you and Q-tip were rehashing the way you would practice your raps back in the day. How accurate is this portrayal?
Yeah, with Low End Theory it wasn’t so much of a conceptual album. We were just bouncing off each other. We wanted people to see that chemistry. Like Run DMC. Growing up I always admired their chemistry. Same with Havoc and Prodigy. I always enjoy that kind of chemistry. Raekwon and Ghostface. I wanted us to have that kind of magic. I wanted to be just like them. When you come into your own, it’s like making your own lane. In the same token, we wanted to have that chemistry. We did it our way, the tribe way. I can’t describe exactly what the tribe way is, but it’s something different.
If you could add one disclaimer to Michael Rappaport’s “Beats, Rhymes, and Life,” what would it be?
Only thing with the movie overall that I wish could have taken place more was more music the way we created some of these albums or what have you. Also more J Dilla talk. More Busta Rhymes being involved. They’re honorary members of tribe in my eyes. Also more De La Soul. These guys are definitely honorary members. We wouldn’t be here if not for De La holding us down and not being “yes men.” Same with the Jungle Brothers. They really knew the ins and outs. They’re the only ones who can really say that something is hitting or not. I really can’t get mad at that though. With the minutes of the movie that rap was allowed in, I thought he did a good job. I thought the title really fit. You can’t have beats and rhymes without life. The good thing about it all is that everything came to fruition. Me personally, I would love to have another Tribe album come out, but I can’t call it at this point. I love these fans, I love my group. There’s no better combination than that.
How do you feel about the state of lyricism today as opposed to back in the 90’s?
I think a lot of emcees are too comfortable, a little bit lazy. I can’t even blame it on the artists. I blame it on companies and radio stations. They always look for what’s hot, knowing that it’s not. The labels get too lazy to find the next best thing. They want a duplicate, instead of looking to let someone new blossom. They look to find the same lane as previous rappers. I can’t stand shit like that. That’s why everyone’s kind of jumbled on top of each other. Nicki Minaj does it but she’s just over here somewhere. She rhymes like there’s no turning back for her. She rhymes like she has no fear. That’s the hot shit here. The whole Young Money, Cash Money thing. Drake made a name for himself. Wayne is like James Brown. He’s the hardest working dude in the game. Not too many dudes sell records while incarcerated. They’re the only ones making their own lane right now. Of course you have Jay-Z. And then there’s Diddy and Dirty Money with their latest release. I have a love and admiration for people not afraid to push the envelope. When you got a million emcees, you gotta stand out somehow.
What is the ultimate goal you have for your music?
I just want people to enjoy it. Words are very powerful. Hopefully my words don’t offend people. Sometimes great music will startle people or ruffle some feathers from time to time, but I don’t wanna make a habit of it. I wanna sell a million copies, but I’m not gonna play myself to do it. Tribe’s been doing it for a long time. I’m already stuck in my ways. I’m not gonna go outside of the box and play myself. I’m not looking to do anything crazy. We’ve been doing this for two decades. Shame on me if I go out and try something crazy. I can’t go out like that. The true reward every time we come out with an album is when people walk up to us and say, “yo, I was on the wrong path, lost a family member, thought life was nothing. I heard you guys and you really influenced us.” That’s the real reward.
A manifesto is a declaration of intents and principles. What is your Artistic Manifesto?
Don’t bite. Stop biting. Be yourself. Make your own lane, because karma will get you. I believe in true karma. You can look good for a moment, but what’s done in the dark will come to light. Don’t play yourself. Be original. I’d rather be labeled wack then to bite someone else’s style. That’s how adamant I am about that. And I’m not even talking about hip hop- it could be R&B, country, whatever the case may be. Be original. Even with sampling. Find a different way to flip it. We were one of the first to use the Isley Brothers’ song “Between The Sheets” for the Bonita Applebaum remix. Then Biggie used it for Hypnotize, but it sounded kinda different. See what I’m sayin? Biggie killed that track, and it became a hit. Make your own lane.