One of the first hip hop groups I discovered during my own “instinctive travels” through hip hop were A Tribe Called Quest and they have remained my faves ever since. So when the opportunity to interview Phife Dawg arose, it took a while to sink in. Phife’s contribution to the group is often overlooked in contrast to Q-Tip which is somewhat understandable considering how much of a dominant role Tip played in both rapping and production for the group. However, Phife’s performances on ATCQ’s zenith release “Midnight Marauders” was superb from start to finish, particularly on God Lives Through, where his wordplay still grabs my attention with new fervour. In our interview, we discusses how it felt returning to London for the first time in nearly 20 years and his proudest moments being part of a landmark group in hip hop history.
(This interview was conducted in September 2013)
Sampleface: How did it feel to be back in London for the first time in so long, this year? Phife Dawg: Oh man, it was cool. I mean, I was in London by myself two years prior to that, so I can’t really tell you how everybody else feels, but it was cool to be back with the group, definitely. The love was tremendous, London is always great.
SF: Was it different to how it felt the last time you were in the Capital?
PD: Only because we weren’t there for a long time, but I’ve never been to London, so at least from that perspective it was different, but it was fun nevertheless.
SF: You achieved so much with A Tribe Called Quest. What were you most proud of during that time?
PD: I’m not sure…I guess growing up, rapping since I was nine years old, I never knew Tribe was going to be this big. We just wanted to be celebrities in our neighbourhood, so to speak. So I guess the greatest thing of all is just going from state to state, country to country and people knowing the words to your music. Like, word for word. That’s always the greatest feeling.
SF: Do you have a favourite record that you’ve produced, either solo or as part of A Tribe Called Quest?
PD: As part of the group I’d say ‘Electric Relaxation’, ‘Check The Run’, ‘Find A Way’, ‘Verses From The Abstract’. Those are four of my favourites ever.
SF: Will we ever get to hear ‘Songs in the Key of Phife’ your solo LP that was never released?
PD: I changed the name of it. The new record that I’m working on now is called ‘MUTTYmorphosis’. There aren’t any major features on it yet…I just started working on it a few weeks ago.
SF: Is there anyone that you’ve always wanted to collaborate with but never had the chance?
PD: Erick Sermon, production wise… Musiq Soulchild as far as appearances. Angela Winbush… Those are just three of many.
SF: Excellent choices. Is it true that you voiced a newborn baby in the Rugrats Movie?
PD: Man that was so long ago I forgot about it! I did, as a matter of fact, I did. That was like, late 90’s or something like that, I guess?! The late Chris Lighty, who was managing us at the time, he just approached me about it and I said I’d do the voiceover. So, he took me down to The Hit Factory where they were recording it and I did it in less than a half hour. And that was that!
SF: Have you ever thought about going into the movie industry?
PD: Not really, because my thing is more sports. I’d want to be a sports broadcaster or I’d like to have my own show where I could interview athletes and then have a performance at the end of the show, sort of like Arsenio Hall or Dave Chappelle… but it would be mainly sports related, you know what I mean?
SF: That sounds amazing, we’d like to see that! Who do you think will win the NBA championships this coming season?
PD: Roughly off the top of my head, I have to say Miami, Chicago have a chance to dethrone them. I want to see what the chemistry in Houston is gonna be like with Dwight Howard playing with James Harden, Chandler Parsons and the rest of them. They’ve been making a lot of moves this off-season so I wanna see how everything comes together in Houston. There’s no excuse for Dwight Howard this time around, being that he’s around the likes of the great Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone and of course Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s one of the great centres or front court players, at least. And then his coach Dominique played in his day with the Boston Celtics and Kevin McHale. So there’s really no excuse for him this time around. I see Houston at least going deep into the playoffs. I don’t know about the finals but at least deep into the playoffs. So; Chicago have a chance, if you look at Houston, on paper they have a chance, I want to see what the Knicks are going to do but for some reason I don’t think they’re better than what they were last season. And I could be wrong, I hope I’m wrong because that’s my team, but we’ll see what happens.
