Phife Dawg’s Quarter-Century

Published November 23, 2015

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST IN INTERVIEW, JUNE 1990. PHOTO BY ARI MARCOPOULOS.

It’s no secret that the easiest way to engage hip-hop legend Phife Dawg is through sports. A Tribe Called Quest’s “five-foot assassin” watches football, but basketball is his sport. In the 2000s, while Q-Tip was releasing solo albums, Ali Shaheed Muhammad was producing and DJ’ing around the world, and Jarobi White was perfecting his culinary skills, Phife Dawg recruited basketball players for a Connecticut prep school and coached high schoolers in Oakland. Ask him about his favorite basketball rookies and he becomes almost loquacious: “I like Karl-Anthony Towns from the Minnesota Timber Wolves. I like D’Angelo from the Lakers—I want to see him do well. Then there’s Stanley Johnson from the University of Arizona who’s with the Detroit Pistons right now. I expect him to do big things. And don’t sleep on Justise Winslow, too, even though it’s hard for me to say that four-letter word [Winslow’s team the Miami Heat].”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Although the quartet has had their ups-and-downs—they broke up in 1998 and had a rocky reunion in the late 2000s detailed in Michael Rappaport‘s documentary Beats, Rhymes, & Life (2011)—they decided to mark the occasion with remixes by Pharrell Williams, J.Cole, and CeeLo Green and an album remaster by new producer Bob Power.

Recorded before he was fully committed to the group, People’s Instinctive Travels is an odd album for Phife Dawg. “I felt like part of the group when Low End Theory came to be,” he explains over the phone, citing the group’s 1991 sophomore album. “I really wasn’t involved [in People’s], to be honest. I’m only on four songs out of 15 and Q-Tip wrote all of those lyrics.” The Queens native, whose real name is Malik Taylor, famously dislikes the album’s breakout hit “Can I Kick It?” He isn’t too fond of “Ham N Eggs” either, a tongue-in-cheek riff on Dr. Seuss and the first song he recorded for the album. (If he could go back in time, he would tell himself “don’t rap on this song.”) Yet you cannot talk about the album without mentioning Phife: he is in every music video, and his youthful tenor is the perfect foil for Q-Tip’s baritone.

Now 45 and based on the West Coat, Phife is on good terms with his fellow ATCQ members; he talks to Jarobi “a lot,” Ali “every now and then,” and Q-Tip “every once in a while.” Currently, he is working on a new “eight or nine-song” EP, the first single of which will be out early next year. “It’s definitely a hip-hop, throwback kind of album,” he tells us. “Music is part of my DNA. Being from New York City, hip-hop is in my blood. Being a West Indian, music is in my blood—calypso. Poetry is in my blood, my mom’s a poet. Other than sports, nothing else really matters except for family and good food. It’s always going to be a part of me no matter what.”

Here, Phife shares a few memories.

CHILDHOOD HEROES: Stevie Wonder, Magic Johnson, Teddy Pendergrass, Donny Hathaway, my mom and my dad. My grandmother.

THE FIRST TIME I HEARD MYSELF ON THE RADIO: Was “Buddy” on De La Soul’s record.

MY FIRST MUSIC VIDEO: “El Segundo” in Las Vegas. It was fun. Jarobi should’ve done comedy, so he had us laughing the whole time and Sin City was dope. We were excited. We did a little bit in Brooklyn, but we did the bulk of it in Las Vegas.

MODERN HIP-HOP: Do I keep up with modern hip-hop? Somewhat, but not too much. I’m still very old-school. I’m still my beat. I listen to J. Cole, Joey BadA$$, that whole Pro Era squad, Kendrick Lamar. He’s shown us love throughout verses he’s done on his last album. That’s love right there. That’s dope. I haven’t met him in person.

FAVORITE PEOPLE’S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS AND THE PATHS OF RHYTHM SONG: It’s a toss-up between “Bonita,” “Youthful Expression,” and “Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts).'”

LEAST FAVORITE PEOPLE’S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS AND THE PATHS OF RHYTHM SONG: “Ham N Eggs.” I kind of regret that song. I really didn’t like that one and I hated my voice on it even more. I guess I would have told myself to get some Barry White in your voice.

MEETING MAGIC JOHNSON: It was All-Star weekend and the late, great Wayman Tisdale was playing for Phoenix at the time. He was a jazz musician when he didn’t play basketball, and he had a show. A bunch of hip-hoppers were there. A bunch of athletes were there for the All Star. Leaving the festivities, I ran into Magic, and he said “What’s up, Phife? How you doing?” He reached out to me and shook my hand and said, “When is the next album coming out?” And I couldn’t believe he actually knew who I was because I’m such a fan of his. I was just shocked. I wish I’d had a pen; I would have got his autograph.

BANDS I WISHED I HAD BEEN IN: Run DMC, De La Soul, Wu-Tang, N.W.A.

ACTORS I’D LIKE TO PLAY ME IN A TRIBE CALLED QUEST BIOPIC:  I don’t know. I guess Omar Epps is short. Can I say Omar Epps? I can think of good actors—Mekhi Phifer—but none of them are really short. I’m shorter than everybody. It’s actually difficult. The guy that played Eazy-E [in Straight Outta Compton] would be cool and at least compared to everybody else he’s definitely short. Will there be an A Tribe Called Quest biopic? After that drama with the documentary? Absolutely not. No. Nope. That was like pulling teeth.

THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION OF PEOPLE’S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS AND THE PATHS OF RHYTHM IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT ATCQ’S WEBSITE