Phife Dawg: Memories Of Native Tongues' Five Foot Assassin
On this jolting day that will forever mark the death of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor -- the feisty, beloved member of hip-hop’s A Tribe Called Quest -- I am reminded of an incident that the rapper once laughably described to me as the lowest moment of his young, fledgling career. It was late 1989 and the celebrated Native Tongue rhyme crew -- featuring such rap stalwarts as the aforementioned Tribe, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love and Queen Latifah -- were all gathered to film the remix video for the infectious posse cut “Buddy.” For Phife, this was his moment to truly shine.
“That was the worst day of my life,” he mused to me back in the winter of 2007. “The video was hot. That was like the first joint I was on as an emcee before any Tribe shit. But at the video shoot the director skipped my part, and I was in there hot! Before the actual shoot, I’m bragging telling everybody that the De La video is tomorrow and I dropped my verse on there, so I’m going to be in front of the camera like, ‘What!’ [Laughs].”
Then came the punch in the gut. “They’re like, ‘Phife, we are not doing your part,’” he recalled. “Posdonous (of De La Soul) and them told me, ‘Yo, don’t even sweat that.’ But I wasn’t even trying to hear what they were saying.”
Phife would find redemption, but it would take a minute. His four-song appearance on Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990) was at best adequate. Q-Tip, the group’s charismatic leader and Phife’s longtime friend, shined the brightest -- a gifted emcee and producer who wasn’t afraid to go left while others often chose the most obvious of directions. Boundless DJ and beatman Ali Shaheed Muhammad was getting some much deserved buzz. And the adventurous spirit of fourth Tribe member Jarobi was still felt throughout the quirky release even though he had already left the group to pursue a career in the culinary arts.
That left Phife the proverbial odd man out, clinging to uninspired lines like, “Boy this track really has a lot of flavor/When it comes to the rhythms, Quest is your savior…” What happened next has become perhaps the most impressive lyrical jump in hip-hop history. Tribe’s landmark follow-up The Low End Theory (1991) displayed a hungry Phife on a mission to prove his doubters wrong. “I never walk the streets, think it’s all about me/Even though deep in my heart, it really could be,” he cockily delivered.
There were more scene-stealing rhymes to follow. While most fans go straight to Phife’s head-turning verses on such gems as “Butter,” “Check the Rhime,” “Scenario,” “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” “Clap Your Hands,” “God Lives Through,” and Electric Relaxation,” it’s his underrated work on “Lyrics To Go” that captures the magic of Phife. “Today’s a hip-hop draft will I be top seeded?/Worked too frickin’ hard while all the rest were getting’ weeded/Steady kickin’ styles so I can reach that other level…I’m Jordan with the mic, huh, wanna gamble?”
But to truly understand the passion of Phife you have to know the story of the Native Tongue collective. What you are about to read is a throwback oral history on one of rap’s most beloved crews, which ran originally in the February 2007 issue of VIBE. You will see other Native Tongue members from Dres of the Black Sheep to the late Chris Lighty, who before becoming one of the most powerful figures in hip-hop was the Jungle Brothers’ road manager. And yeah, it's only right that Phife has the last word. RIP, Five Foot Assassin.
STRAIGHT OUT THE JUNGLE (1984-1988)
AFRIKA (Leader, lyricist, producer and member of the Jungle Brothers):
I got into just living the hip-hop culture through being inspired bythe Zulu Nation. That’s why I changed my name from Shazam to Afrika Baby Bambatta. So, when I approached [future Jungle Brothers members] Mike G and Sammy, I was in the mind-state that I was going to make a record and put some music out. Hip-hop was getting taken out of Adidas sweat suits and gold rope chain and more into an intellectual level, and our album (Straight Out The Jungle) represented that. We had the Afrocentric thing, but we had an image that people could relate to.
Q-TIP (Founder and leader of A Tribe Called Quest): [Mike’s uncle] Red Alert had a hook-up with a small independent label (Idlers Records) and presented an opportunity for Jungle to record a single "Braggin’ & Boastin,’" which they did, and it got some buzz.
