In the liner notes of A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 classic, "The Low End Theory," considered by some critics to be the finest hip-hop album ever made, Phife Dawg offers "no respect" to "everyone who said that Phife couldn't do it."
Of course, that was almost a decade ago. Since then, Phife Dawg and his Queens, N.Y., pals Q-Tip and DJ Ali helped to establish an era of laid-back, free-thinking, positive hip-hop, and paved the way for anti-gangsta artists such as Mos Def, Common and Jurassic 5. Along the way, the group brought hip-hop to the Lollapalooza crowd in 1993, and drew into their fold jazz heads keen on the trio's free-form, experimental vibe, as well as the occasional Spaghetti Western film buff (they once sampled a vintage soundtrack). All the while, the trio continued to interject social-conscience messages -- from anti-date-rape stances to criticisms of the racist music industry -- into feel-good jams. By that point, anyone left doubting Phife Dawg's abilities or claiming that he was just Q-Tip's sidekick were left with more than a little egg on the face.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. After a pair of competent yet unremarkable late '90s album, the Tribe members went their separate ways. And now Phife Dawg -- or as his birth certificate reads, Malik Taylor -- is back, this time as a solo act. Once again he plans to raise a middle finger to all who think that he can't do it.
Dawg's Aug. 10 show at Sapphire precedes the Sept. 26 release date for his debut, "Ventilation," songs from which he'll be trying out on the crowd, even before the first single and video, "Flawless," goes into circulation.
Odd as it may seem, Jive Records (now home to The Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Britney Spears) formerly nurtured a credible hip-hop department that released all six of A Tribe Called Quest's albums. But as one would expect of a label richly fueled by Diamond-selling pop releases, Jive no longer has time for underdogs. Which is why Phife found his way to indie label Groove Attack.
"Fuck Jive. Jive don't even count anymore. It's like they try to play Tribe, like we didn't give that label cred," says Phife. "With the independent they give me the freedom I need. I don't have to act every day of the week. On major labels ... it's always their shit at the end of the day. With Groove Attack, at the end of the day it's my shit."
The title "Ventilation" certainly fits Phife's current state of mind. "I feel I have so much to get off my chest, it's time to let loose," he says. "I'm upset at about 50 percent of the people in hip-hop today. ... Just because you can say, 'cat, hat, bat, sat,' doesn't mean [you] can rap."
In addition to catharsis and commentary, Phife Dawg says "Ventilation" offers variety. Producers include Pete Rock (on the contemplative, midtempo "Lemme Find Out" ), Jay Dee (the playfully caustic "Ben Dova" ), Hi-Tek (the club-friendly "Flawless" ) and newcomers Dave West and Ray-Crop. Phife says it's a personal album with a few vintage Tribe tracks and no love songs, and an overall "rugged, raw and funky" approach.
"I'm a battle MC. I'm one of those throwback MCs," he says. "I think about a bunch of niggas in my face, and I'm dissing them."
Speaking of dissing, old-schoolers might be brokenhearted to hear about the relations of the former Questers. "Me and Ali are very cool. Me and Q-Tip are like, whatever. He might mean well, but I can't deal with phony cowards like that. Love me, but love me from a distance. I don't wish nothing bad on him. I'd be there for him if he needed me," he says.
So while A Tribe Called Quest may be gone, a listen to a sampler from Phife Dawg's new release proves he hasn't given up on what it stood for: expression, not hollow boasts.