Vision Quest

Now making solo records, Phife Dawg (center) is a fixture in the dog-eat-dog world of hip-hop.

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."

"It's reminiscent to The Low End Theory in as far as how we felt after dropping People's Instinctive," he says. "We learned a lot in the business that we didn't know, and we kind of vented on it." You can read Ventilation's "D.r.u.g.s" as a companion piece to The Low End Theory's "Show Business" in its dissection of the "fakes and the snakes" in the record industry. As far as how he feels about his former label now, Phife prefers to keep his comments to what he's said on wax. "I've gotten over it," he says. "I really have no comment. You just got to move on."

His feelings about the other Tribe members -- especially longtime mate Q-Tip, whom he has known since he was three years old in Queens, New York -- are a bit more complicated. When you go back that far and have shared so many experiences with a person, it's not easy to just walk away. Listeners will undoubtedly comb through the raps on Ventilation for clues to the reasons behind the band's split and the members' current relationships. (Phife insists the parting was amicable.) A good place for heads to start would be "Flawless" and "Melody Adonis." On the latter track, the rapper praises his microphone as a lover who has always been there through the good and bad times. He drops lines that hint at the group's split: "See, when the label started fronting, you were always there...There are times when I thought the group wanted to replace me/Whether I was right or wrong, you were there to embrace me."

"I had a problem with a couple of people, and I didn't think they were honest enough to keep it real," he says of Tribe's parting. "To me, Tribe was like a family thing, so I addressed that a little bit on the album. Think about it: We have been together for like ten years. Five albums in ten years -- that's a lot of years, touring and this, that and the other. We needed a break.

"At first me and Q-Tip was really hollering at each other, but everything is cool right now. We got a lot of stuff off our chest; it's all good. We met up right before Christmas, and everything is squashed."

The beauty of the Tribe's sound was the yin-yang dynamic that existed between the Abstract Poet's laid-back flows and Phife's direct, aggressive approach on the mike. The duo's combination of rough and smooth made it difficult to think of one without the other. For this reason, Phife faced a challenge in creating a solo album that would solidify his identity outside of the Tribe. He downplays the notion that it was a difficult task, however.

"I didn't have any struggle. I always have my identity, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "In America, it seems like you always have to spoon-feed people. In Tribe, as far as everybody's concerned, it's all about Tip, Tip, Tip. They think it's going to be a struggle for me to show my identity or prove myself. That's the struggle right there, getting them to know Phife Dawg. I'm definitely trying to distance myself from the Tribe sound. I mean, if it was all about Tribe stuff, we'd still be a group. There is nothing wrong with Tribe stuff. I just think you have to show a little more versatility. If you don't, it wouldn't make sense to do a solo record."

While Phife consciously sought to avoid merely duplicating Tribe's trademark flows, he also developed more of his own style as a rapper. And though he feels his solo work will give listeners a better opportunity to appreciate his skills on the mike, he also knows that comparisons of him and Q-Tip are inevitable.

"Q-Tip and I, we're totally different people. I already know that they're going to compare both of us, because we were down for so long. This is a good chance to dissect who we are as MCs. I'm one way, he's another way. He's the Abstract Poet. Instead of going from A-B-C to D, he's going to go A to F to Z back to H. He's that type of person, so you really have to sit back and figure him out. Me, I'm giving you raw meat, nothing sugarcoated. I'm giving it to you no-holds-barred. You might not like it, but you understood what the hell I was saying."  

Phife's blunt approach works well when he tackles one of his favorite subjects: the current condition of hip-hop. Backed by an up-tempo banging beat, indictments like "Who these cats looking punani-ish?...Niggers' rhymes be watered down like porn stars' clitoris" and "This shit all about flow/Fuck the fashion show" (from "Flawless") might have sounded out of place on a Tribe disc, but they fit in well with the overall theme of Ventilation, on which Phife calls out those who have led hip-hop astray down a materialistic path where image rules over the rhymes.

"I'm just the type of individual who calls it like I see it, and hip-hop is really on a downward spiral right now. As far as the money and everything, it's looking good, because hip-hop is rock and roll right now. But as far as people's priorities and subject matter, it has taken a turn for the worse, as far as I'm concerned. This music is a youth movement, so what we've got to do is teach the youth instead of beating them in the head with bullshit.

"If you really vibe with the crowd overseas that loves hip-hop music, they want to hear the Mos Defs, the Kwelis, Gang Starr and the Common Senses. They want to hear spiritually uplifting emceeing. At the same time, they enjoy the party records, but they don't give a fuck about the Benz truck that you just bought, because they use them for cabs over there. We got our priorities all fucked up."

