It’s been twenty-five years since A Tribe Called Quest released its seminal debut album People’s Instinctive Travels Through The Paths of Rhythm. It was their first point scored in a string of three consecutive groundbreaking LPs; the second being The Low End Theory and lastly Midnight Marauders. The collective comprised of beatsmith/emcee Q-Tip, deejay Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi are what most of their longtime fans know as the members of the group. Many people have cited Q-Tip as the de-facto leader of the legendary Queens, New York group early on, being that you hear him initially on the album’s opening cut “Push It Along,” and most of the album altogether. Jarobi, the narrator on the album who introduced the group in the first album skit, was a friend of a young Phife (Malik Taylor), eager to find his spot on the album. Especially standout cuts like “Can I Kick It?,” “Ham And Eggs,” and “Mr. Muhammed.”
With memorable verses on Tribe’s classics singles like “Scenario,” “Oh My God,” and “Check The Rhime” to cut a long list short, Phife was a highly gifted emcee who anchored Tribe’s ship. By the time their fourth album Beats, Rhymes, and Life was released, Q-Tip had asked the prophetic question that related to the outcome of the group soon after on the opening track “Phony Rappers,” “Who will be the captain of this ship?/ If it goes down, don’t you know you got to go with it?”
In 1998, when the news that the group disbanded hit, A Tribe Called Quest was the unsinkable ship to their devoted fans that sadly sunk into oblivion after their last album, The Love Movement. Still, in 2015, when you say the word “Tribe,” every single person knows what you’re talking about. But, what if A Tribe Called Quest never became the groundbreaking collective as we know it today? According to Phife, the group’s official formation happened unintentionally wrong but for the right reasons.
Phife Speaks On A Tribe Called Quest’s Formation
HipHopDX: What can you say about the group dynamic on the first Tribe album?
Phife: It’s actually difficult for me to talk about that first album, being that I really had zero to do with it! I was hardly around. Q-Tip wrote all the lyrics, his and mine. Not that I couldn’t write, but I wasn’t an official member of the group then. I was working on my own stuff and one or two cameo’s with ATCQ was gonna set me up to do solo as well as form a duo with Jarobi! Basically, on that first album for me was in the same way that you found out about Q-Tip via The Jungle Brothers. You know what I mean? That was the start of all of that. And the same way he was discovered by Jungle—by going to the same high school as them. DJ Red Alert was Mike G (of the Jungle Brothers) uncle, and all of that. It was about being in the right place at the right time. I mean, I knew Q-Tip since we were kids, and basically he was going to put me out the same way. So basically, one hand washes the other. We were thinking what Wu Tang set out and did. So it was supposed to be like that but as they say, the rest is history. I ended up signing on as an official member of the group right before The Low End Theory was recorded. That’s how I remained a member of A Tribe Called Quest.
DX: It’s interesting how you detail that about the group history, because on the first album cover, there are four silhouettes at the top that represent the group.
DX: So, why were there four to represent the group, instead of just three, or even two silhouettes to represent the former status of the group?
Phife: Originally, A Tribe Called Quest was Q-Tip and Ali. Jarobi and I were supposed to be like hypemen. But eventually we were supposed to expand and then do our own thing—he as a soloist and me as a soloist.
DX: So Jarobi wanted to be a soloist too?
Phife: Right. Before that first album even took off, Jarobi made a big decision to go to school for culinary arts because that’s really his first love. Just like sports and sports broadcasting is my first love. That’s basically what happened. So the logo (on the first album) was done, we were already used to it, and it just fit regardless of what was going to happen. We put it out there like that. I mean, we were members of A Tribe Called Quest, not just contractually, though. Contractually, we were, but… You remember when P. Diddy had Making The Band and all of that? Tribe was never like that. We were friends way before any of this. You know what I mean? The logo fit regardless, whether I had vocals on that album or not. So the original logo on that album was going to be the four silhouettes, or the four stickmen, regardless. Even if you just heard just two men on the first album, there were going to be four even if you never saw Jarobi and Phife.
DX: Did the Jive Records brass believe in you to be a soloist after the release of the first album being as hot as it was?
Phife: Not really. It wasn’t until Low End that they may have raised their eyebrows and said, “Oh maybe Phife can do this solo. But they never truly believed in me because I remember them trying to send me bogus deals. I was like “Okay, you guys are being real disrespectful.” They were more concerned with the group than with just me to be honest.
DX: I just remember those four stick figures as the logo on the first album before the other red, green, and black zebra lady logo on the following albums. And most people who think of the term “tribe” would believe it’s a group, not just two people.
Phife: “Tribe” means a group of people so I totally get it. No doubt. And actually, Ali does rap, he just hasn’t done it enough. I don’t think there would be a 25-year anniversary right now. You know how they say all things happen for a reason. Everything that we planned, none of it really happened. Tribe stayed the course, pretty much. Like, most people know it for being just the three of us, but it ended up really being the four of us.
DX: From the first album’s videos “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” and “Can I Kick It?” it sounded looked like it was from a storybook, and then hearing the album it sounded like it was about a journey through life?
Phife: I think that’s a good way of looking at it, but there’re certain things that I cannot answer because it was really Q-Tip’s brainchild. So I came whenever he needed me, and he did it when he wanted to do it. When he needed me to come in and do something, I was there for him. You know what I’m saying?
DX: Back in the early 90s, rap groups were hot commodities in Hip Hop. What was the turning point that made you sign on as a member of A Tribe Called Quest and not continue as a soloist?
