Whenever a legend dies I’m often faced with a predicament. On one hand, it’s important to honor them with words and thoughts shared for public consumption, but tributes so often feel exploitative, more about capitalizing on pageviews than honoring a hero.
When Phife Dawg died I remained quiet because, although I respect and admire Phife and Tribe, I was only two when Low End Theory came out. I just never had that close, personal relationship with their music that I would need to pen a proper tribute. Rather than put together something artificial, I felt it was more appropriate to listen and learn from those who really understood and connected with the five foot assassin, like Andre 3000.
But when I unearthed this interview with Phife from 2001, from a now-perished site called ThaFormula.com using the Wayback machine (you'll have to click "interviews" if you want to see the original), I knew I had to share it. It gives us a chance to look back on Phife’s career from Phife's own perspective, and no matter where you land on the Tribe fan spectrum it’s important to understand, appreciate and, most importantly, keep his voice alive.
ThaFormula.com: What are your thoughts on how hip-hop is right now?
Phife Dawg: - It's cool, but like the old sayin' goes, too much of something is never good. I think hip-hop needs a little bit of diversity.
TF: How did the solo album do for you. Were you happy with the results?
PD: I was happy with it as far as what we achieved in the studio and what we put together, but as far as the marketing and distribution, no I wasn't happy at all, and it wasn't the labels fault it was actually the distributors. They only put it out in certain markets. In like about 40% of the markets, and it did well for the markets that it was in but it could have done better and I felt like it was a waste a time basically, and I hate working my tail off and it goes in vain. I think everybody hates that.
TF: Well, regardless of what went wrong, it was a dope album.
PD: Thank you.
TF: What was it like going solo?
PD: I mean it was cool because I get to call all the shots. I really don't have to answer to nobody. It was ideas that I put together that I had for a long time, but I just had to chill because I wasn't only representing myself, I was representing 2 other individuals so I always had to hold back on certain things and represent what Tribe was all about. Now that I was on a solo mission, it was all about me, so I put my best foot forward and did what I had to do. It was a little bit difficult of course because you didn't have the other 2 around to like really conversate on what should go down and what shouldn't, but at the same time we were a veteran group so it was about that time for me to do my own thing anyway. I think it came at the right time. It just didn't work out the way I wanted it to.
TF: What was the best time of hip-hop for you?
PD: I think the best time for me was during the Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. The release of those 2 albums were probably the best times, and even those times were a little shaky at first, but that's really about it. I have mixed feelings as far as those times go, but if I had to pick the best times out of any, it would have to be in between Low End and Midnight.
TF: So did you guys always have a lot of creative differences?
PD: No, not really. Only on probably the last album. Creative differences might have came in play a little bit, but most of it was more so with the label actually.
TF: What was the problem with Jive man?
PD: They were embracing the Backstreet Boys thing and the N'Sync and Brittany Spears thing, which is all cool, but you can't forget who got you there and could still take you further. We were always our own A&Rs basically. I don't think they really dug that too much. It was all about when we wanted them to come into the studio and listen to whatever we were making or whatever. We wouldn't let them just come in there and listen when they wanted to. We were a very discreet group and were all about making sure we made the best product before they were able to listen to it and I don't think they could understand that.
TF: What would you say was the main thing that led to the break up?
PD: Jive is one reason, and at the same time being together for ten years is a very long time. We needed a break so to speak, so we could go off and venture into different things, but it didn't have to go down the way that it did. It was a lot of political bullshit. I just think certain people wasn't honest with themselves. So if your not honest with yourself, how the hell are you gonna be honest with me.
TF: Did Ali and Q tip just break or was it something you all decided?
PD: Nah, it was just something we decided to do because things weren't looking good. It wasn't exactly the bitterest of breakups, but me personally I just felt like a lot of people were dishonest.
TF: Your breakup was looked at similar to the EPMD breakup. Why was that last album The Love Movement so different then all the rest?
PD: Oh, I really wasn't a part of it so I can't explain it so that's the reason why I don't usually talk about Tribe stuff.
TF: You weren't a part of the last album?
PD: Not really. I was involved to a certain extent, but I really didn't want to be there, so I really wasn't. I'm out here in Atlanta so you know I was like whatever. My attitude was already like fuck it, once Beats, Rhymes, & Life came out. So I definitely wasn't interested in Love Movement to tell you the truth.
