Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor was only a teenager when he entered Calliope Studios in New York to record A Tribe Called Quest‘s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He wasn’t officially a member yet — that wouldn’t happen until the group’s next album, The Low End Theory — but his contributions to tracks like “Push It Along” and “Can I Kick It?” helped establish ATCQ as one of hip-hop’s most influential groups.
The plan on People’s was simple. “Me and [Tribe member Jarobi] were supposed to do our own group,” Phife tells Rolling Stone. “A Tribe Called Quest was really [members] Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and they were going to put us out there. I was really a support thing for Tip and Ali.”
Phife would become, of course, an essential part of the group; his helium-high voice and ruffneck rhymes a counterbalance to Q-Tip’s esoteric interests and mellow flow. Despite breaking up multiple times and not releasing an album since 1998’s The Love Movement, ATCQ still steadily receive touring offers to perform in front of hip-hop fans that may love them more than they love each other.
Today, the group will reissue its pivotal debut album, the first in a series of planned reissues over at least the next few years. (A 45s box set of the album ships next month.) But if any rap group is in need of the Some Kind of Monster treatment, it’s A Tribe Called Quest; its history over the past 20 years marked by infighting, breakups, make-ups, mudslinging and reunions — some amicable, some necessary – precipitated mainly by the love/hate relationship between longtime frenemies Phife and Q-Tip.
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“I think it is ludicrous that we are not performing together.”
So it’s a bittersweet promotional cycle for Phife, the 44-year-old rapper who must now dwell on a more innocent time of his life while still retaining past (and possibly present) grudges. The group will reunite, briefly, on The Tonight Show Friday night, though there are still no plans to tour or record any new material.
In February, Phife Dawg will drop the Dilla-produced “Nutshell,” the first single off his new EP Give Thanks featuring production by 9th Wonder, Nottz and Phife himself. Later next year, the rapper will release Muttymorphosis, his new LP that functions as “basically my life story.” But for now, the outspoken rapper spoke to Rolling Stone about a joyful past, a tenuous present and an uncertain future with the pioneering group.
You were 19 when People’s was released. Is it odd to be looking back at the 25th anniversary?
It’s odd in a good way. I never expected it to be this big. I just thought we were going to be celebs in the hood. Like, honestly, within 25 years, when you go to places like Australia and Japan and Amsterdam and London and Germany and these people know [the songs] word-for-word, it’s crazy. So it’s nothing but a blessing at the end of the day, but I don’t remember a lot. It’s kind of a blur. Being that I was only on four songs on the album, my focus wasn’t completely there yet. I didn’t take things too seriously until Low End Theory. I just remember this being the album where, “Okay, Tribe made a dent, so the next album, we’ve got to kick the door off the hinges.”
Record labels bashed the group’s original, four-track demo. Were you discouraged when it wasn’t as well-received as you hoped?
No, cause that’s when I was runnin’ the streets. [Laughs] Q-Tip would just let me know what was going on and you know how when you’re not there to see things for yourself, you don’t really get the full effect of it? I wasn’t getting that full effect; I just knew we were going to make it one way or the other.
Was there one moment when you said, “This is it. This is what I’m going to do”?
A couple of months before we started workin’ on Low End, I just happened to run into Q-Tip on the train leaving from Queens going into Manhattan. He was like, “Yo, I’m about to start recording this next album. I want you on a couple of songs, but you have to take it serious, blah, blah, blah.” So I was like, “Aiight, I feel you” and I took that into consideration along with the last couple of shows we did for that first album. I saw how fruitful things could get and I said, “Okay, I made up my mind that this is what I want to do.” I wanted to take care of my family, so it was all systems go, for real.
Jarobi said, “I don’t think we were chasing other rappers. We were chasing guys like Prince, Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind & Fire.” Is that an accurate representation of the album?
I definitely agree with Jarobi on that, especially when it comes to longevity. We wanted the longevity of Earth, Wind & Fire and Prince and people of that nature. We didn’t want to be two-hit and three-hit wonders. We didn’t want the big, big singles that we were known for. We wanted to be known for full-length albums. When you say, “A Tribe Called Quest,” we wanted people to say, “That whole opus was crazy.” There were certain artists who just came and went because they were known for a particular song and nobody paid anything else any mind. We didn’t want to come into the game like that.
