The opportunity came up to interview Phife Dawg of the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest right before the Christmas holidays. For those of you who live under a rock, A Tribe Called Quest are widely considered one of the greatest hip hop groups of all time. Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Phife where we discuss his career, other MC's, and one of my favorite subjects: the current state of rap.
MN: Hey Phife. How are you?
PD: What up, man?
MN: So uh, I like the Dear Dilla video
PD: Thank you.
MN: I was wondering, what was your relationship with him like?
PD: Mmm-wow. He was just a good friend, producer- know what I mean? The whole get together with him was meeting him on tour in I believe was 96. Was it 96? Actually a little earlier than that. 1994- Lollapalooza. We had a show out in Detroit. That's when I first met him and Q-Tip loved his beats. We all loved his beats. He became part of Q-Tip and Ali's production team. So he was just amazing with the beats, and he was an even better person, know what I mean? Me and him got real close through the years. That was basically the relationship. It didn't always have to be about work and music, just hanging out and vibing.
MN: That's really cool. So why do the video now? I feel as if this song is something of an open letter to him.
PD: Right, that's exactly it. I took my time with it because so many people were doing different dedications to him and stuff like that, so I just took my time with it. There was also a time when I wasn't thinking about doing music anymore. I was looking at maybe produce for people more or whatever. So that's why it took so long.
MN: Was this after Tribe broke up the first time? When you decided you didn't want to do music anymore?
PD: Right. That was probably like 2002. I figured I wasn't going to mess with it too much.
MN: I wanted to talk to you about that time because I really liked the solo record. To go back to the video, real quick was that Ali playing the doctor?
PD: (laughs) Yeah it was.
MN: (laughs) Yeah, I caught that on the second time I watched it. I also noticed in the video you make some lighthearted jokes about your diabetes. I like that you're making fun of it and being playful about it. How does it affect your work these days?
PD: Umm, it doesn't really affect it. I have been diabetic since I was 19, so I can't say it affects my work, but when I decided I didn't really wanna do music anymore I guess it affected it then. You know, I wasn't really into it. You know what I mean?
MN: Every interview I've read with you, people just ask you a million questions about Tribe Called Quest. I wanted to talk about other things like the solo record you did in 2000. Did you like the process of doing this? Did you prefer being in a group? As far as I know, you only did the one.
PD: I like both. But at the time I wasn't in the greatest place. You know in this industry timing is everything. Know what I'm saying?
PD: So I do wish I could do it over, but I thought it was a cool album. I just wish the timing was different. Like I said, I like both. I like being in the group because we weren't just a group, we were friends before that know what I'm saying?
PD: It wasn't like it was a group that was put together on a whim, know what I mean?
MN: You can tell that the vibe between you guys even on the tracks. You can tell when something is the real thing. You feel it. It's more visceral you know?
PD: Right. Doing a group album is a lot of fun because I know them like the back of my hand.
MN: That's cool. And brothers fight. When people are that close they get into fights. You guys are gonna be together forever even if you're not in a group.
MN: I know you are putting out an EP. Why so long between solo joints?
PD: Like I said, I didn't think I wanted to do music anymore.
MN: For that long?
PD: So I left it alone for the longest. Plus I had my health issues as well.
MN: What brought you back around?
PD: Just a love for beats, a love for lyrics. I just felt it was that time.
MN: Yeah- I guess it has to be something you totally feel. You can't fake it.
PD: Exactly, yup.
MN: A little about Tribe- where do you stand today? I know it's always a changing thing. I saw that Ali is in the video so you must be tight with him. You guys getting along?
PD: Yeah, we all good. We're not working together right now, but we friends.
MN: That's good to hear. Tell me a little bit about the EP that's coming out.
PD: It's basically just really simple man. Hip-hop 101. The way it was, the way it should always be. Its got a lot of bounce to it. It's just hip-hop. Period. No more, no less.
MN: That's what I like; I tend to gravitate towards rap that has a lot of rapping in it. I made this joke recently where I said a lot of contemporary rap doesn't have a lot of rapping in it and I miss it.
MN: So that's cool man. Who is doing the beats with you?
PD: I did some, my DJ did some: Rasta Roots. I got a beat from Crisis. I got a beat from 9th Wonder. Got a beat from Dilla. Who am I missing? I can't even think right now, know what I mean? So there are some things on there most definitely. Oh! And Knots the Ruler.
MN: Are there plans for a full-length record?
PD: The EP is called "Give Thanks" and the LP is gonna be called "Mutty-morphoses".
MN: Let's talk a little bit about hip-hop. Being around as long as you have, where do you think hip-hop is at in this moment? I know there are lots of artists doing a lot of different stuff.
PD: You know, life is a cycle I believe. It's going to come back around to what it was. But as far as hip-hop is right now, it's ok- not the greatest. It's just ok. I don't think people honor they craft like Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Eminem, or Ultramagnetics, you know what I'm saying?
PD: Who else? Like Public Enemy, stuff like that KRS, BDP. They don't really honor they craft like we used to. Everyone made a lane for themselves. No copycat, biting, none of that. Now it's like the in thing to do because there's a bunch of laziness going on I think.
MN: I have my own theories about that. I think this sort of started in the late 90's where the quality started to decline. MC's started to get lazier- more mush mouthed and I think it had something to do with the rise of southern rap, even though there are excellent MC's from the south. Generally that's where I started to lose interest in it and listened to more punk at that time.
PD: Right, right.
MN: What I am noticing now is like a lot of the young kids seem to be bringing the craftsmanship back.
PD: Right. Def.
MN: With the emergence of the Internet there is room for everybody. More different styles.
PD: Absolutely. True.
MN: So I think there's hope for the kids you know? I'm going to wait on the sidelines and watch. I know you worked with a lot of different people and many quite legendary. I was wondering if there was anyone you would like to work with?
PD: Right, umm. Ghostface. He's one of my favorites.
MN: He's fantastic.
PD: He's one of my favorite MC's most definitely.
MN: I like the stuff he did with DOOM, who is another fantastic MC. That's a good answer. Here's another good one I wrote. In all these years of observing hip-hop, who do you think is the most underrated MC of all time?
PD: (laughs) That's a good question. I know I'm one of them most definitely.
MN: You are part of a group that is highly lauded.
PD: Yeah I know, I'm still underrated. I'm the "other guy" in the group. Know what I'm saying?
MN: Yeah, I can see that position.
PD: It's all good. I think Ghostface is underrated. I think GZA is underrated. I'm not really sure why, because those dudes are phenomenal to me.
MN: They kept growing. Many of the MC's who are like, in their 40's kept growing and there seems to be this bullshit idea that it's a young man's game. It's kinda stupid. In any other art form you grow. If you're a painter, writer...
PD: Well, the young men aren't taking care of it!
PD: Right? They can say it's a young man's game all they want. They not taking care of the culture B.
MN: Yeah. Agreed
PD; You know what I'm saying? A lot of half assed shit going on. You know?
MN: Is there anyone you think is carrying the torch right now?
PD: I like Joey Bada$$, J Cole, know what I'm saying?
MN: Especially that first record.
PD: Kendrick, there are others but those three come to mind off top.
MN: That's cool man, I think that's all my questions I had. Is there anything else you want to bring up to the readers?
PD: Yeah, like I said Give Thanks is the name of the EP and the single is called Nutshell produced by Dilla. Look out for that in 2016.
My awkward grammar has been edited with love and care by Courtney Eddington.