Malik Isaac Taylor, or as most know him, Phife Dawg, from the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, is widely considered to be a musical pioneer and one of the most influential and respected emcees to ever grace a microphone. The Queens, New York native, who is now forty-three years old, has had endless contributions to the culture of hip-hop and music in general throughout his now almost thirty year career. After five albums with A Tribe Called Quest, some solo projects, and then taking a hiatus from music all together, Phife is now back in the studio working on a new album, MUTTYmorPHosis. With a re-kindled desire and focus to create new music, Phife is as animated and exuberant as he’s been in quite some time. In an hour-long conversation with the hip-hop icon and sports fanatic, we talked to the Five Foot Assassin about everything from A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla’s influence on him and his thoughts on Outkast, to the current state of the NBA and the NFL playoffs.
NIS: Phife, as most of your fans know, you’re a huge sports enthusiast. Throughout your career, sports have been prevalent in both your lyrics and style, with your main passion being basketball, and more specifically the NBA. In being able to experience the glory days of the NBA in the mid-90’s and also the league as it is today, can you touch on those two eras and the main differences you see in them?
Phife: As far as being athletic, the players today are far beyond what it was back then. But when it comes to actual skill set, no, it doesn’t measure up. It’s not even close. The players in the mid-90’s were much more skilled. A lot of these kids now are jumping into the NBA right away, you know, after one year in college, or when it was allowed, straight from high school. The lack of fundamentals is very obvious.
NIS: So you think all of the young kids that are constantly leaving college early to go to the league, puts a damper on both the College and NBA game?
Phife: Definitely. It messes up the college game, and then it’s like a big snowball and it ends up effecting the NBA game. They aren’t learning the game like they’re supposed to, you know what I mean? Their skill sets aren’t like a Kevin McHale or a Charles Barkley. I mean there were a few that came in to the league early and handled their business, like Kobe, KG, Tracy McGrady, and especially LeBron. But it’s not really like that anymore. Look at Tim Duncan, he stayed in school all four years. He’s won what? Four championships? As far as staying in school, getting an education, and coming out just ready to dominate, Tim was the last of the Mohicans. It’s not like that anymore, you know?
NIS: What do you miss most about the way the game was played in the NBA back in the 90’s?
Phife: Man, I miss the hand checks. I miss the defense where you could touch somebody. Now a days, they’re just running up and down the court freely.
NIS: Exactly. Players were a bit more hesitant coming into the paint back then.
Phife: (laughs) Yeah, no doubt. Back then, you had to have your head on a swivel when you were playing against the Knicks or The Pistons with Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Now, it’s a lay-up and dunk fest. No one gets put on their back anymore. I’m not saying I want to see people get hurt or anything like that. But I wish it would go back to the days when a point guard had to think twice before going in that lane. That’s why I admired Allen Iverson’s game so much. He was a throwback to Isaiah Thomas. Actually, Chris Paul is a throwback like that, too. Those are three names that no matter what era it was, they wouldn’t be scared to go into that lane with the big trees and handle their business. But now, point guards are getting free lay-ups and throwing alley-oops blindfolded, you know? It just isn’t the same.
NIS: Speaking of point guards, I know that’s your favorite position on the court to watch and dissect. As you were growing up, who were some of your favorite point guards in the league?
Phife: Mark Jackson was my man. He was one of my favorites. I liked Rod Strickland, Tiny Archibald and Kenny “The Jet” Smith when he was in Houston. Kevin Johnson was real nice. But my favorite of all time is Magic Johnson, hands down. No doubts about that.
NIS: Alright, going from some of the superstars back then to some of the current ones in the NBA. Let’s do some word association. I’ll give you a current player in the league and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you think of them. We’ll start with the MVP and King himself, LeBron James.
Phife: The King (laughs). He’s the best. That’s the best way to describe him.
NIS: Kevin Durant.
NIS: Kobe Bryant.
Phife: Whew. I mean that’s my favorite player in the league right there, healthy or not. Man, what’s the word I’m looking for? I’d have to say evil. He just goes for the throat. He’s cold-blooded. He’s that guy.
NIS: Your boy, Carmelo Anthony.
Phife: Smooth. You know what I mean? Just real laid-back nice.
NIS: Timmy Duncan.
Phife: Fundamentalist. The Big Fundamental.
NIS: Derrick Rose.
Phife: (lets out a sympathetic sigh)
NIS: It’s pretty tragic isn’t it?
Phife: Absolutely, man. But when Derrick is healthy, he’s the illest. And that’s what’s so tragic about it. I feel the same way about Grant Hill and his career. We got to see his potential in the same way.