Phife: Basically I went on tour for that first album. We did a lot of shows overseas in other parts of the world and all of that. And I saw how big things could be. You know what I mean? I happened to run into Q-Tip on the train one night, right in between that album and the recording of the second album Low End Theory. And going into Low End Theory, it was either do or die as far as coming that far into the industry. We knew Hip Hop was a fickle industry. And we really needed to kick the door off the hinges with our next release. So he and I ended up having a discussion on the train all the way from Queens to Manhattan. I vowed to be a part of the group even more. And before you knew it, I signed my own little deal to be in the group and the rest, as they say, is history.
Phife’s Reflection on A Tribe Called Quest’s Legacy
DX: In Michael Rappaport’s documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, you mentioned about how the last album should have been called The Last Movement instead of The Love Movement. I once read around the release of that album that there was a fire that happened at Q-Tip’s townhouse studio in New Jersey and it destroyed a lot of his record collection, which he sampled from to produce Tribe’s records. Did that hinder the production process of the album at all?
Phife: Yeah that was a fire that happened at Q-Tip’s old house, and he lost the majority of his record collection, as well as several recordings for that last album that he had.
DX: Was it far deep enough into the recording of the album near the end, making you start all over, or was it early on?
Phife: Naw we didn’t have to start all over with the music of whatever. But he lost more of his record collection than the recordings per se.
DX: I remember hearing one of the singles “Same Ol’ Thing,” which didn’t make the last album.
Phife: Yeah I remember it a little bit.
DX: The fire seems somewhat symbolic of the end result of the group disbanding right after the release of that album.
Phife: I don’t know if I would say that because it was going to be the last album regardless. I’ll never forget it was a few days before the (1998) All-Star Game, the last time it was in New York before this past All-Star Game. I was in Atlanta that week, and I just happened to see Q-Tip at this All-Star function, and then I found out how much he lost. But we were in the studio that weekend recording the “Steppin’ It Up’” record with Redman and Busta. We really didn’t skip a beat. I think there was some wiring in his basement studio that caused that fire to happen. But it wasn’t in the documentary because it really wasn’t a big deal.
DX: On which Tribe album would you say that you reached your peak as an emcee?
Phife: I would say that The Low End Theory was my coming out party for myself because on the debut I appeared on four out of fifteen songs. On Midnight Marauders, you really saw what the group can be when you’re on the same page for both of those second and third albums.
DX: Where any of those stories on “8 Million Stories” or “Butter” true?
Phife: (Laughs) Here and there. I added some fictional things in there. but a lot of it was true. Like for “8 Million Stories,” the Knicks situation, my little brother crying, stuff like that. But I was just on a roll as far as my storytelling. Because Slick Rick is one of my favorite rappers ever. That was my paying homage to Slick Rick on that record.
DX: That was also the title is the same as that old Kurtis Blow record.
Phife: Exactly. It was definitely an homage to him as well.
DX: What about “The Chase Pt. 2” on Midnight Marauders? Was there ever a Part 1?
Phife: I don’t know if Q-Tip called it that, but the original version was a Sly and The Family Stone sample that we couldn’t clear. So we ended using Steve Arrington and Slave for the song that you hear now. And he just renamed it “The Chase Pt. 2.”
Phife Talks Life After “Tribe,” New Career in Sports Journalism
DX: You were around the college-age during that first tour with Tribe. What else would you have done in you were never even became a solo artist or an official member of A Tribe Called Quest?
Phife: I didn’t go to college, but I would have gone back to school for journalism, communications and for sports broadcasting. I wanted to have gone to Syracuse or North Carolina. Either one. I probably would have gone to one of those schools or a historically black school like Howard or Clark in Atlanta or something like that. Brent Musberger was one of my idols growing up.
DX: Makes sense about the heavy influence of basketball and sports references in your rhymes. Notably on your most memorable verses on songs like “Scenario,” “1-2 Shit,” The Infamous Date Rape,” or “8 Million Stories.”
Phife: Like I said earlier, sports is my first love. So even if you hear it in some of the lyrics, I throw athletes in there or make a couple of sports references here and there. Or even down to the garments I wore. Even how I rocked jerseys. Nowadays I frame them, things of that nature. That was always my M.O. from jump street, from high school on.
DX: So what are you working on now sportswise?
Phife: I’m still involved with that. I’m working on my own show, a sports podcast, and mini-documentaries. Right now, I’m working on the Phife Sports Network.
DX: You being a longtime Knicks fan, it must be hard to see the Knicks go through what they went through all year totaling just 17 wins. Do you believe your fellow Queens native/Knicks legend Mark Jackson, last year when he was available in the NBA coaching market, would have been the better pick by Phil Jackson to be the head coach of the Knicks instead of Derek Fisher?
Phife: I would have liked Mark Jackson to come back home to coach the Knicks. Naturally, he is my favorite Knick ever besides Bernard King. But I knew he wasn’t coming because I know he wasn’t one of Phil’s guys. Once (Golden State Warriors coach) Steve Kerr turned down the job, I knew he was going to get Derek Fisher to try and come. So I knew for a fact that Mark Jackson wasn’t gonna come because Phil Jackson wanted one of his peoples in there. But I definitely would have preferred Mark Jackson. Not that I don’t believe in Derek Fisher. I still believe in their system, and we’ll see what happens down in the offseason. But this was a hard pill to swallow seeing what went on this season. I’ll tell you that much.
DX: Even your idol Magic Johnson had tweeted his co-signing for Mark Jackson as a great candidate for any head coaching job after he got fired from the Golden State Warriors when they lost in the 2014 playoffs. Now he’s back to commentating on NBA games. Imagine what that would be like to have you and Mark Jackson together as commentators.
Phife: That would be crazy! That would be incredible, with him, John Madden, Brent Musberger, I used to like Chick Hearn a lot. And Marv Albert, I grew up on him most definitely.