SF: What’s your opinion on modern hip hop, as opposed to the modern scene that you were a part of with Tribe?
PD: I don’t think the love for the craft is there, like when Tribe was doing it, or when Wu Tang was doing it….Common, and before that with Big Daddy Kane, Stetsasonic, De La Soul…we could go on and on and on. I don’t know if the love is there. But, what I will say, there are a few that show that they honour their craft at all times. At least that’s what their music comes across as; acts like Ludacris, Kweli, Mos Def, T.I.. I’m feeling Kendrick Lamar at this point. I like Joey Bada$$ a lot, I like Pusha T. I also love Clipse…so there’s definitely a few that I could point out. Mac Miller is another one. Other than that, I don’t really take things so serious because it’s a party movement and it’s all about hooks. I totally understand that and I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not really about lyrics with a lot of people anymore, you know what I mean? But life is a cycle, and for sure I think that’s going to come back around to what it was back then.
SF: Did you get a chance to hear Kendrik’s verse on Control?
PD: Yeah of course, everybody heard that. I heard it, it was cool. I just think everybody was going crazy over it because they’re not used to real hip hop. So vintage hip hop, so to speak, these days is kind of hit and miss. Or few and far between. So when somebody like Kendrick comes out and does something like that, everyone says ‘Oh my God did you hear what he said?! Oh my goodness!’, when way back when Big Daddy Kane was used to doing that. You know, he’s done that on a number of occasions. Eminem has done it, 50 Cent has his moments doing it, you know what I’m saying? So I didn’t really see what the big deal was, and I didn’t take it as a diss, I thought it was more of a call to arms. You know what I mean, like ‘Yo, y’all need to step up your game, there’s room for everybody in this game so let’s break bread. If not, I’m gonna take you out!’. So, I get it. I mean KRS always did that. That’s his career in a nutshell! So, I mean, I’m glad he did it…I think he’s had better verses. The verse was dope, don’t get me wrong, but he’s had better, so that’s why I was kinda bugging out off of everyone else losing their minds because he name dropped a little bit. It definitely woke a lot of people up, because he got his responses. I thought some of the responses weren’t necessary because they didn’t even bring their A-game….I won’t name names because I’m not like that but you know. He set a standard that you’ve got to be on that every time you open your mouth. I thought it was good for hip hop. I really did.
SF: Okay. It was recently declared to be hip hop’s 40th birthday. In your opinion, what defines hip hop?
PD: Hip hop is the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you eat, the way you move, you know what I’m saying? It’s definitely part of my DNA, I can’t speak for anyone else. Hip hop is that movement that will never die, despite the fact that everybody thought it was a fad, a phase or what have you. It’s a way to express yourself, almost like dance, that culture, if not bigger. Hip hop is everything, hip hop is rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop has BEEN rock ‘n’ roll. If you look at every commercial on TV, hip hop is implemented. Everything from KFC commercials to whatever. When I’ve seen commercials in London I can’t recall if it’s like that, but I’m sure it is! I feel like the UK and places outside of the United States cherish the art more than we do, almost. So…hip hop is life. That’s basically what it is to me.
SF: Do you have a current favourite MC or artist?
PD: I’m still a big Nas fan and a big Ghostface Killah fan. Those are my two favourite MCs that I listen to at least two or three times a week, religiously and it’s not always the same songs or the same albums. There might be one album by Ghostface that I might listen to more than others and there might be one Nas album that I listen to more than the others. I guess the Nas album that I listen to the most is a toss up between Illmatic and Stillmatic and then with Ghostface it’s between Supreme Clientele and Fishscale. But I try to listen to all of the albums, because they have so much ammo.
SF: Good choices, man. One final question; what is the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career so far?
PD: The late Chris Lighty always said ‘communication is the key’. If you don’t communicate, because of course I’m in a group so, if you don’t communicate, the group is gonna bottom out. And he was right because that’s exactly what happened at the end of the day. The other great piece of advice I got was from Busta Rhymes. He said ‘it’s not always what you say, but it’s how you say it that’s important’. You know, your delivery of a verse, in general, you know what I mean? So that’s always a good piece of advice as well.