Long-known to any self-respecting Hip Hop head is that in 1992 the then 17-year-old Andre and Big Boi made their impromptu audition for Rico Wade by freestyling to the instrumental of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” It is also known to any respectable rap nerd that Tribe’s lead emcee, Q-Tip, is Andre 3000’s favorite emcee of all time. And so in the years since OutKast stormed on the scene it has become befitting to compare ‘Kast to Tribe (and for in-the-know heads to long speculate that the former would one day meet the latter’s fate and also breakup.)
While the comparison of the two two-emcee fronted groups makes for great debates in Hip Hop message boards, hopefully Big Boi will never actually have to face anything remotely comparable to the trials and tribulations that have befallen his equivalent in Tribe, Phife Dawg.
Over the last six years the once active sports fanatic, but also self-described “funky diabetic,” has endured a grueling road to simple normalcy, a painful journey that included restrictive self-administered dialysis, numerous hospital stays, and, if he failed to get a new kidney, the prospect of death continuing to loom over his increasingly dour days. Thankfully, in late 2008 Phife was given the gift of a new life by his wife, who discovered she was a match and could donate one of her kidneys to her long-suffering husband, (after initially being told a few years prior by doctors that her petite size would make her unsuitable as a donor and testing to confirm that assumption was not needed.)
Now the “five foot assassin” is finally healthy, happy and ready to resume his recording career with the reintroduction of Mutty Ranks to the masses on Songs in the Key of Phife (due via his own label, Smokin’ Needles), Phife’s first solo effort in the decade since 2000’s Ventilation.
Phife revealed what fans should expect to hear from him on his forthcoming comeback album during a recent discussion with HipHopDX. The Big Boi to Q-Tip’s 3 Stacks also provided some surprising insight into the business-related disputes between he and Tip that have made it difficult for them to always see eye-to-eye, (including the previously untold story of how the addition of Consequence to the Tribe lineup in the mid-'90s contributed to the dissolution of the group just a few years later). And maybe most notably, Phife Diggy revealed to DX whether or not he thinks the Queens-bred brothers-from-another will once again record together as A Tribe Called Quest.
HipHopDX: You’re calling from Atlanta, right?
Phife Dawg: Actually, I’m in Cali right now. I still got my place in Atlanta, but I’m usually in Cali now ‘cause my wife, she’s from Oakland… We’re like 40-something miles outside of Oakland, closer to Antioch, going towards Sacramento…
DX: You didn’t wanna live in El Segundo [California]…for obvious reasons? [Laughs]
Phife Dawg: [Laughs] I never really been there… Besides, I’m not even on that record. That’s a Q-Tip record. [Laughs]
DX: Yeah, I know… You could still try to go get his wallet back. [Laughs]
Phife Dawg: Nah, he got it [back].
DX: …When are you gonna kidnap Q-Tip and lock him in a studio with you and Ali for a couple months to finally bang out that long-long-long-awaited Tribe reunion album?
Phife Dawg: Man, you better off pulling out your own teeth, ‘cause that’s a difficult process. So I have no idea when that’s gonna jump off.
DX: When’s the last time you guys even like discussed it?
Phife Dawg: We discuss it from time to time, because you know Jive [Records], they still want that album. But, Tip was doing his thing, [and] I was dealing with my health issues. I’m [also now] coaching basketball, and recruiting basketball players for a prep school, [South Kent], in Connecticut. And I’m doing the finishing touches to my new album right now as we speak. So we’ve all been busy. Ali’s working on his album… We have a documentary coming out, which is directed by Michael Rapaport, and it’s called Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. So that should be out soon – not sure exactly when, but it should be out either at the end of the year or at the top of next year. So, we’ve been working that out. We’ve [also] been doing shows from time to time – not often, but every now and then we link up and knock these shows out. So, as far as the new album, I really don’t know what to say about that – if it’s gonna happen, or when it’s gonna happen… That’s still pretty much up in the air.
DX: Is there a point you guys think you’ll reach where you’re just like, you know what, let’s just kill it, we waited too long…?
Phife Dawg: Well my mind is like playing a tug-of-war with that right now – or at least it’s been doing that for the last…at least six years. Like, okay, maybe we just need to leave it alone, ‘cause we waited too long. ‘Cause I’ve seen a lot of [golden era artists] come back and drop albums and [they] went virtually unnoticed. I’m not sure if that would happen to A Tribe Called Quest, but if we keep delaying it, it will. So if we gon’ do it - I think the time is right to do it. We’re blessed at the end of the day, because we broke up in ’98, [and] it’s now what? 2010. And promoters are still offering a good amount of money just to see us [perform] those old albums. So we need to count our blessings, do these shows, and if possible hit the world with a brand new album. At the same time, we’ve all grown as individuals… [And] you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’m not gonna change overnight, Ali’s not, Jarobi’s not, Q-Tip’s not. So…I don’t know if we should do it, it’s like really confusing. Whatever we do, if we do it, it gotta be the right shit. It gotta be perfect.
