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Phife Dawg Says New ATCQ Music Is ‘Far-Fetched,’ Preps LP

Ben Hider, Getty Images

Phife Dawg began entertaining rap fans with his humorous and self-deprecating quotables back in 1990 as part of A Tribe Called Quest. The long-gone group, which also featured rappers Q-Tip, Jarobi and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, was recently the focus of the documentary ‘Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,’ detailing their prolific eight-year gold-and-platinum-selling lifespan and the animosity that broke them up. Though Phife and his fellow ATCQ allies have released solo efforts and done some reunion tours, the icons have yet to record the follow-up to 1998′s ‘The Love Movement.’

As hip-hop fans celebrate the 20th anniversary of ATCQ’s 1991 classic ‘The Low End Theory,’ Phife talked to our sister site Spinner about his thoughts on the recent documentary, the possibility of recording as a group again and his upcoming solo disc, ‘Songs in the Key of Phife Volume 1: Cheryl’s Big Son,’ due later this year.

You were a strong supporter of ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ early on while other guys in the group were distancing themselves. What did you see in it that they didn’t, perhaps?

As A Tribe Called Quest, we’ve missed out on a lot of things in our career for whatever reasons. Some things made sense to let pass by, but there are other things we should have ran towards with open arms. So if this is it, if this is the end, why not go out with a bang? Right from the start I was going to support it all the way.

We broke up in ’98 — that’s 13 years! So much has happened, like I had an illness that I came back from miraculously so I was like, “Nah, I’m not missing out on this.” No disrespect to the other guys and their choices, but that was my choice. You know, there is a lot of love being given to us, and you can never get enough of that.

Did you feel there were things missing from the final cut of the movie that you would have liked to see in it?

I do think Q-Tip‘s part in the movie where he was breaking down the beat of ‘Can I Kick It,’ it needed more of that type of stuff. More music. It needed more of J. Dilla and more Busta Rhymes. Those guys were honorary members and meant so much to the group, but they were hardly in it. And it also needed more of Ali Shaheed, as a matter of fact. I know a lot of things had to be cut and weren’t able to happen because of time constraints or whatever, but there’s no excuse as to why there wasn’t more Ali Shaheed.

Watch ‘Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest’ Trailer

The film ends reminding people that you guys still owe a record to Jive? You don’t think that will ever happen?

It’s far-fetched that we will. I have no idea and I’m in the group, you know what I mean? Personally speaking, for the fans, I would love for it to happen. But everyone has to realize we can’t just get together to get together, we can’t just put anything together or else it will be like, “We waited this long for this trash?” I would rather leave it alone. If it came together like we never left, then cool, I’m cool with it. We don’t want to disappoint the fans. People hold us dear to their hearts so that’s the last thing I would want to do.

Tribe is credited with coming in and really changing the rap game. Is that something you guys consciously set out to do?

It was just a matter of us being ourselves. We didn’t sit and ponder doing something different, but we did want to make a lane for ourselves. Biting was forbidden, because as much as we loved Run DMC and Nice and Smooth, we didn’t dare bite, because if you bit, you straight-up got slapped in the face. Not that I’m condoning violence, but that’s what’s happening today. Today, biting is the way, biting is cool. If you just look at the Juice Crew with Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Shanté, Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, everybody had their own lane. Like Big Daddy Kane was the lady’s man and the metaphor king; Biz Mark, the clown prince; Masta Ace, the bookworm; Shanté was the first lady battle-rap chick. Everybody had their own lane in one crew. Now, it’s like cats is writing lines for one another.

Watch A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘I Left My Wallet in El Segundo’

Do you feel the music industry as a whole has changed a lot since Tribe’s last album in 1998?

Like I said, I could do with it, I could do without it. I just feel like there’s not enough people that care anymore about the sound and the craft and the culture. It’s all about a quick buck to the point that rappers will put out anything and have the audacity to say, “This is hot.” I don’t want to sound like our parents or anything, but I know good hip-hop and I know laziness when I hear it. It’s about keeping the music alive. Life is a cycle, so maybe it will come back around.

Actually, I’m just going to put this out there. Today, I would say that Lil’ Wayne cares. I’ve seen his growth, from the Hot Boys to being the president of his own company, then putting out Drake and Nicki Minaj, dropping mixtapes like it’s nothing. He’s the hardest working dude in hip-hop, for real. Homeboy is not playing. Who else has been incarcerated that long and is still selling more records than anyone else? Also, I think Mos Def cares, I think Talib Kweli cares, I think Jay-Z cares. I just want to put that out there.

Going back to ‘The Love Movement,’ which was such a positive record, it’s surprising to learn there was so much animosity in the group.

You know, I can’t even remember that time. That time was like a blur. I was so not in tune with my own group at the time. I really wasn’t there mentally but I do recall, with Biggie and Pac and everything, it being a dark time. It was crazy. It was hard to think about putting out music at the time. But we were on contract to do exactly that. It wasn’t even a good time within the group. The record was positive, but I knew deep inside that it wasn’t our best work. It was put together because it was something we had to do.

That album also gave us the track ‘My Name Is Mutty Ranks.’ Was that some sort of alter ego thing?

I guess you could say that. You have Beyonce and “Sasha Fierce,” or T.I. and “T.I.P.,” so why not? “Mutty Ranks” is my whole West Indian persona. My family is from Trinidad and Tobago, so I would be out in the street with my friends, and even though New York City is a hotbed of West Indians, if I was just hanging with my friends we would be talking like we are now, but as soon as I’m home, the accent comes out. All my friends know that as soon as I walk in the house that it’s a huge accent when I talk to my moms.

As far as the actual name goes, David Kennedy, a producer from Jamaica, came up with “Mutty Ranks.” He used to call me that for whatever reason, I have no idea, but it stuck. It was always like that.

Watch Phife Dawg’s ‘Flawless’

Is your upcoming solo record, ‘Songs in the Key of Phife,’ going to be more “Mutty Ranks” or Phife?

On my album, there is a lot of West Indian rapping. The actual album is done and I’m mixing it as we speak, but I’m looking for distribution. Matter of fact, I’m shooting a video for my first single, ‘Sole Men.’

For this album, is it a lot of rhymes you’ve been sitting on, or is everything new?

No, I’m very hard on myself with rhymes, so there is nothing I’ve been sitting on. I’ve been working on it for the last 15 to 18 months, but I keep recording, so who knows what’s going to be on it. I got about 50 songs right now, and I’m putting out an eight-song EP, ‘Songs in the Key of Phife: 8 is Enough,’ followed by the LP with 12 songs.

What sort of mindset are you coming at it from?

I’m definitely telling my story. [As far as what you'll hear,] there are a couple of party records, some straight-up hip-hop for the purists — because I’m old-school at the end of the day. There’s some grown man rapping there. There’s a record with Angela Winbush, one of my favorite records back in the day. And I’m reaching out to a couple of artists but I don’t want to jinx it.

Any one we would know?

As far as artists that you know, I want to reach out to Red Man, Method Man, Ghostface and Big Boi. I also have some new artists I’m putting on it as well, from my own label, Smoking Eagle. I’m too old to have a label tell me what to do with my record.

As A Tribe Called Quest, we’ve been through a lot dealing with labels and I’ve learned. It’s industry rule number 4,080. You know the rest.

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