AFRIKA: I met Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (DJ, producer and member of A Tribe Called Quest) at Murray Bergtraum. Back then his name was J-Nice. I remember when people used to tell him he sounded like LL Cool J too much. [Laughs]
The name for the group came first. They called it Quest. And then I was like, ‘Let J-Nice be Q for Quest.’ At the time everybody was saying, ‘Get off my tip.’ To it turned into Q-Tip. Nobody ever thought about real Q-Tips.
PHIFE (Lyricist and member of A Tribe Called Quest): [Tip] is like my god brother. I’m talking about Little League baseball, trading cards and that kind of shit. I was just battling [anybody] that thought they could rhyme. Me and Jarobi (original Tribe member) were supposed to do something where as Tip and Ali were going to do something. Jarobi was our official beatbox in the neighborhood in the early days. But by the time Tribe got official as far as contracts and all that, he went to culinary school. So instead of being separately, Tip was like, "Come along with us."
Q-TIP: I actually worked with [the Jungle Brothers] on their first album. [But] Phife started me rhyming. We had the same musical taste and all of that. I was a fan of the Treacherous 3. Phife was the one saying, “Look, I’m rhyming…you should do it too.” And I thank him for that.
PHIFE: Mike G’s uncle was Red Alert, so he had KISS FM on lock pretty much back then. That’s how the JB’s got on and they pulled us along.
RED ALERT: Tip came through the channels of Jungle. I already had known he did "The Promo" and [produced] "Black Is Black" (Straight Out The Jungle). We were managing both Jungle and Tribe.
AFRIKA: The [Jungle Brothers] album came out in June ’88 and we hung around that summer doing shows. September ’88 we were booked on a European tour with Stetsasonic. They canceled out and we became the headliners and it was us, Queen Latifah, True Mathematics, Chill Rob G and DJ Mark The 45 King.
CHRIS LIGHTY (Founder and CEO of Violator management and former Jungle Brothers road manager): Red Alert would come to the Bronx and come to the projects and DJ. We would pester him to carry the crates. My crew of people, the Violators, used to be with Red all the time. We were Red’s little henchmen doing some things we had no business doing.
NATIVE TONGUES GOT RHYMES GALORE (1988-1991)
MASEO (De La Soul DJ): Prince Paul (Stetsasonic member and De la Soul producer) showed up to my school one day. We rolled out together and he said, ‘You’ve been telling me about this music, you’ve been hassling me a long time. I really want to hear it.’ Sure enough, we roll to my crib and I got the tapes De La Soul had been working on which were things like “Daisy Age,” ‘Plug Tunin’” and “Potholes In My Lawn.” And sure enough Paul was like, ‘Yo, this is some of the shit that I’ve been trying to introduce to Stetsasonic.’ Paul was dealing with a group that was great, but he was taking a backseat a lot of times. We went from dubbing cassettes to recording in a 24-track studio with Paul.
MIKE G: The Jungle Brothers met De La Soul in [Boston] in ’89 while doing a show [together]. We saw them a couple of other times and Afrika and Pos started kicking it. "Plug Tunin’" had just came out and we were like, "Okay, another group that is trying to step out boundaries. De La was coming from a whole different realm. The way that they put the humor into their music was something that had never been done from that train of thought. I was like, ‘Damn, Long Island???’ I could see where they were coming from with the particular samples they were using.
MASEO: It was all just happening fast for all of us. We were fresh out of high school and fresh off the block, making that transition if we were going to be hustlers or were we going to be in this rap thing? I was dealing with some issues in my life where I was involved with the streets heavy. I was a big part of the welfare system. Now, here comes this turning point in my life with this hip-hop shit.
DAVE (Lyricist and member of De La Soul): I remember the Jungle Brothers were rocking the safari stuff and wearing beads and Zulu Nation chains and I was like, "That’s different…that’s a little far out." But who was I to say that they were far out [Laughs]. Me, Pos (De La Soul leader and lyricist) and Maseo (DJ and producer) were wearing our father’s baggy pants and plaid shirts, and Rockports instead of the sneakers that everybody else was wearing. [Laughs]
AFRIKA: [Our style] was something that worked for us. Brothers were natural, down to earth, creative and living in a concrete jungle. We were wearing Timberlands and safari suits…that was just stuff that we started rocking naturally anyway without it being, ‘Ohhh, we are going to buy this for the album cover.’ The only thing that we consciously thought about was that every jam should have some social commentary. Just imagine “The Last Poets with a sampler.
