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Still Kicking It, 25 Years Later: A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg Takes Us Back to 1990

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By Derek Scancarelli

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Phife Dawg in the "Can I Kick It" video / Screenshot via YouTube

1990 was a transitional year for the world. Three years after Ronald Reagan’s iconic speech, the Berlin Wall was finally being dismantled, and the Cold War was coming to an end. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sparking the Gulf War. American culture was changing too. The Simpsons and Seinfeld both debuted that year. Dances With Wolves premiered and Bette Midler won Record Of The Year for “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

In hip-hop, 1990 brought us Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, strident, hard-hitting albums that took tough stances on race, politics, and socioeconomic injustices. On the other side of the spectrum was the cheesy glamor and flash of performers like MC Hammer (whose song “U Can’t Touch This” won the Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy the next year) and Vanilla Ice (whose song “Ice Ice Baby” was nominated). On a different note entirely, striking a balance between commercial appeal, sharp commentary, and wide-ranging intellectual inquiry was the Native Tongues collective, which included promising young acts like Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and The Jungle Brothers.

On the heels of these acts, navigating the jumbled landscape of hip-hop as it headed off in its different directions, was another Native Tongues crew of Queens and Brooklyn natives following an itinerary of their own: A Tribe Called Quest. On April 10, 1990 the group released their debut record People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm via Jive Records. Featuring instantly genre-defining hits like “Can I Kick It,” “Bonita Applebum,” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” the album would serve as the launchpad for the career of one of the most famed and romanticized groups in hip-hop history, a career that would go on to span five records, a break-up, multiple reunions, a drama-filled 2011 documentary, and just about every critical accolade imaginable.

For the 25-year anniversary of that debut record, the group is re-releasing the album with three bonus remixes by Pharrell Williams, CeeLo Green, and J. Cole.  To celebrate, I talked to Tribe’s Phife Dawg and asked him to take me in a time machine back to 1990, when he was just a kid in St. Albans who loved to rap and watch basketball.

Noisey: What was your life like in 1990?
Phife Dawg: I was 19 going on 20. Actually, I was still living at my grandmother’s, running the streets like a straight-up idiot [laughs], not doing the right thing. I wasn’t really part of this first album. I’m only on four songs out of 15. Q-Tip wrote all of those lyrics. I wasn’t at the studio a lot. Tribe was really Q-Tip and Ali. Jarobi and I were gonna do a group together, but he decided to go back to college for culinary arts. We were part of the crew, but we weren’t really signed on as members. I didn’t sign on as a member of A Tribe Called Quest until we were working on The Low End Theory.

How was the transition from screwing around to officially joining the group?
It took me a minute to mature. But once I was able to help my mother and my father and my grandmother pay bills and things of that nature, I recognized and realized how serious things were and how real and good it could be. Slowly but surely, I became a mature individual. Some people are slower than others, but I was just being stubborn I guess you could say.

How were you being stubborn? Were you just messing around with friends or were you actually getting in real trouble?
I wasn’t a bad kid doing nothing crazy to get in crazy trouble, nothing bad like that. But like, being on time, treating people with reverence and respect, doing unto others, as you’d like them to do unto you, that type of thing. Everything wasn’t Linden Boulevard and 192nd Street. Everything wasn’t the hood. I had to grow up in terms of that. I had to become a business dude. I had to represent three other people in a group, not just myself.


Screenshot via YouTube

What kind of things did you do for fun back then?
Going to clubs, going to concerts, Knicks games. Where we recorded this first album, it was like a block or two away from Madison Square Garden. We recorded most of the other albums was at Battery [Mastering Studios], which is only a couple of blocks away from Madison Square as well.

Where would you go to concerts?
The Ritz was the joint. Webster Hall. So many different places, there was a club called Mars where they used to have shows. Me and my high school crew from Queens, we used to always go to the rink in New Jersey, every Tuesday night, religiously. That was the thing to do if I didn’t have a studio session of course. It was a roller-skating rink, but all the girls was up in there. We was there no matter what. We wasn’t skating, we was on the side kickin’ it with girls. If I woulda skated, I woulda busted my ass.

What was your style like then?
I’ve always been a jeans and Timberlands dude. I was a jersey cat. I had every jersey you could think of. I wore my Snorkel jacket depending on the weather. Starter jacket if it was spring. That was always my M.O.

I know you weren’t at a lot of those recording sessions for the first record, but do you remember any of it?
What I do remember is one room Jungle Brothers would have a session. Another room De La Soul would have a session, another room Queen Latifah. Even if Tribe didn’t have a session, we’d be in there just chilling. It was good times building with them, learning the ropes and being creative. We’d be laughing, cracking jokes and being busy in the booth. It was definitely a family. When we said Native Tongues it wasn’t just the name, it was family.

Was it ever a party vibe? Did you guys drink and smoke in the studio or that wasn’t what you were about?
That was never the environment. If anyone out of the different groups did that, it was always on their own. It wasn’t part of the sessions. Eating a lot of good food was part of the sessions, but as far as liquor and smoking, not really.

Were there any specific songs you remember working on?
I do recall when Q-Tip first did “Footprints.” We were all like “Wow, this record is crazy!” To this day, I’m upset we didn’t drop that as a single. But everything happens for a reason.

