Spoke to Phife Dawg during the summer of 2005 for a Q-Tip feature in XXL magazine. The transcript of that interview is below.
I don’t have much else to say except that A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite rap group of all time, and that’s been the case since 1991.
One more thing: All of my friends in sixth grade wanted to be either Michael Jordan or Q-Tip. For me, it was an easy decision: Mike could fly, but Q-Tip was best friends with Phife.
You and Tip go back to pre-K, right?
I’ve known dude since we were like two, three years old.
Was he different from other kids growing up?
I don’t think he was too much different than anyone else in grade school. He played baseball, football, basketball just like every other kid. I think the difference came in high school and going into adulthood. That’s when I saw the differences.
What were the differences?
He was never a follower. He always created his own lane no matter what whether it was his style of dress or the way he wore his hair. If everybody was wearing Timberlands, he would probably wear moccasins. If people were wearing jerseys, he would wear a dashiki. Lyrically, I think he is one of the best lyricists ever in the game. He’s definitely never followed one path to that. I think the title Abstract Poetic is perfect for him.
You’ve previously stated that Tip wrote your rhymes on the first album. What was the musical chemistry like once you started writing your rhymes?
As far as him writing my rhymes on the first album, that was because I was never at the studio. Also, I had a different outlook on how things should be, lyrically. Being that I was representing a group, I couldn’t say what I wanted to say all the times. He felt like he needed to structure it a certain way. It wasn’t like I couldn’t write my own rhymes. He chose to do that on the first album because he wanted TCQ to represent a certain way of life. Whereas, I’m in these streets so I’m real straight forward with what I got to say. I’ll go from A-B-C, Tip will go from A-Z and then to F just to get back to B. That’s why we call him the Abstract Poetic. If you compare Low End Theory to Peoples Instinctive Travels, you’ll see how straight forward the album is compared to People’s. People’s was over a lot of people’s heads. Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders were very straight forward—one reason was because I was in the studio handling my business. People thought I couldn’t write my rhymes. Nah it wasn’t like that. I was actually the first person rhyming in the group. However, Q-Tip went to school with the Jungle Brothers and Brother J from X-Clan and the JB’s uncle was Red Alert so it was about being at the right place at the right time. So by the time we got on, he obviously was the front man of the group. I really didn’t have a problem with that because I think Q-Tip is genius when it comes to this music shit. We set up off of each other because we were friends for so long. We always loved music. There was the block parties back in the day. WBLS used to play all the old school joints like the Ohio Players, The O’Jays. We knew everybody’s songs, word for word and he would know what I was thinking before I said it and vice versa. Ali was like the referee in all of that. There was never a problem bouncing off each other musically because we did that with jokes and doing everything else in life.
Beats, Rhymes & Life was a bit more somber than the first three albums. Why?
The chemistry was gone by then dog. We were having issues with the label. They were acting like we didn’t count. I felt like management at the time were into favoritism with one member, which wasn’t cool. Media might look at Q-Tip like the front man, and I didn’t have a problem with that as long as the rest of the group knew and appreciated what I brought to the table.
That is when the chemistry started really breaking down. Not to mention Q-Tip became Muslim right before Beats, Rhymes and Life came out. Now the media started to compare us and that really put a border between us. They tried to make me out to be the black sheep or the lost child. That was one of the reasons why the chemistry did break down. That was why it didn’t have that bright chemistry. I just felt like we really couldn’t work together anymore. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t just my fault. It was the label too. They would call him instead of calling me and Ali. We would have a show and the manager would call him and not call me and Ali. What if we want to do the show?
If the chemistry wasn’t there, why go ahead with The Love Movement?
That is one of the best questions anybody has ever asked me for the simple fact that I don’t know why we did it. Other than knowing that we owed Jive one more album. As you know, that was 1998 and now in 2005, we still owe them one more album. As you know, time heals all wounds—or at least I hope it does. If we ever get together and do this album, I hope we’re not doing it just to get off the label. If we do the album, the chemistry needs to be hot, which I think it will be because we have been doing shows and everything has been cool.
Was it tense making that album?
It definitely felt like a job. I really did not want to be there. I really didn’t want to be there during Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement. At the time, I felt like I had no reason to be there, which was probably idiotic of me. But that’s how I felt at the time. Living in Atlanta, I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to New York for because this album is pretty much being forced.’ But you live and you learn.
Did adding Consequence cause problems?
For me, it did to a certain extent and not because Consequence was there. Consequence was supposed to come out with his album. He was Tip’s artist but me and him were close. When Tip wasn’t there we would hang out and play basketball, play video games. That was my boy—still is. It wasn’t a beef between me and Consequence. The beef came because I felt, This guy is a new artist. Since we were doing a Tribe album, I had no problem with him being on three songs and getting his shine on so the rest of the world can scratch their heads and say he’s nice. But he was on six, seven songs. I know everybody was going to look at it like 'This ain’t no real Tribe album. Who’s that new kid.' I think Tip over did it by having him on all those songs. I thought about it and I could be wrong but I felt like that was his way of etching me out. We had a conversation about it and he said it wasn’t so but I don’t think you can blame me for seeing that way. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.
What started those Tribe Called Quest reunion rumors?
Phife started those rumors. When we first broke up, I didn’t think Tribe Called Quest would ever get back together to do shows, albums, anything. For one, I didn’t see myself wanting to do it, I can’t speak for the rest of them. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go out because people would ask questions about us. If EPMD can get back and do an album then anything can happen.
Unlike EPMD, none of you guys ever robbed each other's home or whatever happened with them
Yeah, none of that. Their beef was incredible. That was my favorite group. Then after Jam Master Jay passed away I said to myself, ‘Damn we need to do this.’ Then out of nowhere I started the rumor, ‘Yo we’re getting back together.’ I felt like we needed to. We had to. Without JMJ there is no more Run DMC. What we have left is Tribe, De La as far as trios. I felt like people were asking for it, we need to give it to them. I felt like it was a must. So we started doing shows last August, our first show was in San Diego. We did at least 13, 14 shows and it was all love. Every show was a great reaction. The biggest reaction was surprisingly enough, Atlanta—Atlanta is real fickle. A club could be the jumping club for two months and that’s it. Atlanta is just funny like that. Our show was sold out. We decided to do the show last minute. The reaction we got for every song we did showed me that people want Tribe. I’ve heard people say, different CEO’s & managers say, ‘F Tribe, they’re not relevant to today’s crowd.’ And maybe we’re not but all we have to do is put out an album, whether it’s on Jive or independently and support it. If we do 30 shows in the US and 20 shows overseas, then we’d kill it. Atlanta showed me that. Hopefully it will get done but in the meantime I’m going to support Q-Tip.