Q+A: Phife

by August 14, 2013

Internationally known as Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, Malik Taylor is also wearing a different hat these days as PHIFEdaFANalyst.

Though the legendary emcee has been out of the rap game for a minute, he said his new album Muttymorphisis—produced by DJ Rasta Root of the Riddim Kidz—will be dropping a single soon. In the meantime, he’s been immersed in another arena of entertainment that shouldn’t be so surprising if you’ve bumped any Tribe in your life.

Through countless references to sport in his rhymes, Phife (“the height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck”) has stayed adamant about his affinity for college and professional sports.

Since moving to the Bay Area in 2004 with his wife, and with a home in Atlanta, Phife has been a pair of eyes and ears for his friend and South Kent Prep (CT) boys basketball coach Kelvin Jefferson. If he sees someone out West or down South he thinks Coach Jefferson could use, or if Coach Jefferson wants him to go out and watch, and evaluate, a player in his region Phife said he’s been happy to oblige.

“When you truly love something it’s not really a job,” the 5-foot assassin said. “For me it’s like, shit, I want to do it. That’s my thing. Growing up in Queens, music and sports fell in my lap at the same time. I actually love sports a tidbit more than music—I love both with all my heart, don’t get me wrong—but really I’m a sports junkie more than a music junkie.”

With LeBron James and the Miami Heat capturing the NBA title for the second consecutive year back in June, debates ranging from James’ place among the all-time greats to the overall quality of the League compared to prior generations ran wild at the water cooler, barber shops, Twitter and the world’s cyber urinal—YouTube comments sections—so I thought I’d ask Phife to weigh in on some of those topics as he’s been paying close attention since his youth.

As luck would have it, on the eve of my interview the Twittersphere nearly imploded when Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s song “Control” was heard. So I figured Phife may know a thing or two about hip-hop and could share some insight on the differences between the old and the new in that arena as well.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

SLAM: Which guys in the NBA do you find yourself tuning into the most?

Phife: There are at least 15 point guards that I keep my eye on because that’s the position I love and the position I played being only 5-3, of course. But I like to watch Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo—and the list goes on and on. I’m looking forward to Trey Burke’s rookie year in Utah, Derrick Rose coming back this season off an injury and Jrue Holliday going to New Orleans should be interesting in the same backcourt with Tyreke Evans—that should be cool.

SLAM: Did you see Damian Lillard when he was playing high school ball in Oakland?

Phife: I really didn’t. I never heard of him right until the Draft in 2012 because you’re not going to get a lot of Weber State games (on TV), so I had never heard of him. I heard of the high school he went to, but I never heard of Damian Lillard because he was under the radar. I don’t even understand how he was under the radar.

SLAM: Who do you think is going to the Finals this coming season?

Phife: Miami. Who else? Everyone else, it’s kind of open. Everyone is talking about the Nets, but I have to see how that chemistry works before I say anything. I don’t get caught up on the big names, and it looks good on paper, but will the chemistry work? By All-Star break I can make up my mind with Brooklyn and that whole lineup.

SLAM: What are the main differences you see in the NBA between the old and new school?

Phife: I think nowadays the athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and it’s full of potential. However, what it’s missing is that actual grind from the whole Magic-Bird era and the Jordan era. It’s the grind. Now you can probably count on 10 hands how many ballers go hard. It’s not the same. KG goes hard, Paul Pierce goes hard, LeBron, DWade, Chris Paul; and Kobe, forget about it. He wanted to come back the day after he tore his Achilles and he might come back earlier than everyone expects—you can pick them out and you have your select few who go hard.

Back in the day most of them went hard, and not even the big names like Charles Barkley and Maurice Cheeks—Marc Iavaroni went hard and Bobby Jones went hard. I totally appreciate the NBA from back then, just seeing Dr. J doing his thing, then Magic take it—then Jordan took it, then Kobe and Shaq. Now it’s LeBron and it’s all good—I just hope it keeps going on with Kevin Durant and Kyrie.

SLAM: Are you willing to say if one era is better than the other?

Phife: I am willing to say that. Definitely the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s—absolutely. I’ll put it to you this way—with Magic, Bird, Jordan and Barkley playing it’s much better. It was the grind and the approach—there was blood, sweat and tears. Now it’s a little bit of blood and a little bit of sweat, and you don’t see that many tears.

SLAM: With hip-hop, back when you were doing it with Tribe, which other emcees or groups were you listening to?

Phife: Nas is my favorite since he came out. I listened to Jay, Eminem, Outkast, Mobb Deep—there were a bunch. There were a bunch of people that I would have listened whether I was doing it or not. KRS One is my all-time favorite.

Of course with Q-Tip and me being from St. Albans, Run DMC were our heroes and LL Cool J is also where we’re from. So it was always around us. It’s a huge part of our DNA.

SLAM: Do you listen to a lot of the new guys coming out now?

Phife: There are a select few. I like J. Cole’s new album a lot. Kendrick Lamar had the best album of the year as far as I’m concerned. I like Joey Bada$$ a lot as well.

SLAM: As time goes on there are different factors that emerge, but what’s the biggest difference to you in the music and the art form from when you guys were doing it?

Phife: Same as basketball. My era with Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Outkast, Wu-Tang—we took it more seriously. Cats had lyrics all day, everyday. As far as new rappers, there are a select few I could call throwbacks to that era where they take lyricism seriously. It’s not just a hook and I’m good. The bars, and the verses, have to be lethal to say the least. Joey Badass is lethal with the lyrics. Kendrick Lamar is incredible with the lyrics, and J. Cole is no joke neither. Not to mention, [Cole] does his own beats so you know he’s not playing and takes this shit serious. You can tell he’s a student of the music. Those are the three I can think of off the top of my head right now.