DX: I just think now that Hip Hop doesn’t have Little Brother anymore, we can at least get Tribe Called Quest back.
Phife Dawg: Yeah, that’s crazy. I don’t even like commenting on other groups breaking up, because it always goes back to well why the hell did we break up? [Laughs] So I can’t even say nothing. But, I’m a Little Brother fan, best believe it.
DX: I just think that shows how long it’s been [since the Tribe breakup], that the little brother – the guys who noted themselves [as being] the little brother to Tribe and De La are now breaking up…
Phife Dawg: [Says surprised] Oh that is the reason why they named themselves that, huh? I heard that, but I didn’t know how official that was. ‘Cause I’ve met them a couple of times, but we never really spoke about [the origins of their group name]. We just always spoke on, “Yo, loving your music…” But that’s kinda dope though…the name itself is dope.
DX: I got this question written down, I don’t even know if I should ask it but I’m just gonna go ahead and ask it anyway: how are you and The Abstract Poetic getting along these days?
Phife Dawg: [Laughs]
DX: I remember back when you went at Tip for that “Maxwell look” on “Flawless,” and I know shit ain’t always been kosher between y’all. So, is that relationship where it needs to be?
Phife Dawg: It’s cool as long as we ain’t dealing with each other 24/7. I’m either in Atlanta or California [and] he’s [normally] in the [New York] tri-state area… When we see each other it’s all love. But as long as it ain’t about the business – ‘Cause I think the business pretty much drove us crazy, man. We’ve known each other longer than anybody else in this world, outside of our families. So at the end of the day we’ve still gotta look each other in the face, and look at ourselves in the mirror, no matter how it goes down. But he’s still my man, fifty-grand. We call each other when the [New York] Jets games come on and be yelling at the top of our lungs – whether they’re winning or losing. And then every now and then we argue about this music shit, and where we need to be as a group, and if we’re still a group and things like that. It happens. But at the end of the day, the relationship is like – I can’t speak for him, but for me it’s like I could argue with this dude, he’s my brother. It happens in everybody’s family. But if I step outside and some dudes wanna try and play him and I’m there, I’m not letting it go down like that. But I will take him inside and punch him in the face [Laughs.] So, that’s just how the relationship is.
DX: Are we gonna see y’all gettin’ into it; we gonna see that good, bad and the ugly in this Tribe documentary?
Phife Dawg: Yeah, you’re gonna see it all. I don’t mean to give it away, but you’re gonna see it all. It’s crazy. We’re human beings at the end of the day. So, shit happens from time to time, but, like I said, I still hold him down when I have to.
DX: I don’t even know if I should ask this, I just got it written down in my notes… I’m just gonna go ahead and ask it, I always thought that the root of some of y’all problems was Consequence, ‘cause I always thought you were trippin’ about that [Q-Tip] brought his cousin in [to Tribe] like that, any truth to that?
Phife Dawg: …You’ll see that in the movie as well, because Consequence is in it. But, let me tell you about the Consequence thing… Consequence grew up right under us, so he’s seen everything that everybody else hasn’t seen like [Tribe in] studio sessions and playing cee-lo on the block…playing basketball, whatever… The problem was, Q-Tip never told me that that’s what was going down [and Consequence was joining the group]… I had just got my crib in Atlanta, in like September of ’93. [And then] he puts this guy in the group pretty much – well he got on his first remix of one of our songs…when we was ‘bout to put out Midnight [Marauders]… And then by the time we was working on Beats, Rhymes and Life – You know if you gonna have a guest appearance, ‘cause EPMD put out K-Solo, and they put out Redman and they put out Das [Efx] and they put out Keith Murray… So, okay, is this the dude we gon’ put out? Cool! I’m wit’ that! But, [Q-Tip] did it on some sneaky shit, never told nobody nothing – well, he didn’t tell me. [But] even still, when I was traveling back and forth from New York to Atlanta guess who I was taking to Atlanta with me? Consequence. So it was never a problem with me and Cons. That’s my man! ‘Cause I wanna see him win… I’m a West Indian – [family from] Trinidad, Tobego. With most West Indians, we really and truly love family. Whatever we can do for family, we gon’ do… So with Cons, yo, if you shine, I shine. So [I was like], “Yo, come to Atlanta, let’s go out here, let’s battle some of these dudes, let’s get your face out there.” We’d be in the crib writing rhymes, playing video games – when Sega Genesis was the shit. [Laughs] All day, writing rhymes, eating, doing what we do: breaking bread. So it was never me being mad at Consequence [‘cause] he was down with the crew. It was never that with me. I don’t have a jealous bone in my body when it comes to cats eating and breaking bread. Never that. But, I was mad at Q-Tip, ‘cause to this day he still hasn’t explained himself. So I just took it as, “Oh, this nigga was trying to replace me.” But, even with that [feeling] I [still] held my man Consequence down. That’s what real niggas do. All that other shit, I can’t really call it, and I left it alone a long time ago. Now if [Q-Tip] wanna sit up here and front like everything’s hunky dory [about that situation], that’s on him. Me and Consequence is always gonna be cool…
DX: I appreciate you breaking that down ‘cause I always wondered if that was one of the seeds [of the breakup].
