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Phife Dawg
Photography Lauren Stocker

Phife Dawg: the small street kid who became a rap warrior

The five-foot assassinator has passed away, so we dive into our archive to 2011, bringing back the musicmaker’s take on life inside A Tribe Called Quest

Today the hip-hop world lost a true pioneer – Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. In tribute, we’re publishing an extended edit of our 2011 interview with the man himself. This is his life story, in his own words.

“My family is from Trinidad, but when I was growing up, New York City was all I knew. I was a street kid and thought Queens was it; there was no other place on Earth. Being the smallest in the area, I had to quickly learn how to defend myself. I was really quiet, but if push came to shove I knew what to do. I learned that from my Mom, she didn’t take BS from anybody under any circumstances.

I started rapping professionally back in ‘89. It didn’t matter what beat it was, as long as I liked it, I would jump on it and abuse it as bad as I could. I wasn’t signed to A Tribe Called Quest on the first album; Jarobi and me had our own group. I can’t even remember the name of it to be honest. We were going to do our own album but he ended up going to school for culinary arts. That’s when I became a fully-fledged member of Tribe, while recording The Low End Theory. We didn’t want to be traditional. We could have failed but we went that extra mile to be a little bit different. I mean, even the name of the group was weird, to be honest. Our friends were like, “that’s too long, the album title’s too long”. They teased us, but as soon as we started making noise they all wanted to come on tour with us!

Q-Tip pushed me into becoming a performer. At first I wasn’t taking rapping as seriously as I should, so he kept getting in my ear like ‘Come on man, get in the studio’ but I was running the streets being silly. It wasn’t until we started doing shows for that first album that I understood where he was coming from. That’s why I was on so many more songs on The Low End Theory compared to the first album. He had a lot to do with it, definitely. Tip would be like, ‘Yo Phife spit the verse, what you got?’ I’d go in there and spit my verse.

At the beginning I had issues with my voice, but as long as Ali and Q said they were cool with it, I was cool with it. But deep down I hated it. I just went with it because they said it was different, they said it was cool. Once we were recording The Low End Theory I felt like I had found my voice, so I was comfy with it by then. That was an important moment for me, just being embraced and letting my voice be heard. But on that first album – to this day I can’t listen to those four songs I’m on. I hate them. I hate my voice on those tracks.

I left the production to Q Tip and Ali Shaheed because I thought they were geniuses at their craft. I felt like we were way ahead of our time. We really thrived on that, doing something that nobody else was doing. They had their own ways of doing things and I felt like it was a breath of fresh air because when we came out, everyone was still on James Brown loops – with the exception of Premo. I always felt like Tribe’s productions were in a league of our own. I felt blessed to be a part of that. We were always at the studio and recording at night time, hence the reason why we called our album Midnight Marauders. It was easy. That was probably because I’ve known Q-Tip since we were two years old. We used to finish each other’s sentences, so when it came time to doing music that was absolutely nothing.

Personally, I didn’t like the clothes we were wearing; I wasn’t into it like that. I mean I understood it, but I didn’t want to wear the clothes. I did not appreciate those garments. Especially anything with a flower. It was horrible. We were never tempted to go gangsta rap. No one would have taken us seriously as gangstas. Why the fuck you wearing flowered pants? How are you gangstas?! We were already giving a different message and I felt like that was all we needed. But you live and you learn – everything happens for a reason so I really don’t regret any of that.

“Working with Dilla was the best. He was just a genius; I’ve never seen anybody hook up a beat quicker than him” – Phife Dawg

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1990. Being a diabetic is a 24/7 type of job, 365 days. So just being in the studio, hanging with the group, just the camaraderie in general took my mind off it. Music was always therapeutic for me. It’s still not easy, but having been through what I’ve been through in the last 4 or 5 years, I’m grateful that I’m still here. My diabetes led to renal failure, so I had to get a new kidney. I got that in 2008, and since then everything’s been fine. Everything is cool, everything is balanced. I learnt a lot while I was sick, and I don’t wish that on nobody.

A big moment for us was Lollapalooza in 1994. We were introduced to a broader audience and that’s really when Tribe became big, big, big. We were known and had a certain amount of fans, but by the time we were done doing Lollapalooza, we had somewhat of a cult following. I was nervous at first because I thought, they’re not going to like us because there were bands like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, George Clinton, the Beastie Boys, there was a whole bunch of different groups from different genres of music. But I was totally wrong, I was totally wrong. It was a fun time.

