Phife Dawg burst onto the scene in the early 90s as part of the seminal hip hop crew A Tribe Called Quest and as a member of the Native Tongue Movement. As the contrast to the lead emcee, Q-Tip, Phife dropped punchlines and battle rhymes with abandon. The five foot assassin improved his lyrics and technique throughout Tribe’s tenure delivering classic lines and verses before setting out solo.
Halftime: I know you’ve been asked this question a lot lately but we have to do it as responsible journalists. What’s going on with the Knicks right now because they are looking horrible. Van Horn is your main man right now and that’s scary.
Phife: Van Horn is definitely not my man. I don’t even know why he is on the squad because he is not even consistent like that. The way he played in Philly last year I can’t even imagine him coming to New York and doing the same thing. He won’t last for the whole season. He’ll be there because that’s Scott Layden’s boy, but Scott Layden is already an asshole. Scott Layden used to be the GM for the Jazz. He came over to New York and got Shandon Anderson, like we needed him, and Howard Eisley, like we needed him. If he wanted to make us the New York Jazz he should have brought Karl Malone over. I’m not even fond of Karl Malone but you can’t front on his game. I just want to win and the Knicks haven’t won since ’73 and we’re not gonna win with Van Horn, Howard Eisley as the point guard and Dikembe at center.
I forgot they’re even paying Dikembe.
Phife: We need him on the defensive side but when he starts shooting we’re in trouble. I don’t mind him being in the middle because when Patrick was here teams weren’t going to the middle all crazy. We had him taking up a lot of space but as soon as he left they started dunking and laying it up on us with no problem. I don’t think that will be happening with Dikembe in the middle but once the offense has to go through him we’re in trouble.
It’s the official start of the Lebron James era what do you expect from him, Carmelo, and Darko?
Phife: It’s gonna take Darko a minute but Larry Brown is definitely going to get him to play some defense. Lebron is going to fill up the seats in Cleveland and he’s going to have the advantage because Paul Silas is gonna put him at point guard. I think rookie of the year should be Carmelo Anthony for the simple fact that his game is a little more refined being that he spent that one year in college and won the whole thing. Not only that he’s in a tougher conference and he’s playing the three and that position is no joke in the western conference. I expect him to do his thing but it looks like they are trying to give Lebron rookie of the year already.
Every time I see Carmelo play its like he’s moving in slow motion.
Phife: That’s because his game is just smooth. His game is not flashy. He’ll do the turn around jumper on you, back you down and he runs the wing really well. I think he’ll be the beneficiary of a lot of good passes since Denver has Andre Miller. He just has an Adrian Dantley, Mark Acguire type game. Besides Michael Jordan was picked third and who won rookie of the year.
Looking at the Lakers talent wise how excited are you to see that squad together?
Phife: I’m not excited about it. It’s a travesty to me but I think they are gonna win it all unless they get injured.
Why do you think it’s a travesty?
Phife: I don’t want to see Karl Malone win a title. Gary Payton I can deal with but Karl Malone is a cry baby ass nigga. I have a problem with Karl because of what he said about Magic. I didn’t appreciate that. I think he’s a dirty ballplayer to a certain extent but he is somebody I would like to have on my team.
I read somewhere that you are not trying to be a sports commentator anymore.
Phife: Nah, I probably said I wasn’t looking forward to doing the agent thing because that shit is grimy right there. My friend is Marshall Faulk’s agent, he schooled me on things, and I see how ugly it can get. If I get a chance to do it I will but I rather just be an analyst. I’m not really that type of dude to be stepping on toes and getting my toes stepped on. I lie to get out of trouble but to live your life and feed your family off that shit. Nah.
How do you even break into the sports commentating field without being an ex athlete? What are you doing now to prepare?
Phife: From what I understand, it’s almost like acting. You’re going to have to take classes. I know how to speak properly, but at the same time I’m used to speaking ebonics with my friends. I know I’ll need a coach for that plus I don’t like wearing suits but if I get the job I wouldn’t mind. I want to start with maybe radio stations or access cable because I believe in crawling before you walk. Everybody thinks all we know how to do is be rappers or MCs but it takes a lot to be a good rapper and MC. You have to have good diction, business etiquette and things of that nature.
What’s your opinion on the situation with Maurice Clarrett?
Phife: I’m a Ohio State fan and I thought we was really onto something big when we won that championship last year. I really think what he should do is go to school and do these semesters and get his grades and play next year for Ohio State. I think he should do that but I really don’t know what happened. He saying he ain’t going back. He talking to Jim Brown and Jim Brown has him on some militant shit. He either needs to go to Ohio State and finish school or transfer. I think he needs to go back to Ohio State because we need him.
