When 45-year-old rapper and A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) member Phife Dawg died on Tuesday night from complications resulting from diabetes, I couldn’t help but think of those long gone golden years of hip-hop and the record labels that helped many of the artists make their aural visions possible.
In 1990, when the late Jive Records A&R man Sean “The Captain” Carasov introduced ATCQ to his boss Barry Weiss, the Queens-based trio, much like their Native Tongue comrades De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, was something totally different. While other artists were still strictly sampling the holy trinity of funk (James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton), Tribe was being musically mentored by forward-thinking composer Weldon Irvine, enlisted bassist Ron Carter to play on “Verses from the Abstract" and appropriating jazzy grooves from dusty Blue Note/CTI records.
While Phife’s friend from childhood and fellow Tribesman Q-Tip famously spit his infamous line, “Industry rule number 4,080/Record company people are shady,” on the autobiographical track “Check the Rhime,” the first single from their brilliant second album Low End Theory (1991), the truth, at least for ATCQ, was much more complex.
Although I’m not in the position to argue industry politics or decipher what exactly Tip was talking about, when the group signed with Jive Records in 1989, they chose a label whose own adventurous spirit gave the group space to be themselves, experiment sonically and deliver such genre smashing masterpieces as People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993).
“During that time Jive was a very artist sensitive label that seemed to have real family relationship with their acts,” says former Billboard hip-hop columnist Havelock Nelson. “The label was already the home for Kool Moe Dee, Boogie Down Productions, Schoolly D, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and Too Short, and everything they were doing was winning. They only signed artists that they genuinely liked, and ATCQ fit in perfectly.”
However, despite the fact that their debut People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm served as a funky introduction, Phife was barely heard on the album; it wasn’t until Low End Theory when he really finally flexed his lyrical skills. “When Tribe delivered that album, we were surprised (at first) how much of Phife was on there,” says former Jive President and CEO Barry Weiss. “We got to know him a little on that first album, but on Low End Theory he really emerged as a force to be reckoned with; Phife blew-up on that first single ‘Check the Rhime’ and was just amazing.”
Weiss, who co-founded RECORDS, a joint venture with New York-based SONGS Publishing (Lorde, The Weeknd) in 2015, remembers going to visit Tribe at Battery Studios, which was downstairs from his office, while they were recording. “Phife was so spontaneous in the studio,” he says. “His wordplay, his analogies and sports references like, ‘Bo knows this and Bo knows that,’ would become part of popular culture. The yin and yang between Phife and Q-Tip was just wonderful. There wouldn’t be an Outkast, Kayne West or Kendrick Lamar if it wasn’t for Tribe.”
Ann Carli, a leading Hollywood film producer and former vice president of artist development at Jive Records, started working at the label when it was just her and Weiss working together in an uptown brownstone. “Phife loved sports so much,” Carli says, “he’d come into my office wearing his Knicks jersey, talking about the games. He always represented himself in his rhymes and wardrobe. He loved hip-hop, but I think he loved sports more. I think he would be amazed at the outpouring and sense of community over his passing. When I heard the news I thought, I wish I could hug Phife one last time.”
Former publicist Ursula Smith, who worked at the firm Set to Run in the ‘90s, was brought in by Tribe’s manager Chris Lighty to work on The Low End Theory. “I worked with them a little on the first album, and they were all worried about the ‘sophomore jinx.’ But, it was on Low End when Phife really began to gel and become a presence; on the first album, many people thought of Q-Tip as the leader, but on Low End they were heard as a team that made a classic album that would influence a generation of artists.” Indeed, artists such as D’Angelo, The Roots and Erykah Badu have cited the disc as inspiring them.
“After Low End was finished, Phife even started talking more during the group’s interviews,” Smith says. “He was my favorite rapper in the group, and, since I’m a big sports fan, we got along perfectly.” When The Low End Theory was released to the on September 24, 1991, both fans and critics where anxious to hear what Phife, Q-Tip and Ali would deliver, and few were disappointed.
Noted writer and hip-hop historian Brian Coleman, whose seminal text Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies is a must-read for old school rap fans, says, “Phife stepped up on Low End Theory, there’s no doubt about that fact. When I interviewed him, he was aware of it and admitted it, which I always admired. On the first album he was still messing around, out in the streets, hanging out with friends. He didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the opportunity in front of them in 1989. He was a kid, not yet a man, but they had a chance to change their young lives.
“Maybe his not being as serious with his effort on the first album was because he wasn’t self-confident at the time, he wasn’t sure if people were going to like his rhymes. But after the response to Peoples’ Instinctive Travels, he looked himself in the mirror and knew it was time to take it more seriously. Tip and Ali Shaheed were there to let him step up, they wanted him to win. And I think the rhymes are even better, the rapport between he and Tip is even stronger. By the time (their third album) Midnight Marauders hit, it was all over, they were legit rap royalty.”
Hip-hop renaissance man Fab Five Freddy, who appeared in the group’s video for “Scenario” and helped break the boho b-boys on his show Yo! MTV Raps in 1990, says, “Phife merged so seamlessly into the group, but he never took a star position. Phife and Q-Tip were like brothers, and as we saw in the documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life, they knew each other from the time they were small kids and was family in the best sense of the word. They sometimes had their differences, but it was an organic part of the process. Creatively, it made things better.”
While Phife referred to himself as “the funky diabetic,” when Freddy produced VH1’s 2007 Hip Hop Honors, which paid tribute to ATCQ, he could see how much Phife’s health issues was catching-up with him. “Phife was going to dialysis every other day, and having your blood cleaned like that was no joke. Some days were better than others, but he still did his thing.” In 2008, Phife received a kidney transplant from his wife.
After ATCQ released their last album The Love Movement in 1998, they still occasionally toured and did shows together. Although Q-Tip signed as a solo act to Arista Records immediately, Phife worked on a few tracks at Battery Studios, but nothing really came of them, according his friend and former Jive Records A&R Jeff Sledge. “I think he realized that being a part of a group was easier than being a solo artist.” In 2000, working with producers Hi-Tek, Pete Rock and Jay Dee, Phife put out Ventilation: Da LP. Although All-Music critic Matt Conaway wrote, “After hearing Ventilation, Q-Tip will be wondering who let the Dawg off his leash,” few folks I know have heard it.
Sledge, who had known the group since 1992 and later A&Red every Tribe album beginning with Midnight Marauders, bonded with Phife over sports and, in the ‘90s, often went to games together. “I remember once in 1994 when went to the All-Star Game in Phoenix, Arizona and he was amazed that the basketball players knew who he was; Phife was just a regular dude unaffected by money or his fame. People might trip over him, asking for autographs and pictures, but he never tripped over himself.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.