POSDNUOS: Afrika came up with the Native Tongues name. Through Afrika is where I really understood Parliament Funkadelic. George would have all these different groups and titles from the same camp and that’s
what the mentality Afrika was on. And he took on that role as George Clinton.
MONIE LOVE (MC and member of Native Tongues/Radio personality):
[Afrika] wanted to help produce some of my album (Down To Earth), so he would come with me and sit in on my meetings with the label. I get to New York to do the New York part of my album and that’s when I met De La [and] stumbled upon the "Buddy" session. Pos and everybody was there, and being Afrika’s girl, and he’s vouching for me, Pos was like, "Yo, let Monie get eight bars."
POSDNUOS: De La wasn’t on it like that, but Prince Paul (De La Soul producer) had really helped to enforce that like, ‘Why not try it?" I was intimidated like, "Yo, this girl can rhyme her ass off."
MIKE G: [We filmed the "Buddy" video] in Astoria, Queens in a studio on Broadway. Tribe, Monie, Jungle, Chi Ali, Queen Latifah…everybody was there. It was like a little block party.
POSDNUOS: [De La] didn’t have a clue what 3 Feet High & Rising was going to do. Mike and Afrika were [great] on the rhymes and on the music. Tip was incredible with the beats, but Ali was as well. And Prince Paul was just an incredible producer. There were so many people in each crew that offered so much that when another crew was looking from the outside in, it was such an inspiration. I remember being in LA and Tip sitting me down in a hotel room on Sunset Blvd. And he let me hear, from top to bottom, [Tribe’s] People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He was like, ‘Do you think it’s good?’ I just wanted to smack the shit out of him [Laughs]. He was using beats that I had never heard before. It was like, ‘Yo, we got to get our weight up.’
MIKE G: We were working on our second album Done By the Forces of Nature and there was a lot of pressure on us as far as us just signing to a major label [Warner Bros]. Everybody was like, "Yo, you got to answer "I’ll House You," which took us around the world and really opened our eyes to the outside world of New York. But at the end of the day we had to make a credible record.
AFRIKA: Q-Tip had gone into something more jazzy, laid-back and personable to him. He started hanging around De La and that’s how he guest appeared on their album Three Feet High and Rising with "Me, Myself and I" and brought the "Black Is Black" rhyme pattern to that record.
Q-TIP: We just felt like [A Tribe Called Quest’s first album 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm] was an extention of what De La and Jungle had did. It was all those sensibilities and we were just building on them. I kind of knew in the beginning that People’s was going to be a special album. I remember “Bonita Applebum”
being one of the last songs we recorded. That’s when I knew it was an exciting time. We didn’t really think about it…we just felt it.
PHIFE: I ended up just doing shows with A Tribe Called Quest because on the first album I was only on four joints. But right after the People’s Instinctive campaign was done with, I bumped into Tip on the train in Queens and he was like, ‘Yo man, we got to take this shit seriously man, because this next album is do or die.’ People really didn’t know who Phife was. It was more so that I wanted to contribute to the group just so that we could win all together. That’s when I came into my own on the Low End Theory album.
THE GOOD, THE BAD & THINGS FALL APART (1991-2004)
DRES (Lyricist and member of Black Sheep): I remember Matty C (influential hip-hop journalist) asking me, "Yo, what’s going to be the difference between Black Sheep and the rest of Native Tongue?" And I was like, "We are going to be the cats that can say ‘Fuck you.’"
AFRIKA: I thought Black Sheep were dope. I heard a little hoopla about the "bitches and hoes" thing. But everybody has a black sheep in the family, the complete opposite and they thought that out.
DRES: We would all be around each other bouncing off ideas off each other. And the records reflected that. We all just became friends. De La would do a skit and play it for us and we’re dying laughing. So now our whole aim is to do a skit that is equally as funny. That was Lawnge who played the [villain] in the De La Soul is Dead.
MONIE LOVE: [Back then], everybody was using Calliope Studios [in Manhattan]. Ju Ju [from the Beatnuts] was a major beat factor for the Native Tongues. He would provide beats for Afrika and Pos.