Hip-hop started out as fun, as well as the battle. But some cats know they’re not lyrically inclined, they’re just trying to get that money and rock the party and have fun. The clubs are all about getting back to dancing. A lot of people are in the clubs and aren’t dancing to lyrics. It makes sense in a way. There’s a time and a place for everything. You have your rappers for the clubs and you have your emcees for your whip, when you’re cleaning the house, or when you want to just sit there and really vibe and listen to what they’re saying. You have emcees who can do a little bit of all of that like Jay Z. Jay Z can tear the club up with his lyrics and he has an ear for beats.

SLAM: Would you define a lot of that type of music coming out now as hip-hop?

Phife: I wouldn’t view it as hip-hop. I wouldn’t know what to label it, but I’ve never been one who cared for labels. But I wouldn’t label the bulk of it hip-hop. It’s something else—it’s ‘Turnt Up’ music. Ain’t that what they saying now? [Laughs] You go to the clubs and that’s exactly what you want to do—you want to get turnt up. I don’t view that as a negative at all though. It is what it is.

SLAM: I have a wide range of people I follow Twitter, and my timeline was blowing up about Kendrick’s verse on “Control.” You don’t see that as much, but did you think it was an actual diss track because I believe he said I love y’all before he went in?

Phife: I don’t think it was a diss track. A good friend of mine on Twitter is @Lizzs_Lockeroom who is a big sports nut as well—but she basically said she didn’t look it as a diss but more a call to arms. I thought about that and she’s exactly right. That’s exactly what that was.

But he had the audacity or the balls to say whatever he said. Some people might not take offense, and some people might. I’m actually glad he did it because it brings that battle buzz back—so at least it does that. I did think he wrecked on it though.

SLAM: How was battling involved when you were coming up, and what is its place in hip-hop?

Phife: That’s how I came up. That’s how I became an emcee. When you say emcee it’s almost like a badge of honor. You can’t really label yourself an emcee if you didn’t come through the battle ranks. At least that’s how I feel. That’s what I was before A Tribe Called Quest. A Tribe Called Quest was basically Q-Tip’s baby, and a lot of the ideas were his ideas.

Originally I was going to do my own album, but I ended up signing on to be a part of A Tribe Called Quest right before our second album was released. He schooled me on song structure because you can’t freestyle a whole album. You have to come with concepts. I was only used to what I knew, and I was doing what I knew. Everything was battle, battle, battle, battle. When I put the pen to the pad I’m viewing myself in a cipher going at somebody’s throat. It wasn’t until A Tribe Called Quest came about that I learned how to write songs. So I was like, Cool, this is what’s going to get me that long paper [laughs]. But I definitely came up in the battle ranks.

SLAM: What are the baddest diss songs you’ve heard?

Phife: Jay Z’s “Takeover” vs Nas, as well as Nas’ “Ether.” “The Bitch in Yoo,” Common’s diss to Ice Cube I thought was crazy. Then Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” has to be one of the greatest diss records of all time. But then again, the greatest diss record is “The Bridge is Over” from KRS One and BDP.


Whether we were talking about basketball or football, Phife was as candid and convicted as he was when he was rhyming over samples and beats on ATCQ albums.

PHIFEdaFANalyst is an unapologetic, diehard North Carolina hoops fan and Ohio State football fan. He’s predicting Alabama as the favorite to take home the BCS National Championship, though he thinks A&M has a legit shot if returning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel can stay on the field. He threw out Denver, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle as his favorites to be competing for a Super Bowl title.

Besides the Heat, he thinks the Bulls are in the best position to make a run at an NBA Championship. He doesn’t think his New York Knicks are in a better position than they were last year, and was still salty about the way Chris Copeland was used in the Playoffs and then let go in the offseason. Although he was happy to see Metta World Peace come back home and give the Knicks a frontcourt presence that reminded him of the days when opposing teams thought twice about driving the lane in fear of Xavier McDaniel, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing.

For college hoops, his favorite, he painfully admitted that he thinks Duke is in a good position but also mentioned Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden’s arrival in Lawrence will make Kansas a top team as they blend in with some of the Jayhawks returnees. He also said he’ll be watching Louisville and Kentucky closely, aside from his beloved Tar Heels.

He said he’s got a sports podcast and website in the works, naturally. He’s continued to dabble in music, going on occasional tours and has a long awaited solo project coming out in the near future. When he has the time, if Coach Jefferson gives him a call, Phife will be happy to spend hours in a gym watching some high school or club circuit hoops.

“I might go to a couple of games and let him know who’s doing what,” Phife said. “If he’s serious about somebody he’ll send me on a mission, and I’m glad to do it.”

“There’s a kid now my coach wanted me to get at. His name is Ivan Raab. He actually played on my son’s AAU team back when my son was in fifth grade and he was in fourth grade. Now he’s like the No. 1 player in the Bay Area for the Class of 2015. I was an assistant coach, and I remember back then homeboy didn’t like to run. But once he finally became a focal point for the team as the big man, he was getting the ball and getting back on D. The more he showed he was trying, the more he got rewarded and now he’s the biggest thing since sliced bread out here in Oakland. I don’t know where he’s going to go quite yet, but like I said earlier if you cut me I’ll bleed Tar Heel Blue. So I’m praying he goes to Carolina—but I ain’t trying to get caught up in NCAA sanctions [laughs].

“I rhyme and do beats, whatever, but sports will throw me off. I can’t do beats or write lyrics if I’m watching sports because my focus will be all on sports. I’m a big sports buff man. People love movies, people love music—I love sports. It is what it is.”