Who’s your pick in NFL?
Phife: As far as who my heart is with I’m a Jets fan and a Eagles fan and both aren’t looking good right now. In the NFC, other than my Eagles, I’d like to see Bill Parcells take the Cowboys because I love Bill. In the AFC I already told my ex about KC. I told her all KC has to do is up that defense and they are gonna be right. I think they have a chance.
Aiight onto music topics. You have a label called Smokin’ Needles, with your man Roots. When did you start it up and what’s the focus of the label?
Phife: We pretty much started that in 2001. We just wanted to have something to call our own. Most labels want everything they’re way and it’s about time we started owning our own regardless. Right now, we’re looking for distribution and investing. We basically want to sign artists we think are hot. The two people that are messing up this music are the radio stations and the labels. They are just going for whatever they think is hot. I’m tired of letting radio stations dictate to me what’s hot when I know much better than they do.
Going through all the label difficulties that you’ve had in the past is working with Smokin’ Needles crazy easy now since you’ve seen almost all the problems?
Phife: It’s not easy because there are still a lot of thing we are going to have to learn and need to learn. The easy part of it is picking who you think is hot and that’s all I really want to deal with. But there is so much more to it. Even with the artist you may think they are hot but they got a lot of baggage with them at times [or] they don’t want to listen. It’s crazy. We have to be real choosy. I think an artist that owns [his or her] own label makes the best A&R because they were artists at one time and understand what the artist may need and want as well as what they need from that particular artist.
Who are going to be the first acts?
Phife: We probably gonna put my man Jax out there. Then we have a female duo called Slick and Rose we are shopping for a deal for them now. Those are the two artists we are mainly working with right now.
With Tribe coming back together what do you think that is going to mean for hiphop?
Phife: I never really try to look at it like that but what I’ve been getting from supporters is that they really want it and that’s a good feeling. I’ve seen other groups get back together and nobody gave them the love that they deserved. With us I’m seeing something different for whatever reason. I just look at it as a blessing that we haven’t done anything as a unit in the past five years and people are treating it like they really need us.
I heard Jarobi is back for the reunion too. What exactly does he bring to the fold?
Phife: Jarobi is an original member. When we say he’s back that just means he’s back in the cipher. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be rhyming.
All of you guys have had your solo projects. Have you seen any differences with everybody bringing in their experiences from the past five years?
Phife: We’ve definitely grown as artists. There is a blessing and a curse to all of this. Nobody wants to hear Phife and Q-Tip all they want hear is tribe. I don’t think that should stop us from doing our solo thing though but at the same time we have to give the people what they want at the end of the day and that’s tribe. For me that’s the reason I want to do the tribe album. The other reason is that we still owe Jive one more album.
Yea I heard about that. I was thinking about your Ventilation LP and you called Jive out. Is that going to be a problem since you still have to work with them for at least one more album?
Phife: All artists have beef with their labels. All labels know its business. Not only that it’s funny how life works for the simple fact that Chris Lighty who used to be our manager at Violator is now the VP at Jive Records. We have a deeper relationship with him than most artists and their labels. Certain things go without saying with him and us, so I don’t see that as a problem.
One of the things I liked in one of your quotes is how you said it was easy for you guys to come back together because you were friends first and friends can always squash beef. Since you guys are cool again is this a new beginning for the group or just one album to get off of Jive?
Phife: I don’t think it will be one and done. We definitely want to do this album and maybe renegotiate with Jive. Jive is different right now then when we decided to break up. Maybe they won’t renegotiate with us but somebody will. Tribe will be here forever. Those five years were good for us to take off I don’t care what nobody says. I almost lost my dad in that whole World Trade jump off. I wasn’t thinking about rapping, tribe, or what everybody wanted. I knew eventually it would be something that needed to be done. Its not really a money thing with us even though I feel like my group missed out on a lot. We could have been making the money that this person or that person is making because we’re one of the most respected groups that ever did it. Not to pat my crew on the back but it is what it is. We work hard so I believe we deserve it and its blessing that people love tribe after all these years of not doing anything together. We need to take advantage of that and do what we can just to bring good music to the forefront again. Once you do it from the heart, everything else will follow. None of us has kids so it’s not like we starving or have child support.
I saw somewhere you was engaged what happened man?