JU JU (Producer and member of the Beatnuts): Collectively we would all just make sure that everybody’s project was a success. You could go up there on any given night and see Tribe recording, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep; I would be working on the Chi Ali album or something. I owe so much to each and every one of those guys
DAVE: There was a time when we were sitting in sessions with Tip on the Low End Theory and I was like, "Shit!" It was like, "Do you hear what they are doing down the hall!!!?"
Q-TIP: [Red Alert] was our manager and his manager was our lawyer, so there were conflicts all around. We thought that Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen (Rush Management) had done good by De La Soul, and we decided that we wanted to explore that. It was real tough because Red brought everybody together. Jungle didn’t fuck with us and everybody was hurt.
MIKE G: There was a lot of hostility with the way it went down. Tip didn’t really come to the table to say, "Listen, I want to break-off." [We thought] we needed more respect than that.
AFRIKA: Mike was a family man, a relationship man. But when he saw that he was like, ‘Yo, what’s up with that?’ I saw it was Tip was just doing his thing. But it wasn’t until years later that I was like, ‘Wait a minute…we never been on A Tribe Called Quest album.’ It became more business with them.
MONIE LOVE: Afrika and I had broken up at the time and I was actually seeing Scrap Lover, one of Big Daddy Kane’s dancers. We had Latifah’s birthday party at a club called MK’s in Union Square. There was this big rush coming from the steps of a fighting crowd coming in. All I saw was Mase swinging a chair and Pos fighting and Afrika throwing stuff. It was crazy.
DAVE: It was one of the thing that brought the whole theme of Native Tongues being down for peace to a "Yo, they’re not going for it anymore!" It was an eerie feeling.
MASEO: Success ruined a lot of Native Tongues. Things were happening too fast for some people and things were not happening fast enough for others. Money was destroying the relationship.
AFRIKA: Pos was saying things on the [Stakes Is High] record about the Jungle Brothers on "Break A Dawn" with the "I’ll tell you now Jungle Brothers on the run" line. To start a beef on record was like, "Alright???" We didn’t use records for that.
POSDNUOS: It wasn’t like on "Break Of Dawn" they found out about it later. I told them what I did. But it’s understandable how Tip and Jungle would have feelings that were negative about some of the shit I said. But I was speaking from the heart.
PHIFE: When you think of Jungle you think of Afrika first. When you think of De la, you think of Pos first. And when you think of Tribe, you think of Q-Tip first. All three of them niggas are just alike. That’s the funny shit. I really don’t know what the beef was between Pos and Afrika.
AFRIKA: Around 1996, we had a meeting when Tribe was making Beats, Rhymes and Life. But, It really didn’t help. There was a lot of A Tribe called Quest’s entourage, a lot of yes men around.
POSDNUOS: One of the things I remember in the meeting was that Consequence was in there and Jungle wasn’t saying nothing. So Consequence starts speaking and it’s funny because Mike G, I swear on my life, he is one of the most loving, positive cats. But to see that motherfucker mad…yo! Mike was like, "First of all, you weren’t there. You could hear the anger in his voice that said, "Consequence, you need to shut the fuck up." [Laughs]
MIKE G: I don’t think we really got cool again until like four years ago. From ‘96 to 2000 there was no real communication. But when I saw Pos in the hospital sick [with spinal miningetis.] I was like, "Damn. It’s bigger than this." I made it my business to try to be cool with everybody.
AFRIKA: I used to joke [a Native Tongues reunion] is not going to happen until cats are 60 years old with no ego and pride. But through Mace I found out where Tip’s mindstate was at and I spoke to him at length. He said he was down to do it. We also did a show with De La at the Wembley Arena in London for a Breakdance Championship, which was January of 2004. We did our show and came in on their show to do "Buddy." I felt childhood fun looking into Dave’s eyes.
PHIFE: When I was in Hawaii this past April, my manager called me out of the blue, and everyone Q-Tip, Ali) was on the phone. He approached us with this offer to do a Tribe tour. [We] started Vegas and [ran] in 15 cities and ended in early October. Folks can front on Native Tongues all they want, but they don’t want to get on stage with us and do rhyme for rhyme. You could play “Check The Rhyme” ten years from now in the club. I’m proud of that because you could only be hot for two months in this game.