Before gangsta rap and its lifestyle took over top of the music charts, a more feel-good, conscious and non-commercial rap music was king. And the group A Tribe Called Quest was a head of that monarchy. Phife Dawg, a.k.a. Malik Issac Taylor, helped to give Tribe’s laid-back, jazz-infused hip hop a voice and cemented their place in rap history. He’s featured along with other ATCQ members in the new documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life that charts the group’s history.
BET.com spoke to Phife about being a documentary subject, his health, his relationship with Q-Tip and if ATCQ will ever reunite.
While watching this documentary, it struck me that A Tribe Called Quest and this amazing era in hip hop will now be forever immortalized on film. Did you see it that way too?
I was thinking about that while we were shooting and especially when they were doing edits. Also, when there were a little bit of problems between the rest of the group and Rapaport. My whole thing was like, “Yo man, we better embrace this.” Now I understand where my group was coming from, but at the same time my whole thing was like, “Yo, we already missed out on enough man, we gotta do something to make this work.” So, I’m glad it worked itself out eventually.
Did you have any reservations about being the subject of a documentary, which is much more probing than just a concert film? Director Michael Rapaport did capture a fight between you and Q-Tip while making the movie.
At first I was like, "Do I really want to put Tribe's business out there like that—good, bad and ugly?" When the rest of them said, "Cool," I was like, "Let’s do it." It was cool to see 20-something years of my whole young adulthood flash in front of my face. To know that everybody else is seeing the same thing was pretty overwhelming—I didn’t know how to handle it at first. But I’m happy with how the movie came out.
Everyone has been reporting on the disagreement between Q-Tip and Michael Rapaport, but I think ATCQ fans are more concerned about your relationship with Q-Tip. How are things now?
Our relationship is great—it’s cool. Brothers argue, brothers fight, and we’re no exception to that rule, but at the end of the day I know that he has my back and he knows I have his. We just move on from there. But we’re talking, we’re good. We did the movie for the fans, but more so I did it for me and Kamaal [Q-Tip] as well.
As someone who has known Q-Tip since the age of two, are you surprised he’s not out doing press for the documentary like you are?
Q-Tip did say that he likes the movie, but there are little intangibles out there where he doesn’t like it. The movie itself, he’s cool with it. But Q-Tip’s "The Abstract." It wouldn’t be right if he didn’t do it his way.
You’ve lightheartedly described yourself as the “funky diabetic” in your lyrics, but the film really digs a bit into your health issues. How are you feeling these days?
I’m fine; I can’t complain. Everything has been a blur because when you’re sick and going through it, you're always thinking it's never going to end. So it felt like the longest four years and five months of my life. But now that I’m better, the days are passing by quicker. God is good.
You also admit to being a sugar addict, even though that’s dangerous territory for a diabetic. Your wife gave you her kidney for a transplant. How have you grappled with all of that?
I’m not addicted to sugar like I used to be because I definitely learned my lesson. Not to mention that my wife really made a sacrifice. What if my stepson needed a kidney? I’m not built from that cloth where I’m able to ask for something like that. She just happened to be the one, and it was right under our noses the whole time. It was supposed to be my dad and couple of other people. But it was her all along—so that was crazy.
A Tribe Called Quest seems to reassemble as a group periodically for tours. Like the fans, would you like to see the group get back together again?
I don’t know if we’re going to go on the road and perform again or do another album. I’m just glad we’re friends before anything else, because we needed that. It makes planning for the future much easier. I don’t think we should have ever broken up, but I’m happy with how our careers ended up. Right now we’re cool, we’re just taking baby steps. Personally, I would like to do another album or tour again.
But in the meantime, you have a solo project coming out soon, right?
I’m doing a fun EP. It’s called Songs in the Key of Phife: Eight Is Enough. It’s radio-friendly, but then a lot of it just has that raw hip-hop. Some of it will be vintage Tribe, but for the most part I’m just letting my voice be heard. I’m having it mixed right now. I have my own label and I’m just waiting for distribution. I’m too old—I mean, I’m too young to have these labels tell me what to do and what not to do with my music.
Beats, Rhymes & Life opens in limited release July 8. Click here for a review of the film.
(Photo: Brian Ach/Getty)