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Since the breakup of A Tribe Called Quest -- the group that, for ten years, consistently put out some of the best records in hip-hop before disbanding in 1998 -- fans have had varied success keeping up with the careers of its founding members. Last year, Jonathan "Q-Tip" Davis III released a solo disc, Amplified, which met with both critical and commercial success. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad joined forces with Raphael Saadiq (Tony! Toni! Toné!) and Dawn Robinson (ex-En Vogue) to form Lucy Pearl; the group released a well-received self-titled album last year before Ali split. Less easy to follow were the post-Quest movements of Phife Dawg, the rapper who, with Q-Tip, had come to personify the voice of Tribe.
It's inaccurate to say that Phife Dawg -- now touring behind Ventilation, a solo album of his own -- is back. The truth is he never went away. The rapper (born Malik Taylor and aka Mutty Ranks) has just been buried by record-label shenanigans and his own demanding schedule, which has most recently expanded to accommodate his efforts as an entrepreneur and family man. Since the Tribe split, he has settled in Atlanta and kept busy making new music. Now he wants more people to hear what he has to say.
"I'm not into waiting around. I'm deep into the new album. We're definitely working," he says. The rapper is set to tour this summer as part of the Family Tree Tour with former Tribesman Jarobi White, as well as Slum Village, Phat Kat and a roster of up-and-coming acts. "To me, it's like the anti-bling-bling tour, because you got a bunch of tours where everybody is talking about their chains and their cars and what have you. There is nothing wrong with that, because it's a form of life, [but] although it might be great for some, it's not great for everybody else. You have different groups that look at things differently. Their priorities are different, and everybody on this tour really seems to have their heart in the right place as far as hip-hop music."
During the tour, the rapper promises to play some Tribe joints, as well as preview some new tracks and cuts from Ventilation. Though that album was released last September, it's gone largely unheard by Tribe-loyal listeners and the rap audience in general. Phife partly blames this lack of visibility on his former label, Superrapping/ Groove Attack, and the manufacturer and distributor, Landspeed Records.
"I had a hard time getting that [recognition], because the distributors didn't know what the hell they were doing," he says. "They just figured I was Phife Dawg from Tribe, so it was going to sell automatically. It doesn't work like that. You've got to distribute and make things surface. Landspeed basically didn't even want to deal with the project, and they acted like they did. I just felt like I did my job as an artist, but they didn't do their job as distributors. They just threw the project by the wayside."
Phife has since parted ways with Groove Attack and Landspeed. For the time being, Ventilation will probably have to rely on a word-of-mouth buzz in order to get heard: Don't expect to see a high-profile flossy video directed by Hype Williams or any major radio airplay to accompany the release. And though it might be tempting to dismiss Phife's assessments about his former label as just another rapper whining about his record not getting played, Ventilation definitely deserves a listen. On the album, we hear the rapper without Q-Tip for the first time, flexing his formidable B-boy battle skills.
"I think the title speaks for itself. 'Ventilation' means letting a lot of things off my chest, as far as the current state of hip-hop and the actual breakup," he says.
Phife likens the atmosphere surrounding the creation of Ventilation to the one that surrounded the recording of 1991's The Low End Theory, Tribe's second album, widely considered the group's classic effort. Both recordings came at a time of upheaval and transition -- Tribe was adjusting to the then-recent departure of Jarobi White during The Low End Theory, whereas Phife was defining his own life after Tribe during Ventilation -- and both display an underlying hostility toward the music industry. The production of The Low End Theory followed the Tribe's awakening to the often low-down nature of the record biz: After the critical success of the group's 1990 debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the group was slapped with a breach-of-contract suit by a former agent (a case the group ended up winning). Tribe also discovered that impressive record sales don't always translate into earnings for the artists. You hear their take on this state of affairs on the venomous cuts that run through The Low End Theory.
When Phife went in the studio to record Ventilation nearly ten years after the completion of The Low End Theory, he found himself confronting difficulties similar to those that Tribe had encountered. He had to deal with his feelings about both his former label and his former partners. The struggle is evident on his album, particularly on tracks such as "Flawless," where Phife spits, "As far as Jive, I know they hate how I blow up the spot/How quickly they forgot what got their asses to the top." He goes on to talk about how the label tried to pit group members against one another: "These cats will turn you against your brethren, if you let them, and how/That's the reason me and my former partner don't talk now."