Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 14, 2001

Phife Dawg, center, said his group wasn't trying
to be different from everyone else. just trying
to find their own sound and be themselves.

No big strife
for Phife

The rapper and sports nut
breaks away from A Tribe Called
Quest to play in the solo music game

By Shawn 'Speedy' Lopes

You could give Phife Dawg a buzz on the weekend, but don't expect to hear from him until the dust on the football field has settled and all the scores are in. As the manager of the former Tribe Called Quest rapper explained last weekend, "Phife's a real sports nut, so you can always reach him at home on Sunday."

After the Jets game, of course.

"I got DirecTV, so I get all 13 NFL games on weekends and when the NBA season rolls around, I've got the NBA League Pass," Phife Dawg proudly proclaims over the phone when I finally make it past his answering machine. "So I'm set."

In an era in which Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson release rap records and Master P. gets a tryout with the Charlotte Hornets, it's not uncommon for the realms of sports and hip hop to overlap. As a rapper, Phife even likens himself to NBA veteran Rod Strickland, who, despite putting up significant numbers year in and year out, often is overshadowed by younger, flashier players who possess a mere fraction of his game.

Lively up yo' self at Reggae Fest 2001, featuring
Tippa Irie and a host of others

"They never gave him his just due," says Phife. "But no matter what, he's like 'So what? I know I'm nice.' I can relate to that because I'm not the type of emcee that needs reinforcement. I don't look for no pats on the back. Real bad boys move in silence."

He also entertains dreams of becoming a sportscaster or, better yet, a money-magnetizing sports agent. Phife, born Malik Taylor some 30 years ago, credits his dad for immersing him in sports; his mom, a poet, for encouraging him to rhyme; and his Seventh Day Adventist grandmother, immortalized in the song "Beats, Rhymes & Phife," for a moral upbringing.

"My life was filled with music, church and sports; those were the three things I grew up around a lot," Phife recalls.

While still in their teens, childhood friends Phife, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi formed A Tribe Called Quest, a daring and refreshingly abstract rap troupe whose mellifluous rhymes and jazz-laced beats marked them as a group light years ahead of its time. It was the late '80s and hip hop, long mired in the diffidence of its own adolescence, was about to break wide open.

Tribe, along with ingenious rappers De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, Black Sheep and Queen Latifah, formed the Native Tongues, a brilliant collective of positive, forward-thinking rappers whose stylistic innovations forever changed the genre and outlined the differences between artistic hip hop and commercial rap.

"We were all being labeled as bohemian rap, jazz fusion and all kinds of things, but it's not that we were trying to be different from everyone else; we were just trying to be ourselves," he states. "That's why I say it was such a blessing to come across guys like De La and Jungle Brothers, because when we met them, it was like meeting ourselves; we were like, 'Oh damn -- we need to get together, yo!'"

For the most part, the '90s were good to the crew from Queens, NY, as A Tribe Called Quest reached its creative apex and seemed to gain greater critical acclaim and commercial success with each successive album. As the decade came to a close, however, relations within the Tribe camp began to sour and creativity dwindled.

"For me personally, there were too many chiefs in one tent," explains Phife. "And that's going outside of me, Tip and Ali. It seemed like everybody had their clique, and it got to the point where the wrong people had their noses in other people's business."

To compound matters, says Phife, Jive Records, who had once displayed the foresight to break in some of the most original hip hop artists of the '80s and '90s, was on the verge of cashing in on the vacuous but hella-lucrative pre-teen market with Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Tribe members soon found themselves kicked to the curb. "Just like the Knicks did to Patrick Ewing," he quips.

These days, Phife forges ahead as a solo artist (although he is joined on stage by Jarobi and DJ Rasta Roots during live shows) and waits for his long-awaited come-uppance, while other rappers make mad dollars and get airplay by uttering inane catchphrases and brazenly ripping off beats from their peers.

"A lot of the people who are large now are the biggest biters in this game," he contends. "They're like, 'I'm a take this rhyme and take this bass line.' Back in the day, you'd get punched in the face for biting like that. I'm not hating on anybody, but life is a circle and what goes around comes around."

Just as Phife predicts with a young New York Jets defense this year, the record-buying public will come around, too. "Just do it from the heart," he says, "And everything will fall into place."

Reggae Fest 2001

Featuring Half Pint, Tippa Irie, Phife, Jarobi & DJ Rasta Roots of a Tribe Called Quest, Humble Soul, THC and special guest

Where: World Cafe
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 28 (tentative date; concert was postponed in the wake of the Sept. 11 East Coast terror attacks.) )
Tickets: $18, all ages
Call: 537-4666

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