Phife Dawg: …Like I said earlier, EPMD put on they crew, Wu-Tang [Clan] had like nine to 10 members [that all released solo albums]…De La Soul, they pretty much introduced Mos Def to the world… Each one teach one, one hand washes the other. Now with all that being said, who the hell has Tribe Called Quest put on? We were supposed to put on Consequence, but he ended up [eventually] getting with Kanye [West], then coming out. Think about it. The only dude we really put on was Jay Dee – rest in peace, J. Dilla. And that was more of a production thing because Q-Tip and Ali were starting their production unit called The Ummah, which in Arabic means “brotherhood.” So it was Q-Tip, it was Ali, it was J. Dilla, [and] it was supposed to be D’Angelo and Raphael Saadiq all in that unit. Look at The Roots, they done put out mad people: Jazzyfatnastees, Jaguar Wright, Jill Scott. C’mon! Who have we put out? Nothing. And then J. Dilla got a lot of his burn with The Roots and The Soulquarians and Erykah Badu. So, ask yourself why is that?
DX: I’ll ask you, why is that? [Laughs] Wasn’t that just ‘cause you guys weren’t in a position [to do that], you didn’t have a label…?
Phife Dawg: No…because Ali and Q-Tip had a label called Museum Music. Remember the label that Sylvia Rhone had, EastWest? It was under EastWest. That’s who Consequence was gonna come out under, EastWest. I don’t think Sylvia Rhone believed in the project or what have you, so it never panned out…
DX: Did you try to bring new artists to the table through [Museum Music]?
Phife Dawg: Nah, I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t really wanna be involved – I’m already involved in a group with this dude. I didn’t wanna be part of no label with the dude, because one thing I will say is Q-Tip is very hands-on, almost to a fault. It’s like any idea that come to the table initially he’ll be like, “Yo, that’s hot!” But then, it seems like because he didn’t come up with it he’ll be like, “Nah, I got a better idea.” He’ll find something to come up with to make sure that he’s in charge. Control freak, whatever you wanna call it. So, I didn’t wanna be involved in no label [with him], I was already playing myself [by] doing [that] with a group. And a person like me, I don’t know if it’s the West Indian in me, or the Scorpio in me, but I’m very loyal…I think to a fault sometimes. Because I coulda been selfish and said, “You know what? I’m gonna do me.” Because I’ll keep it real with you, I love sports more than I love music. And the one thing I’ve wanted to do, other than actually play basketball, [is coach]. Obviously I didn’t grow a lot…but I have an understanding of the game, so that’s why I’m recruiting now, that’s why I’m coaching now. I coulda been went and tried my hand at that. But, I wouldn’t have none of these windows of opportunity if it wasn’t for A Tribe Called Quest. I never forget where I came from. So I always give back to that; I always go back to that – not because I don’t know how to do anything else. But this has been my livelihood since I was 17-years-old, so I’m not just gonna totally turn my back on it. But if I could, I would. If I wasn’t a loyal dude, I would. ‘Cause, I’ve had enough at this point. But again, when people – The biggest reward in life when you’re an artist like that is…people hitting the dance floor and grooving to your stuff, no doubt. But the bigger reward is when these cats come up to you and say, “Yo man, I was on the wrong path, I lost my moms and my pops in a car accident, and your guys music changed my life. I was shooting up drugs and…I turned a new leaf because I was bangin’ ‘Stressed Out’ .” That’s the real reward right there, and it all goes back to Tribe Called Quest! So I could never turn my back on that, ‘cause if I do that I feel like I’m shittin’ on the people who supported us… So that’s why I still stay involved with whatever Ali has to do, whatever Q-Tip does…that’s why I do it. It’s a bigger picture at the end of the day.
DX: Man, now I really gotta see this Tribe documentary [Laughs.]
Phife Dawg: Yeah, it’s crazy.