TF: This was all because of the label?
PD: Yeah, it's part of it and other things also, but I'm really not gonna get deep into it. Everybody knew we broke up, everybody didn't want us to breakup, but some things are inevitable. Hopefully we will be able to put it together one day, but right now we got to keep our head above water to do what we got to do.
TF: Do you guys still talk to each other at all man?
PD: Yeah we do.
TF: So then you and the group were cool with the breakup. I mean there was no problems with Tribe ending?
PD: Yeah, to me there was a problem! I don't have a problem expressing myself and I had a problem with certain people and I let it be known and we justified it and everything is cool now.
TF: Now you had some great producers on your album. Did the label give you a strong budget and did they back you up like you expected?
PD: They did a ok job. I can't really complain as far as Groove Attack is concerned. They did a ok job as far as making sure that I got the producers that I really wanted to work with and so forth and so on, but like I said it was really the distribution that killed everything.
TF: Why did you choose a UK label like Groove Attack to sign with?
PD: Because they gave me my freedom man. All these other labels attitude is, yeah we signed you, your signed to our label so it's our project. I really don't believe in that because I'm the one bustin' my ass doing all the work.
TF: Did it bug you that you had to go to a UK label to get something like total control of your project?
PD: No it doesn't bug me because when they stepped to me, they told me that I would be distributed in the U.S.. I'm not just gonna get on a label that say there gonna distribute it only in the U.K. I don't live in the U.K.
TF: Why do you think real hip-hop is so much more respected in the U.K then in the U.S.?
PD: Because people in the U.S. always got to be spoon-fed. If it's something to difficult to understand, they don't give it a chance. They want something real simple that they can sing along with and play in the clubs and that's about it. In the UK, their whole mind set is completely different. They don't give a fuck about Benzes and shit like that. They wanna hear reality. They wanna hear the Mos Def's, the Gang Starr's. They wanna hear mc'ing, they don't wanna hear that happy go lucky shit. I mean there is a time and place for all of that and they play everything from like Destiny's child to everything in the clubs or whatever. At the same time when they are in their cribs or their ride, they are gonna listen to some real hip-hop. They are more diverse over there. They give everything a chance. Over here everybody has got to be beat over the head 1200 times with one damn song and that is their so-called hit.
TF: When did you move to Atlanta?
PD: I moved to Atlanta right before Midnight Marauders came out.
TF: Why did you do that man. I mean what made you leave New York?
PD: I got tired of New York. I mean when you grow up somewhere, uh, I just basically wanted something different for myself and if I was planning on having a family. I hated to leave my family as well as the Knicks, but I had to make moves you know.
TF: Did New York change, or has it changed a lot since back in the day?
PD: Yeah, New York has changed a whole lot. For worse I think because back when I was growing up in New York we were always the trendsetters. I don't care if it was from clothes to hip-hop music, to whatever. Right now New York is a bunch of followers. A lot of them are. It's really not the same. I mean I love New York. New York made me the man that I am, and I always rep it to the fullest, but right now it's completely different from what it was and anybody that says it's for the better is straight up lyin'. Straight up lyin'!!
It's fascinating to read about his solo work and his critique of New York - it's rare you hear about a rapper leaving NYC - but what stood out the most to me is the talk of the breakup. So much of the conversation around Tribe's demise involves their fractured relationships with one another, so to hear Phife discuss the role Jive played sheds new light on the dissolution of one of hip-hop's all-time greatest groups. I never would have thought the rise of boy bands contributed to the downfall of ATCQ, and while major labels wanting control and oversight over music isn't shocking, it's something I've never really heard discussed in the narrative of their breakup.
What I love most about this story though, and the music of Phife and Tribe, is how unflinchingly authentic it is. Even in his passing, the complexities, cracks and love embedded in the group's relationship continues to be an essential part of understanding them, and I'm glad this interview both solidifies the complicated humanity of their relationship and presents a different narrative. While being able to put a nice, pretty bow on Tribe's story is tempting, I think it's against the nature of Phife and Tribe because they were always so honest.
If we really want to honor Phife it's important to wrestle with the tumultuous times while also celebrating the highs, and it took this interview to show me the full range of Phife's story and his life.