Bay Area-based producer Starita has always dreamt of collaborating with A Tribe Called Quest. While working at a record store in Jackson, Mississippi, he stumbled across 1993’s Midnight Marauders and thought to himself, “Oh my god, this is it.” From there, the flood gates opened and he dove head first into Hip Hop.
In 1996, he decided to attend engineering school to learn how to produce music, which eventually led the Grammy Award-winning producer to Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios 10 years later.
Holed up at the production board, he sat with Phife Dawg working on ATCQ’s final album, We got it from Here … Thank You For Your service. They wrapped up work on “Dis Generation” on Sunday (March 20).
Phife would pass away two days later on March 22, 2016. According to Starita, Phife almost had a sixth sense that his time on earth was soon coming to an end.
In a green room upstairs at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco during the Tribute To A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders event last month, Starita recalls those last days.
“If you talk to Rasta Root [Phife’s DJ/collaborator] about any of this stuff, it’s like Phife Dawg basically wrote the last days of his life,” Starita tells HipHopDX. “So rewinding back to March 2016, I got the call, ‘Hey, we need you in the studio.’
“I was slammed with work, but they said, ‘Hey, man, we need you in here for this,’ but I told them I was booked for the next two weeks. They’re like, ‘Phife Dawg is coming in’ and then it was like, ‘Oh, I’m completely available!”
Starita was kept in the dark until Phife arrived.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he admits. “I went into the studio and was waiting on Phife to get there, and then he comes in. I’m getting set up and I said, ‘What are we working on?’ Rasta Root emails me the track, and so I pull up the email and this track starts playing. I’m like, ‘Wow, this sounds a lot like Tribe Called Quest.
“I hear this MC come on and it’s Jarobi. Then I hear Q-Tip come in, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, this is…’ and I looked over at Phife who was writing lyrics on his phone. I said, ‘Phife, is it safe to say we’re working on a new Tribe Called Quest record?’ And he just looked up from his phone and said, ‘Shh.’ My stomach went in my throat, and I got goosebumps.”
During those recording sessions, there were a few moments that now stand out to Starita as eerily prophetic.
“I had never worked with anybody that was that prolific of an MC,” he explains. “It was just amazing. What he was doing then — and a lot of other people have said it, too — I was just blown away. I was like this is not normal. It feels like he was MCing was even more elevated than I was even used to hearing before.
“Me and him were really cooking, and we were jiving together, and he said, ‘Well, we’ve got some extra time. Let’s do some of my solo stuff.’ He called up Roots had him send over a track called ‘Always and Forever,’ which was the last song he ever recorded.”
As they were working on the song, Phife asked Starita to do several interesting production tricks, which he says looking back on seem “very interesting.”
“That song is a swan song,” he says. “He basically tells the entire story of Tribe from when they were kids, and talks about how they bumped heads — and then he apologizes. He had me doing interesting things like chopping up his voice and pitching it up to where it sounds like he’s going up, like [ascending singing].”
“The track stops, and then it goes [singing] and then the track comes back in. We had even booked more time to keep working on the [solo] record because we were jiving really well together, and then he made his transition.”
Like many others, Phife’s death left Starita feeling gutted and almost in a state of shock that he seemed to go so quickly.
“It was weird,” he explains. “It was really strange feeling because it felt so surreal that I had gone from this extreme high of bucket list work, top of my career, almost like a personal goal type of stuff to losing him. Other people might think otherwise from the other people that I’ve worked with, but that particularly was the most special thing that’s ever happened in my career.
“Phife is one of the best people I’ve ever worked with, one of the most prolific, just the most talented and most beautiful person, you know? So humble, too. You would not know a person of that caliber and talent would ever be so humble.”
Following Phife’s transition, Starita asked Roots what he could do to help.
“Everything happened, but then part of me kicked in, and I was like this is my chance to honor this legacy,” he says. “I started communicating with Rasta Root a lot. I started gathering all the files up, doing that, and then it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to release ‘Nutshell.'”
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About to start prepping the final sessions I did with @iamthephifer Phife Dawg so I can mix the last song we did together this Saturday. There's so many mixed emotions of feeling blessed to have even been in the presence of a genius like him to wishing I could hear many more years of his rhymes. Life is crazy… #phife4eva #fivefootassassin #atcqforever
But there were other songs that evolved from those Fantasy Studios sessions — but there’s no telling when they will see the light of day. Starita also ended up producing a track with Jarobi called “Rules.”
“We did another track that didn’t make the [ATCQ] record, which is also a great song, too,” he reveals. “I can’t speak to that, but there is stuff out there. I can say that because Jarobi said it in an interview we were in together. There’s stuff that didn’t make the record.”
In November 2016, Starita made the trek to New York City for the unveiling of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor Way and finally got a true sense of the impact Phife left on the world.
“I just started to see the magnitude of what Phife’s legacy was and how many people he had touched,” he says. “I was hanging out with people that had grown up with him since he was a kid. We went to St. Alban’s Park where they used to shoot ball after the dedication.
“A whole convoy went down there and played Tribe. Everybody is drinking and smoking like how they used to hang out. I’ll never forget it.”