One of the things that has helped Phife keep his own priorities in check is his strong sense of devotion to his family -- both to his Native Tongues brethren (Tribe, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers) and his immediate fam -- and the values of positivity and spirituality they represent. These values have inspired his approach to hip-hop and how he carries himself as a person; they are also evident in his lyrics. Certain MC themes, such as treating women with disrespect, were never an option. Phife grew up surrounded by strong women figures, who taught him at an early age the power of the word, both in a secular and a sacred sense. His mother, a poet, was the one who first motivated him to write poetry. For most of his youth in Queens, Phife was raised in a strict Seventh-Day Adventist household headed by his West Indian grandmother.

"I grew up with her a lot, and basically, they don't play or purchase anything from sunset Friday till sunset Saturday. Their mind is supposed to be strictly focused on God." This was not always the ideal scenario for an aspiring rapper. On one of Ventilation's stronger tracks, "Beats Rhymes & Phife," Phife talks about his upbringing and how he had to stay in on Saturdays: "I would sneak on the TV, oh shit, Soul Train, better act like you know/I used to turn down the volume so nobody would know/Now while I would stare at Jody Watley I would practice my flow/Look at all those asses, Yo...Lo and behold, Granny was right at the door/Now I'm dealing with the punishment, I surely deserved it, only three hours since the service/Then came the fatal question: Did you learn anything from the service?"

What Phife did learn was that it was going to be a hard sell convincing his grandmother that rapping was a productive activity. He continually had to hide his love for rap from her. In order to improve his skills, Phife "would sneak out on Saturdays when they had the block party down the block. I'm like the smallest person around the neighborhood, so I'm standing on crates and boxes, rapping with everybody else, and that's really how it all came into play. My grandmother, till this day, still beats me in the head about it."

When Phife and Tribe got their record deal, though, his grandmother began to have a change of heart. "Once I started paying the bills, she understood it was real and it was something that I loved to do. She understood where I was coming from. She was like, 'You go for yours.'"

Since those early days, Phife has outlasted most of the MCs who've ever stepped into the rap arena. He compares himself to Major League Baseball's Ironman.  

"I'm the Cal Ripken of the industry," he says. "He's basically a veteran that you can't really disrespect. You've got to respect him for his hard work, whether he only won one World Series or what have you. He still put it down. He still laid down basically the groundwork for other shortstops or third basemen that want to come in the game. I feel like my group has done the same thing, and I'm a major part of A Tribe Called Quest."

Yet unlike Ripken, who's set to retire this year, Phife Dawg won't be stepping out of his game anytime soon. He's currently laying down tracks with his partner DJ Rasta Root, along with the usual suspects -- producers like Hi-Tek, Jay Dee and Premier -- for a new album; Songs in the Key of Phife should hit the streets sometime early next year.

"It's going to be a real complete album," Phife says. "There is just a lot of versatility going on. You got your party vibe, you got your battle-rhyme vibe, you got the little smoke-your-blunt, driving-in-the-car vibe, you got your love-song vibe. But the beats are still banging. It's going to sound like I had much more fun on this album than on Ventilation."

Adding to the excitement of the pending recording is the fact that members of the Tribe family will reunite to record some cuts. "Q-Tip is doing a track for me on the new album, as well as Ali," Phife says. As to whether or not A Tribe Called Quest will ever get back together as a group, he is cautiously optimistic. "Hopefully, we'll get back together, but I can't really put my finger on when that is going to happen. You know Q-Tip, the movie star -- he's kind of busy. I'm opening other businesses and getting married, [but] we're going to make it happen eventually."

In the meantime, he is working on getting his license to become a sports agent for his management company, Edge Sports and Entertainment. He also serves as vice president of entertainment and operations for the St. Louis-based Edge, where he has plans to help launch the careers of some up-and-coming rap acts.

His goal as VP, as well as in his solo career, is to try to help elevate rap beyond what he sees as the narrow parameters established by the industry and other so-called trendsetters. He simply has too much vested interest to let the art form deteriorate.

"I'll be damned if I'll let these non-MC jerks take it over and fuck it up, and I think a lot of artists feel that way," he says. "We've worked too damn hard to bring it where it is for people to bring it down, saying nonsense all the time. If you're spoon-feeding one thing only, they're just going to run with that, whereas this rapper over here might have a lot to bring to the table, but he's totally ignored. It's not cool. I think hip-hop needs to be a little more diverse. We should all appreciate where it has gone and what it's doing. Why not give back by keeping it real?"

As a Top Dawg, Phife has elevated himself to a position where he can give something back by serving up more balanced musical offerings. Still, the question remains: Will anyone come to the table?

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