NIS: Steph Curry.
Phife: One thing to describe Steph Curry? Man, I can’t think of just one word that can describe him. The only thing I can think of, is.. like father like son. Because to come straight from Del Curry, but be even better at it? Actually.. amazing. Amazing, describes Steph Curry.
NIS: Paul George.
Phife: Paul George is growth. I mean the growth from him being an unknown baller from Fresno State, to just taking over that quickly in the league? If they make it to the finals and win it, he will become that guy right now.
NIS: Kevin Love.
Phife: Yo! That’s one of my favorite.. actually, that IS my favorite Power Forward in the league right now. The one word to describe him would just be.. nice. He can do it all, man. He can do it all. He’s just real nice.
NIS: Damian Lillard.
Phife: Damian Lillard? He’s the truth. I don’t wanna bite off Paul Pierce’s nickname, but he’s the truth. With Westbrook hurt, and D-Rose out, yeah, I can only put CP3 and Steph Curry in front of him right now, that’s about it. He the truth. He should make the all-star team. He should.”
NIS: Dirk Nowitzki.
Phife: Graceful. You know what I mean? Cause he handles his business no matter what.
NIS: Blake Griffin.
Phife: I’d rather skip that (laughs). Overrated. I mean I like him and he’s exciting. I love when he runs the floor and he’s getting up there doing his thing, but I think he should be much better as far as posting up, in the block and his defense, too. I think he should be much better. Zach Randolph manhandles him every season, every single time they play. So I gotta say he’s overrated. But I do wish to see his improvement, because it will only make the league and my man CP3 better. But you know the Knicks are talking about all this Melo for Blake trade stuff? Yeah, I’m not feeling that.
NIS: Only because I know you’re a big St. Johns fan and now he’s back home playing for your beloved New York Knicks. Metta World Peace.
Phife: Braveheart. He’s from QB (Queensbridge,NY), like Nas and Nas’ crew. He’s a Braveheart.
NIS: Speaking of the Knicks, I know you can’t be too thrilled about the current state of your team. It’s gotten a bit ugly in New York here recently. If you’re James Dolan (owner) and Steve Mills (general manager), where do you start in fixing this mess?
Phife: I quit! I quit if I’m them (laughs). Honestly, I want Mills out of there, and I want Nolan the hell up out of there, too. He’s the only owner I know that will fall asleep at a game 6 in the playoffs. He knows the camera is going to be on him at one time or another, and he’s asleep at the game! He’s not about running this team.
NIS: Seriously though, If you’re the GM what would you do to fix the Knicks’ current situation?
Phife: Honestly, If I was GM, I would keep Melo, Chandler and maybe Shumpert.. and Tim Hardaway Jr., too. Those four. But everyone else has got to go. And you just got to start from scratch. I don’t know if that sounds smart or not, but I’m so frustrated. That’s where I’d go with it.
NIS: What is your prediction on the NBA Playoffs this year? Who’s in the Finals and who is holding the Larry O’ Brien trophy at the end of the year?
Phife: Representing the East, I’m going to have to give it to the Heat again. I like what the Pacers are doing, I really do, but I don’t believe in their point guard in crunch time. I like George Hill’s game, but I just don’t trust him in the clutch, you know? They have so many weapons though. Lance Stephenson is playing out of his mind right now, Danny Granger can come in and be a big help and Hibbert is nice. David West is a vet who still does his thing, too. So honestly, Indiana really has no excuse to not get to the finals. But experience is the best teacher, so I gotta roll with LeBron and the boys. Especially if LeBron and D Wade are healthy, and they’re still getting on Rio (laughs), you know what I’m saying? So yeah, Miami will be in the finals.
NIS: Who from the Western Conference is there to play them?
Phife: I want to say Portland, but they’re still really young. If Russell Westbrook is healthy, I have to go with the Thunder. But if he’s not, I’ll say it’s a toss up between San Antonio and Portland.
NIS: And the Heat win it all?
Phife: No. Well.. wait (thinking). Actually yeah, I think the Heat take it down if they play Oklahoma City. I think the Heat take it if they play Portland. But if it’s San Antonio, I think the Spurs get revenge.
NIS: It’s hard for me to bet against LeBron in any seven game series at this point in his career. I can’t do it.
Phife: Nah, I can’t either man. Plus Spoelstra has the shadow of Pat Riley over his shoulder, so when it comes to coaching, that ain’t gunna be a problem either.