Phife: Yea, I was. My ex lived in Oakland. She’s in a custody battle and I’ve known her child since he was two years old so that’s my boy right there. He still doesn’t know that we are not together anymore. We haven’t figured out a way to tell him that. We’re still very close it’s just that I can’t live in Oakland and think about my career and everything. I’m an east coast dude. Not to start no rivalry or anything. I like Oakland but I can’t see myself living there. Its small stuff with me. I’m watching Monday Night Football and its 6 o’clock out there. Its still daybreak that’s weird to me.
Phife: I couldn’t handle it. Not only that it’s like all my peoples are back east. My family is missing me like crazy and the biggest thing that pissed me off was the baby daddy drama. I don’t have a big ego but it’s too big to deal with that shit. But if she moved to Atlanta tomorrow, we back together with no problem.
No matter how incredible an album you guys do people are gonna say its not as good as Midnight Marauders or Low End Theory. That’s just the reality. Does knowing that affect your expectations of how the album will be received?
Phife: I really don’t know. I just hope it does really well. We could sell three million with this next LP and they will still be like I liked Midnight better. They have to understand Midnight came out ten years ago. We dropped that November of ’93 so it’s like can we breathe and do us now.
One joint you guys recorded, “ICU (Doin It),” has been circulating around. Does that song indicate the kind of sound the new album is gonna have?
Phife: Everybody says I need that Tribe sound and to be honest we don’t even know what that is. When we go into the studio and do something it’s a feel. It’s a vibe that just happens. A lot of producers want to submit beats for the next Tribe project and they always talk about I got the perfect Tribe record. How do you know that? Just give us your sound or your many different sounds and we’ll spit to what we want to spit to. I don’t think the producers should put pressure on themselves to want to do the Tribe sound because Tribe doesn’t even know what that is. As far as the sound of “ICU (Doin It)” maybe it will be like that. Maybe it will be like Low End Theory you never know. We just go off of a vibe and hopefully everybody will enjoy.
Have you ever peeped some of the beats submitted for the new album and be like I don’t know what the Tribe sound is but I can’t believe this cat thinks its this?
Phife: Yea I’ve heard some of the beats so far and I’m like ok that’s not it. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish that’s not it. Most people think I’m a critic and I’m bad but Tip is worse. When it comes to beats, he is like I’m not rhyming to that. People have to understand we have to rhyme to it at the end of the day so we have to be picky.
Is this one of those albums where you all just have to be together for a long time and knock it out or will you record it like patchwork doing different songs here and there?
Phife: Maybe we should hang out for a couple of days to get the vibe going but I think the vibe is already in place. I flew from Atlanta back to New York linked up with Tip and it took no time to do the record we did for the Violator project. It wasn’t a problem at all. We went in the studio cracked a couple of jokes, went and got some fast food, sat down vibing and out came the rhyme. Rashard Smith sent us the beat we were feeling it and we handled our business. We’ve been friends for so long we don’t have to hang out to get a vibe. I talked to him on the phone about what he’s up too and vice versa and we come to New York and do the damn thing.
How did you get the name Phife?
Phife: That was just some around the way shit. Every hood has their slang and the word Phife in my area meant hyperactive. Like he all phifed up or whatever. There was a kid around the way named Phife too and we were both short so that’s how I got the moniker.
Back in the day it seemed like in your videos you guys just rocked whatever was in your closet and not try to wear all name brand gear. Was that part of your whole style back then?
Phife: To be honest with Tribe you have three different personalities especially as far as dress code. Tip is a little eccentric with his, almost like Andre’ of Outkast. I don’t think he goes that far but he is capable of doing that. Ali has always been a fashion plate rocking the Diesel or whatever. The only thing I ever had in my closet was jerseys. That’s why I know for a fact I started that whole thing because that’s all I did from high school. People used to tease me about that like you always act like ‘you going to play ball or something.’ Now you can’t watch a video without seeing that shit.
How did you guys form the Native Tongues?
Phife: It was just a bunch of people who enjoyed each other’s company as well as making music. That’s how innocent and simple it is. We just enjoyed making music with each other. We never thought it was going to come off like that. After a while, we thought about it like we need to market this or sell like this but before you knew it everybody went their separate ways.
Back then the Native Tongues were always rocking the Malcolm X hats, Dr. King shirts and medallions and all that stuff. What do you think brought about pro blackness being a part of hiphop dress?