I never knew it was going to be that big; I was just doing everything I could to stay off the street and be positive. I didn’t want to break my grandmother’s heart or anything like that. There was a lot of times when I was selling my nickel and dime bags of bullshit or whatever, you know fast money always seems like good money but I had to get out of that as soon as possible. Success didn’t affect me – I was just happy I could pay rent. On the first two albums I was still living at my grandmother’s house. By Midnight Marauders I finally got my own crib in Atlanta. You gotta leave the nest in order to grow as an individual. So I don’t think success changed me at all – it just made me a little more independent.

When I got ill again in 2005, I learnt that Dilla was really sick too. Working with Dilla was the best. He was just a genius; I’ve never seen anybody hook up a beat quicker than him. He would just grab a record and chop it up – ten minutes later it’s a full-fledged beat. He probably could have mixed it right there on the spot if he wanted to. When I heard of his passing that made me step up my game. I cried like a little baby, because it could have been me. It was a real numb feeling – I felt like I could have done something to help. We were playing phone tag for like two years. And I couldn’t get in touch with him – I didn’t even know he’d moved to LA. I still can’t believe it to this day. That definitely hurt. He was a real humble dude, he didn’t care for the fanfare, none of that. He just wanted to make beats and rap. He didn’t care if nobody knew what he looked like or anything. My favourite beat we did together was “Find A Way” from The Love Movement album. It was so knocking – I mean all of his beats were, but that was the one for me. Even to this day, when that comes on at a show, I get goose bumps. Just the way that it smacks, it just hits so hard. And then for us to do a lovey-dovey song to it just made it even better.

It seemed like the chemistry within Tribe was a bit tarnished when I moved to Atlanta. But I honestly don’t think that my moving to Atlanta had anything to do with the beginning of the end, honestly. It was a combination of things – I don’t think it had anything with the guys both being Muslim, or me moving to Atlanta. But when we decided to call it a day, it was a dark moment. All good things come to an end, I knew that much, and you just have to grin and bear it, I guess. I thought it was over after Beats, Rhymes & Life to be honest; I’m surprised we even did The Love Movement. But I knew it was dead after that.

It was cool when we reunited – it was like we never left each other. From time to time you get tired of doing songs that you made when you were 18 years, but that’s what the people love. This is what we wanted, so you gotta deal with it. I have a good time when I’m on the stage. I think that’s the best part of all of this, when you get on stage and you show people what you’ve created all these months, all these years. That’s when it all really comes to fruition. I do feel like we’re in a box that we’re never gonna be able to get out of, and sometimes it aggravates me, but at the same time it pays our bills, so what can you do? There’s nothing you can really do but give the people what they want.

I didn’t like the drama behind the Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary, but I do like the movie itself. I think that film lets people know that all good things do come to an end. We’re human at the end of the day, we definitely have faults, and when I say human, I’m talking health issues, I’m talking bumping heads, I’m talking being creative. I mean it happens – we’re not the first group to go through this, we just happen to have the first true-blue hip-hop documentary about us. And I’m grateful for it, but I don’t want people to think that the only thing between Q-Tip and me was beef. That’s definitely not the case. Q-Tip is my homeboy. He’s a lot of things, but at the end of the day, that’s my brother. And you know, families are gonna argue, but he knows I’m gonna hold him down and vice versa. I got his back regardless. And that’s why when the director Michael Rapaport wanted the title to be Beats, Rhymes and Fights and we fought him tooth and nail for that not to happen.

“No one would have taken us seriously as gangstas. Why the fuck you wearing flowered pants? How are you gangstas?!” – Phife Dawg

It wasn’t easy being in A Tribe Called Quest. I mean I don’t regret anything that happened to me as being part of A Tribe Called Quest, but it wasn’t always tea and crumpets. I’m still trying to figure it out, to be honest. But I’m thankful man, I’m not going to slap it away, I’m going to embrace it as much as I can. Tribe were successful for the simple fact that we were ourselves. We didn’t try to be nobody else but ourselves. I’m still taken back when people call us pioneers. But we’re just human. Things happen. From health and beef, to loving each other. I mean it’s all part of life – you can’t have beats and rhymes without life. In life you’re gonna have some bumps in the road and you gotta find a way to overcome them, that’s it. That’s what it all boils down to.”