NIS: We don’t have to get too deep into the NFL, but before we move on to music, let’s get your NFL playoffs prediction as well. Who is raising the Lombardi trophy when it is all said and done this year?
Phife: Wow, that’s tough. I’m going to have to go with San Francisco, though. Yeah, I know everyone is gassed off Seattle, especially when they play at home, but after Arizona won that game in Seattle, it just tells all of us that they can be beat. Respect due to Seattle, but they can be beat. And if there is any team that can do it, it’s San Francisco. They are going to play that grind-it-out type game, and especially if Frank Gore stays healthy throughout the post-season. You know Vernon Davis can do his thing, and Crabtree is back and he’s healthy too. And I love Colin Kaepernick. He is one of my favorites in the league right now. San Francisco has that defense that can stop the run, too. So yeah, I think it will be San Fran over Denver. Yeah, I think Denver gets there. I really just hope the Patriots don’t make it.
NIS: Alright, on to some music. You’re currently working on a new album, MUTTYmorPHosis. When is the targeted release date for that?
Phife: I’m still working on it right now. As you know, the “Dear Dilla” single will be the first one released off of it. We will probably drop two singles, maybe even three, and then put the album out.
NIS: I know there is some significance to the title of the album, MUTTYmorPHosis, where recently you said you were mentally removed from music for a minute, and now you are back to embracing it again. Can you get into the album title and the meaning of it a little bit?
Phife: Yeah man, basically there was a time where I didn’t even think I was going to do music anymore, because my life in a nutshell was just more about, am I going to make it? So, I wasn’t thinking about lyrics and I wasn’t listening to beats. I mean, I listened to music in general, but it wasn’t moving me to the point where I felt like I needed to get back in the studio. And then after a while, I fell in love with it again, and now I’m back in the studio. Just going from that [A Tribe Called Quest], to that [being out of music], to this again, man.. I didn’t think it was going to happen. It’s just like having a documentary done about the group. I didn’t know Tribe was going to be this big. I never knew it was going to be this major. We just wanted to be celebrities in the hood back then, you know? It just grew to this crazy fan fare and things of that nature. And even though we don’t get the most fan fare like some other groups, the fans do still treat us like we got the newest and hottest songs out, you know what I mean? You know, so that’s the whole meaning behind the morphosis side of it. All of this is nothing but a blessing, and when you get those types of blessings, you have to embrace them. So that’s how the name came about, and The Mutty part of that album title it is just a play on one of my aliases.
NIS: As you mentioned, the first single off of the new album is called “Dear Dilla”, which is a tribute to the legendary producer from Detroit, J Dilla. It hits home with me, as I was introduced to both Tribe and Dilla around the same time when he was doing some production on your guys’ albums. Can you touch on the significance of the track and what it means to you to do a song dedicated to your dear friend, Jay Dee?
Phife: Basically, I miss the dude, and I’m not talking about just musically. I mean he was just a real loyal and real good dude. He didn’t want any of the fame or nothing like that. The fortune (laughs)? He was cool with that! But he should’ve been, because he worked really really hard for it, you know what I mean? Yeah, I just miss him because he was a really really good dude. You know how people wear those t-shirts that have “Dilla changed my life” on them? Well, I can literally say that about him. Like, literally. [pullquote align=”right”]You know how people wear those t-shirts that have “Dilla changed my life” on them? Well, I can literally say that about him. Like, literally.[/pullquote] People he’s worked with like Common, Black Thought, Questlove, Badu and everybody, I’m sure they feel the same exact way. I just felt a need to do the song, because listening to music now, you know, you have a few [producers] that are still handling their business, but for the most part it’s real hit or miss. I just wanted to pay homage to the homie and show my love, you know what I mean?
NIS: Can you recall the first time you actually met Dilla and talk about how that went down?
Phife: Absolutely. Tribe was on the Lollapalooza tour in 94′. A brother by the name of Amp Fiddler, who was touring with Parliament Funkadelic on the same tour, kept telling us about J Dilla. He was telling us “Yo, there is this kid in Detroit and he’s amazing, blah, blah blah. When the show gets to Detroit, I’m going to bring him to your guys bus. Ya’ll need to hear his tracks.” So by the time we got to Detroit, he did what he said and brought him on the bus. Dilla came on the bus straight cheesing like, “Yo what up! What’s good! What up though!” Then he put his joints in, and we were all on the bus like (opens mouth and stares in shock). We were all looking at each other like, “Yo, who the fuck is this kid? Like, word?” After that, Q-Tip really took an interest and liking to him, and made him part of The Ummah, which was a group made up of Q-Tip, Ali, Dilla, Raphael Saadiq and D’Angelo. They all did that together for a minute and then everybody went their separate ways and started doing their own thing. But yeah, in Detroit on our tour bus was the first time I met Dilla.