I was going through the Billboard charts to see who was in the Top 10 during the month the record came out. It was Sinead O’Connor, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Michael Bolton, and Aerosmith, to name a few. What did you think about popular music at that time?
I was huge on Janet Jackson. I liked Sinead O’Connor. I think it was a good time for music in general. We were doing hip-hop, but we weren’t stuck on strictly hip-hop. Especially Jarobi, he’ll sing anything. That song “Walk Like An Egyptian,” we’d walk around singing that [laughs].

“Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This,” also came out in 1990. What did you think about that type of hip-hop?
No comment. Period. If I did watch the Hammer video it was for the chicks in the spandex dancing, know what I’m saying?

I definitely think that Tribe tried to differentiate from that. Was that a conscious thing, trying to write music that challenged some of what popular culture was accepting as “hip-hop” or “rap” at the time?
We were just being ourselves, but you definitely want to make your own lane. Hammer was probably just being himself. Hammer was full of energy. That was him. For us it was the same thing.

What was your opinion on LL Cool J and what he was doing back then? He released Momma Said Knock You Out about five months after People’s Instinctive Travels came out.
LL Cool J is a legend. I didn’t have a problem with what he was doing in the 90s. He had his time, now he’s a huge actor, and he’s still one of the dopest MCs when he feels like it. I grew up on LL; we’re from the same neighborhood. I knew him from rapping. I knew he was going to be huge, but I didn’t know how huge.

Was there ever a point where you felt like labels wanted you to go in a more commercial direction?
Not too much. I guess Jive Records figured out that we were in our own lane, period. They let us breathe. The “El Segundo” single, once we dropped that, we let ‘em know, “Listen, this is what Tribe is.” And they let us do our thing. We didn’t really have those issues with them trying to break our backs to go commercial again after that.

Tribe is known as this breed of thought-provoking hip-hop. Almost every article that’s ever been written about the group has used the term “Afrocentric.” Were those cultural references very important to you or were you just there to rap?
I mean to a certain extent because my mom raised me as very Afrocentric. I come from a very Afrocentric home. We celebrated Kwanzaa and things of that nature. But I wasn’t into it as much as [Q-Tip] was. But I knew how to adapt to certain things. I just really wanted to rap, like you said. I was into it, but I wasn’t really into the garments that we were wearing, that we had to wear, that we decided to wear. You asked me earlier what kind of clothes I was into, and I wasn’t really wearing dashikis. Even though it was cool, I wasn’t into bright colors.

Do you remember the first time you went into a store and saw an A Tribe Called Quest record?
Yeah, I used to hang out at this record store in Queens, so by the time the Tribe album was in there, I did a double-take because I didn’t know it was coming in that particular day. I was happy to see it in there, just sitting amongst all these other albums that I wanted to buy myself.

What other albums were on that rack?
EPMD’s Strictly Business, Big Daddy Kane’s first album Long Live The Kane, Biz Markie’s Goin’ Off, Boogie Down Production’s Criminal Minded, and By All Means Necessary. Those were all my favorite groups and MCs. To have ours sitting amongst that, it was pretty cool.

What was the record store called?
It was called The Music Factory off Jamaica Avenue. A brother that used to work there was Mr. Walt from Da Beatminerz. He was DJ Evil Dee’s older brother. They were producers. They produced a lot of the Black Moon records, a lot of the Heltah Skeltah records, the whole Boot Camp Clik. He used to work in that record store. I’d go in there and hang out with him.

Would you guys just hang and spin records all day?
Yeah. I was trying to get a job in there before we became A Tribe Called Quest officially. I just wanted to be around the music that badly.

When A Tribe Called Quest really started getting going, were you speaking for the youth? What did it mean to the culture?
We were definitely speaking for the youth, and those who would listen. Not just Tribe, when it comes to everybody in hip-hop, music is a youth movement.

In “Can I Kick It” you mentioned Mayor Dinkins. You always came through with less heavy raps than Q-Tip, what made you decide to bring a politician into that verse? Was it important that he was the first black mayor of New York City?
He was definitely important. He was representing the state of New York. It’s just as big of a deal as Obama becoming president. Black mayors, what have you, they were few and far between. You had Andrew Young in Atlanta, Harold Washington in Chicago, eventually you had Kwame Kilpatrick in Detroit, Dave Bing in Detroit, but they were few and far between. You didn’t see a lot of that happening. It was definitely important. Growing up all I remember is Mayor Koch in New York.

Did Koch seem out-of-touch to you?
That’s how it came across, most definitely. Then after there was Giuliani. It was cool seeing a mayor of color.

What do you think were the important issues for the young black people of New York City at the time? Now we’ve got a lot going on with the police, but that’s nothing new really.
It’s the same thing pretty much. Police brutality. We couldn’t have a nice vehicle without being followed or pulled over. Nothing has really changed, it’s actually gotten worse.

Has it gotten worse or it’s become more visible?
It’s definitely more visible, but with that being said I think it’s gotten worse. Police brutality, racial tension, racial profiling, it hasn’t gone anywhere.

I read a bunch of old reviews from when People’s Instinctive Travels first came out. Most critics gave you props for originality, but even Rolling Stone said the album was suited for a short run on college radio at best, that it might lack longevity. Do you look back and scoff at these sorts of things?
Not really. At the end of the day it’s all opinions. If that’s how that person felt, so cool, it’s whatever. They do that to this day. But it’s all good.

People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’s 25th anniversary edition is out today.

Look out for Phife Dawg’s EP Give Thanks in early 2016.

Derek Scancarelli don't eat no ham 'n' eggs. He’s on Twitter.