Phife: You have different aspects of hiphop. You have the gangsta rappers like N.W.A rocking the Raider gear. That was just their style. That’s just the way they were representing who they were. Then you had the whole Native Tongues, the whole Onyx era etc. It was just a sign of the times. Different strokes for different folks. In hiphop you have a bunch of different styles, well maybe not right now. It’s all one style right now with the dress codes. They make me not want to wear jerseys no more but I can’t help it. I was deep into what I was wearing. When X Clan or KRS wore shit, you knew the meaning behind why they were wearing it. That’s exactly why I wore jerseys. There was a meaning behind it. I wore a Jackie Robinson jersey because of what he did for the game of baseball and what he did for blacks. I wore a Pete Rose jersey because I was a fan. I wore a Carlton Fisk jersey because I knew his statistics back then and what he brought to the game. I wear an Oscar Robertson jersey because I know what he went through as a black man who couldn’t even eat with his own team. I wear that shit to pay homage to those people who brought something to the game. I don’t wear a jersey just because of the color scheme. That’s like someone wearing a red kufi because they have a red leather jacket. That’s not cool. You have to know what you’re getting into and rep what you believe in. I love sports more than music I’m not afraid to say that. I have one room in my office that’s my Jets office where I have nothing but Jets jerseys and paraphernalia in there. Upstairs I got a Yankee room and I’m about to do my Knick room when they get rid of Keith Van Horn.
Where the hell are Charlie Brown and Dinco D its like they fell off the planet?
Phife: From what I understand Dinco is working on something. I haven’t spoken to Brown in a long time. Brown’s been doing commercials and stuff like that though. He did a Checkers commercial but that was a few years ago. He’s doing his thing.
I remember you said you had a thing for Dawn from En Vogue did you ever try to get up with her since ya’ll both in the music business?
Phife: Nah nah. It’s not a bad thing to be with someone in the same profession but at the same time you really don’t have time for each other. I never tried to holla at Dawn. It was just a song. I was attracted. I thought she was fine just like I think Nia Long is fine and I think Sally Richardson is fine. There’s like one person I have the biggest crush on and I met her twice and didn’t even say a word and that’s Nia Long. I think she’s fine but she seem so down to earth with it. I love hoodrats meaning a down ass chick who is mad cool. Nia is in between classy and a hoodrat.
What is it about dancehall that makes you like it more than hiphop?
Phife: That’s cuz I’m west Indian. I love hiphop don’t get me wrong but dancehall has always been my thing. Where my family is from its all about calypso. I grew up around a bunch of Jamaicans. I just look forward to hot reggae music from Shabba to Buju to Kutti Ranks and all of them rudebwoys, but hiphop is still my thing.
How would you compare the dancehall scene to the hiphop scene as far as how its change in the last few years?
Phife: There are similarities, a bunch of niggas biting each other in both fields. In reggae, there are so many biters that you don’t know who the creative people unless you followed it from day one. I followed it so I know. Supercat was creative, Shabba and Buju were creative, and Bob Marley that goes without saying. Then you have a lot of them that are like ehh whatever. I’m glad they are finally getting there shine though. When you look at hiphop and you see how many people are biting the reggae people might as well do it too because they have been overlooked for so long.
Do you have anything else you want to mention?
Phife: The Tribe album should be out next fall look forward to that. “Songs in the Key of Phife” will be out after that. Ali’s album should be out in a couple of months. Q-Tip’s album should be out March or April.
Is that the Kamal the Abstract album that was shelved?
Phife: Nope. It’s something totally different. He’s rhyming again.
A Tribe Called Quest Albums:
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)
The Low End Theory (1991)
Midnight Marauders (1993)
Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)
The Love Movement (1998)
Ventilation: Da LP (2000)
Songs in the Key of Phife Volume 1: Cheryl’s Big Son (2012)
Quick is how I flip from the tip of the lip
Punchin out hits like Gladys Knight and the Pips
The five-foot assassin has just raided your area
Your booty rhymes are wack and that’s the reason I ain’t hearin ya
(SO!) Roll out the red carpet cause I’m kickin this
Vanilla Ice platinum? That shit’s ridiculous
Excuse my French, but profanity is all I knew
And to you other sellouts, oh yeah, eff you too
And let it be known, I’m not the one to step to
You’re better off calling D-Nice to your rescue
Freestyle fanatic, probably the best around
As for corny MC’s, like Chuck D, I shut ’em down
The Artical Don of hip-hop and I won’t stop
The five-foot assassin has come to wreck ’nuff shop
So do like Michael Jackson and “Remember the Time” (DO YOU REMEMBER?)
Put on your dancin shoes or somethin cause you sure can’t rhyme