NIS: Can you touch on Dilla’s influence on you as an emcee? Did his production help you go a certain way with your style that you might not of had you never met him?
Phife: I think my style to his production was a little more aggressive. If you listen to the earlier Tribe stuff, at least vocally, my voice was like (raps in a high pitched voice), “Mr. Dinkins would you please be my mayor”. You know, I was like eighteen years old back then. But by the time I met Dilla, and he was doing beats for Tribe, I was like twenty-five or twenty-six. So, I had to put a little girth in my voice. The beats were a little bit harder, so I didn’t want to rhyme the same way as I did during our “Can I Kick It” days.
NIS: You were in attack mode.
Phife: Yeah, exactly. It was already aggressive come Low End Theory, but once Jay Dee came into the fold, I probably got even more aggressive. I went back into battle mode. I felt comfortable being in battle mode over his production. Whereas Q-Tip was more of an abstract philosopher, so to speak.
NIS: If you had to choose one Dilla track that you did some work on, to be your favorite, which one is it?
Phife: I love “Bend Ova”. That was the joint that I really loved. I caught a lot of flak for that one, by the way. A lot of woman wasn’t feeling me on that (laughs), but I was really just having fun. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, she gave me the most flak on that shit (laughs), you know what I’m saying? Dilla used to throw me a bunch of beats, but that was around the time that I got sick, and I wasn’t really recording. The beats he was giving me were killer, but a lot of the solo joints that I could have done with him didn’t really pan out because I wasn’t really trying to mess with music at that moment.
NIS: Are there any artists that you never got to work with throughout your career, that you still aspire to collaborate with?
Phife: There is so many of them, but I definitely want to work with my favorite rapper of all time, KRS-One. I’d love to work with Nas, too. I’ve worked with Redman before, but I’d like to work with him again. Also, I wouldn’t mind working with Erick Sermon. Angela Winbush is another one as well.
NIS: Something I’d love to pick your brain about, Phife. Along with Tribe and De La Soul, I put Outkast right up there in that all time top-tier of hip-hop groups. With the recent news of Andre and Big Boi getting back together and performing at Coachella this year, can you give me your thoughts on Outkast and their influence and impact on the culture of hip-hop?
Phife: First of all, that’s another group that I’d love to work with one day as well. Outkast is amazing. They were my introduction to southern hip-hop. I mean, I listened to 8Ball & MJG, but as far as leaving an imprint and buying every album, it was Outkast, you know what I mean? They definitely left a huge imprint on hip-hop. When I first moved to Atlanta, I heard their music from afar, but I wasn’t spending a lot of time in Atlanta because I was still in New York a lot. But once I was really able to get in my house and stay put for a while, Outkast became my favorite rap group. Like, period. What I love about them is that, number one, they’re not afraid to be themselves, and number two, they tried so many different things. They do things that nobody else is even thinking of doing, you know? It’s that way to this day if you still listen to their material. Of course their older stuff, but The Love Below/Speakerboxx, too. They just take it to a different level when it comes to album covers, album titles, their videos and just the music itself. They’re really just in a class all by themselves. Like, straight up.
NIS: Lastly, as you just mentioned, Outkast, much like A Tribe Called Quest, made lasting imprints on society by not being afraid to be themselves and always trying different things. Can you apply that same mentality to the daily grind and give some advice or words of wisdom to anyone reading this who is currently in pursuit of their goals, aspirations or dreams?
Phife: Don’t quit your day job (laughs)! Nah, some real advice though, If something is really and truly in your heart, go hard. Just go real hard. Don’t let nobody tell you that you can’t, you know what I mean? Because I’ve had a million and one people, if not more, tell me “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t”. They said I wasn’t going to make it, and I did. Follow your dreams. Don’t follow them 24/7. Follow them 25/8.
NIS: I love that. It was an absolute pleasure, Malik. Thank you for your time, and really, for everything you have done for music and the culture that surrounds it. Your fans are eternally grateful. Much love and stay healthy.
Phife: No doubt, man, you too. Be good. Good luck to you in everything you do.
The first single, Dear Dilla, off of Phife’s upcoming album MUTTYmorPHosis, was released today (January 21st). Listen below!
*To keep up with Phife Dawg and the progress of his current project, MUTTYmorPHosis, follow him on twitter here.
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