DX: Michael Rapaport, that name kind of – I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, he’s a Hip Hop head but…
Phife Dawg: Yeah, he really is.
DX: He just approached y’all…?
Phife Dawg: Yeah…I remember back in like  Ali had a guest spot on [BET's The Deal] – you know how they had different deejays… So he was on there deejaying and the guest of the day was Nas. So Nas initially said to Ali, “Yo, y’all need to do a documentary on y’allselves, ‘cause a lot of people love y’all…Y’all broke up awhile back, and the people that don’t understand the history they need to know it…” So Nas initially brought it up… And then a few months later, while we were on the road, on Rock The Bells 2008, Michael Rapaport and Nas, I guess, spoke about it. And then Rapaport is just really gung-ho, he’s a go getter… So he’s directing, [and] Nas is supposed to be executive producing… But Michael Rapaport really took the baton and ran with it and was like, “Yo, we need to really do this.” So he started shooting while we was on Rock The Bells – well at the tail-end of Rock The Bells. So ever since he been shooting. I had to have surgery in September of 2008. He was right there when I was registering to go in – [he filmed] all kind of shit. It should be cool, I’m kinda afraid to watch it but…it should be cool though.
DX: …Your kidney transplant is documented in the film, do you know how much was filmed…?
Phife Dawg: He didn’t come in when I was going through the surgery or anything, he was there right before I went in… I was registering to go in and stuff like that. But, the little that he caught, I couldn’t even watch it. Because it was so…I don’t even know what words to describe it, man. I was just like, “Alright, I can’t watch this part.”
DX: Let’s switch gears to a cheerier topic…Songs in the Key of Phife, you got that fiya ready for the people?
Phife Dawg: Yeah, Songs in the Key of Phife Volume 1: Cheryl’s Big Son. I’m like three songs away from being done. I’m only gonna put out about 15 songs, but I just keep recording and recording and recording. Like the more beats I hear, the more hungrier I get. So we just gotta pick out the top 15 and make it happen, but I just mixed down at least three songs already so it’s definitely in motion. I still don’t know when it’s gonna come out, but in a perfect world I wouldn’t mind dropping it between September [and] November. If not, I’ll drop it February.
DX: No Hi-Tek and Pete Rock this go-round?
Phife Dawg: Nah. Yo, that’s been the hardest thing to do right now is to reach out to different people and get tracks. Now as far as Pete [Rock] and Hi-Tek [specifically], I didn’t even get a chance to reach out to them. But, the people that I did reach out to, I guess they figured I put out some bullshit [with Ventilation] or something, I don’t know. [So], they ain’t get back to me. And then the people that – You know how you don’t even ask people for stuff but they offer? So when they offering it I’m like, “Oh yo, let me see what’s up” with so-and-so, and I call ‘em [back and then] they act like they don’t wanna answer they phone, they don’t wanna return messages. So I’m like, “Alright cool, I’ll do me. It’s all good.” I pretty much have my own production company [now anyway], by the name of Riddim Kids. It’s like rhythm kids. If you look on the back of the first Tribe album [People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm], where it says “Jarobi and the rhythm kids”…but I renamed it Riddim because of me and my partner being of Trinidadian decent… It’s actually three of us, it’s me, it’s my man Rasta Roots from outta Atlanta, and then my partner Stat Box, a little 22-year-old dude from San Jose. He’s hungry, Roots is hungry, I’m hungry, so we’re just bangin’ out these beats. And then I got a track from !llmind, I got a track from Oh No… So we making it happen.
DX: And you know I gotta ask, it’s just mandatory, is there gonna be a track with Q-Tip on there you think?
Phife Dawg: Yo, I sent him the track, and he didn’t send it back to me yet, so we’ll see what happens. But, right now I’m trying to get this one track with Big Boi from OutKast on it, and I’m [also] trying to get Slick Rick on it… And then another track I’m gonna do with KRS-One. And Ali Shaheed Muhammad did that track matter fact.
DX: Topically on the album, is it that traditional good-time vibe or are we getting more serious at all, speaking on the health battle…?
Phife Dawg: It’s a variety. Like you have your party joints, [and] you got your underground joints – the just bob-ya-head, smoke-a-blunt joints, or you in a cipher type joints. And then I do have a joint talking about the whole health situation, I definitely have that. So, it’s a little bit of everything, man. I [don’t] beat people in the head with the preaching and all of that type of shit… It’s a fun album.
DX: Yeah, what was the Phife content back in the day? There was wack emcees, sports, and I think hoes [Laughs.]
Phife Dawg: That’s still thrown in there a little bit [too], don’t get it twisted. I gotta do vintage Tribe.