Were you always onboard with the reissue campaign or did it take convincing to go back in time?
It’s not that I wasn’t onboard, but being that I was only on four songs out of 14, I didn’t really make it my business to say “yay” or “nay.” But I thought it was a cool idea. I’ll probably be more involved with the next two, but this one, I always looked at it as Q-Tip and Ali’s baby. But I had no problem with them forming like Voltron like Wu-Tang said and executing the game plan.
What were your thoughts when you heard the J. Cole and Pharrell remixes?
I was nervous. Not because of who they are — I was happy knowing that they’d be doing the remixes — but when you’re used to something for 25 years, you don’t want to mess it up. So I heard the Pharrell joint and it’s pretty laid back; pretty smooth, very sultry. It’s a difficult task when you have the regular version and then you have Tip’s Isley Brothers remix, and those were both fire. I like the J. Cole “Can I Kick It?” mix a lot, but it’s hard for me to get into “Can I Kick It?” whoever mixes it for the simple fact that I hated my voice back then.
Because it was high-pitched and [speaks in high-pitched voice] “Mr. Dinkins” and I couldn’t stand it.
You couldn’t stand it then or now?
I feel like that back then and now. It’s hard to listen to that album because of my voice. It’s almost like, thank God I was only on four records. [Laughs]
Did you make a conscious effort to change your voice going into Low End Theory?
It was what it was, but I could hear that it was changing a little bit. So I was happy about that. I was just grateful for the opportunity to be on more songs.
It’s interesting you didn’t like your voice when a lot of Tribe fans like the group, in part, because of how you and Tip vocally complement each other.
I like the fact that we bounce off of each other like yin and yang, nice and smooth, you know? I am cool with that; I just didn’t like my voice. But after a while, I accepted it and then it started to change on its own.
Two years ago, Q-Tip said that Tribe’s opening slot for Kanye West would be the group’s last shows. Did you agree with that decision?
I don’t agree with it, but it is what it is. We haven’t performed together since then.
Would you be open to more performances with the group?
Absolutely. I think it is ludicrous that we are not performing together.
In 2015, where is the group at mentally?
Tribe is no longer a group, first off. So once Q-Tip made the announcement that those were the last two shows, that was pretty much it, for real.
What do you think is the main impediment Tribe Called Quest isn’t a group anymore?
[Long pause] I can’t really talk about it, to be honest. Because when I talk, my mouth gets me in trouble. I’m the type of dude that tries to keep it 100 and I always get in trouble for it. But I will say: it’s dumb, and I don’t agree with it and we’re doing the fans a great injustice by not getting together and rocking, and that’s all I can really speak on as far as that goes.
“I believe in consistency. If we’re not a group, we’re not a group. If we are, we are.”
In a more general sense, if other members were open to going into the studio and recording a new album, would you consider that?
I don’t know. I don’t know because if we can’t get together and do shows, it’s going to be even more difficult going into the studio and recording an album. Think about it: The shows that we do are 60 minutes of your day for whatever amount of money. It’s just 60 minutes of your day and then you go on with your life, so forth and so on. I don’t see nothing wrong with doing 15 shows a year for a good amount of money. Sixty minutes of your day and you keep it moving. We all have families.
But at the same time, on the flip side of that, I believe in consistency. If we’re not a group, we’re not a group. If we are, we are. Let’s get this money. If we’re not, then let’s not even tease the fans. None of that craziness.
Given the group’s history, it must be bittersweet talking about the past. Do you enjoy getting nostalgic over anniversaries or do you prefer doing the work and moving on to the next thing?
I’d rather do the work and let it go to the next. Looking back is not always a pretty thing. It’s 50/50 with the good and the bad that took place, but I’d rather go on to the next thing.
Your new material will mention your health issues, including a longtime struggle with diabetes. How are you feeling these days?
I am in a good spot, but I have my good days and I have my bad days. But I’m more or less in a good spot, so I can’t really complain.
Does the title of your EP Give Thanks refer to that aspect of your life?
Yeah, that’s exactly why I named it that. Because at the end of the day, I have a lot to be thankful for and it could be really worse. And that is another reason why it is ludicrous for us not to be performing right now and smelling these roses why we’re still here. It’s just ridiculous, but you got to move on.