Interview: In Appreciation of Phife Dawg, Member of ‘A Tribe Called Quest’

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CHICAGO – It was announced last week on March 22nd, 2016, that a hip-hop pioneer, Phife Dawg of the group “A Tribe Called Quest,” passed away at the age of 45. It was Phife, along with Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, that created a new voice in the evolution from rap to hip hop.

In 2011, a documentary regarding the group, “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest’ was released, and Phife Dawg was on the promotional tour for the film. In appreciation of his life and music contributions, reprints the interview from that tour.

A Tribe Called Quest
Phife Dawg (left) Performs in A Tribe Called Quest
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics Phife, you talk about your childhood with Q-Tip growing up in Queens. What was that time and place like and how did it influence and inspire your eventual hip-hop career?

Phife Dawg: New York City pretty much reeked of music. Reeked of rap and hip-hop. As for me, growing up in a strict West Indian, Trinidadian household, and a Christian household as well, I had to fight for the right to go and actually be a part of it. In the process of all that, Q-Tip was my best friend as a kid, so whatever I did – and vice versa – we asked each other to be a part of it.

When it came to hip-hop, he was like, ‘yo kid, I want some MC sh*t, and I think you should be a part of it.’ One thing led to the next thing, he went to the same high school as the Jungle Brothers, and people in that nature, it was about being in the right place at the right time. There were only two things you did in New York City, Queens to be exact, music or sports. Your music was very influential on hip-hop as we know it today, like how The Beatles changed rock music. What was it about the chemistry and relationships in the group that simply wanted to push all the limits of what everybody thought was rap and hip-hop back then?

Phife: For me, it was just a matter of being professional, precise and not wanting to look like an idiot in front of 15,000 people. [laughs] That was my main thing, you never wanted to look crazy or dumb. If it takes 30 days of rehearsal, you better ace all 30 of those days. When it’s game time, you’re ready to play ball. Was that the philosophy of everybody in the early days?

Phife: Not everybody, just me. I didn’t want to look dumb on stage, and I didn’t want to disappoint my band mates, just like Michael Jordan didn’t want to disappoint Horace, B.J. and Scotty. They are counting on me, I’m eating off of this and so are they. I don’t want to take food off of somebody’s plate because I went ‘5 for 40 at the foul line.’ I’m going to concentrate and make it happen. Around the time of the ‘Beats Rhymes & Life’ album and ‘Midnight Marauders,’ you were quoted as saying you didn’t feel like you fit in the group anymore, mentioning Q-tips and Ali’s conversion to Islam. How did that religious conversion both change the dynamic of the group and influence the records themselves?

Phife: I hate to even go back on that. It was the worse time of my career. I was really lost, should I still be a member of A Tribe Called Quest, do I even want to be a member of the group? Because I felt like the odd man out. I would never disrespect a man’s way of life, especially if they’re happy.

I just felt like because I supported and was loyal to the group, and them being Muslim – because Ali Shaheed was born and raised Muslim, then Q-Tip converted years later – it seemed like it was a field day for the media and reporters against Phife. I remember one article for a publication in London, the segue was ‘Q-Tip and Ali Have Seen the Light, is it too late for Phife?’ Sh*t like that.

Phife Dawg
Phife Dawg Passed Away on March 22nd, 2016
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics Did you consider converting?

Phife: Me personally, I’m not going to change overnight, nor did I want to. Call it stubborn, call it ignorant, call it what you want, but I don’t think I have to join a particular faith or culture or creed or religion just to fit in, since I was part of the clique since it’s inception. It was just unfair that they were happy, but I’m getting sh*tted on because I didn’t join that particular fray. It’s no disrespect on the Islamic faith, I wasn’t ready to join. I never complained, I just sat back and watched it unfold. Unfortunately it backfired on me the most, that’s why I said that in the article. As chronicled in the documentary, you got the gift of life from your wife in your recent kidney transplant. Did you make any promises to yourself after you recovered, as far as what direction you wanted you life to go from here?

Phife: Yeah, one of my main goals is to become a sports broadcaster. That is the ultimate for me. I have my own label, and I want to record artists, but that’s as far as I want to go with a label. Like Berry Gordy, behind the scenes. But when I returned to New York City, I caught the music bug again, and I haven’t stopped writing since. I’m almost done with my E.P., entitled ‘Songs in the Key of Phife, Volume One.’ The LP will follow. So I am totally involved with music, but my goal is to do the sports thing. Since you are a super knowledgeable sports fan, which team, it could be any sport, reminds you most about A Tribe Called Quest, and why?

Phife: The 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers. Because it was Kobe and Shaq, and they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but they still worked it out to win three championships. Ali, for example, was our Phil Jackson. That is what it boils down to. I’m the point guard, and the big man, Q-Tip, is not going to get the ball until I get to the party. That is how I relate it. That’s Phife Dawg, bomb!

Malik Boyce Taylor – Phife Dawg – 1970-2016 senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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