[Editor’s note: OKP was lucky enough to get a chance to talk with Phife Dawg, hot off the heels of a huge Phife Dawg benefit that went down at Brooklyn’s The Knitting Factory featuring KRS-One, Jay Electronica, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and many more. It was the first time since his transplant that he performed live on stage. The event was to raise awareness about Diabetes, and it was truly epic. Stay tuned for our own Okayplayer TV episode which documents the night.]
In 2008, when Phife Dawg was wheeled into a surgery room for a kidney transplant, he may or may not have had that proverbial moment when his whole life flashed before his eyes. If he did, he might have seen a rough section of Jamaica Queens from which a trio of rappers/DJs known as A Tribe Called Quest would go on to rewrite Hip-Hop history. He might have seen the rise and fall: The Grammys, the world tours, the instinctive travels, the Sprite commercials, the platinum plaques, the feuds, and that album with the white cover that marked the break-up. But Phife had revived himself before that hospital bed. So, the Songs in the Key of Phife LP and the Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest documentary produced by actor Michael Rapaport, to be released, are all products of a reborn Phife. He tells us how he came to that one moment when he decided that it wasn’t over.
OKP: I wanted to say, just from the stuff I’ve been reading, you’re a real strong dude. I was really glad to see the event that you threw on the 20th at Knitting Factory take place. It was a really special thing to see that you were out there raising awareness for diabetes. Tell us your story.]
Phife: I became diabetic in May of 1990. It’s hereditary. My moms is diabetic but even growing up seeing her having to take insulin shots and things of that nature, I didn’t take heed because I was still waking up to a glass of Quik, you know what I’m saying? Oreo cookies for breakfast, just stupid shit. It didn’t make it any better that we were on the road performing, eating KFC, McDonalds, shit like that and I was going hard when we was younger. I found out I was diabetic the month after the first album came out, so I thought my career was gonna be derailed from then, but I stayed with it. I stayed touring. We did Low End. We did Midnight, Beats, Rhymes, The Love Movement, all of that but I wasn’t always taking care of myself and it finally caught up to me when we broke up.
After we broke up, that’s when everything started to come into play in a negative fashion. I had a bump on the back of my neck and I just thought, you know, it was a regular bump. I went to get it checked because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t cancerous or anything like that. That’s when they [doctors] told me my kidneys was bad due to diabetes. This was like October ‘99. They told me I probably need to start dialysis in like a month or two. I was shook but I didn’t end up starting dialysis until May 2004.
I went for the Super Bowl in Houston. That’s when the whole Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson thing unfolded. That weekend my homeboy called me and said, “Your doctor called the crib and said that you gotta start dialysis next month.” So that made it a bittersweet Super Bowl weekend because I went out there to host a party. Anyway, I go back home, I visit my doctor. My mom slides in, and by the way it took me like a month or two to even reveal this shit to my mom because the one thing I hate is seeing women cry, so it took me a while to tell her. I finally told her and she flew down and went to the appointment with me. They basically told me that I had to go in for the surgery to get a catheter placed in my abdomen.
I started the actual dialysis in April. The procedure is called peritoneal dialysis. That’s when you do the dialysis to yourself at home. I chose that in the beginning because it suited my lifestyle as far as still going on the road doing shows with the group or by myself. I just had to lug all this damn medicine with me and it was ridiculous.
From ’04 to the end of ’06 or early ’07, I was doing it myself, but it wasn’t working out for me. It’s like 3000 milliliters, four bags a day, every four hours, so if I started at 6am, my last bag was at 6pm. I couldn’t really go too many places or too far because I had to worry about going back to do my medicine, so I was staying in the house. I went through a slight depression. Ask anybody on dialysis like that, they just pretty much want their life back. Being that I’m pretty much in the house all day, all night, I was on my own with this shit, not realizing other people go through this shit. I just wanted my life back.
The procedure was this: I drained and then I filled back up in order to clean my kidneys like it’s the actual machine filtering my kidneys. You’re supposed to drain and then fill. Next session. Drain and then fill. Drain/fill. Drain/fill. That went on for 24 hours. But I was filling more than I was draining, so my feet would be swollen. I wear a size nine. I ended up having to wear a size ten and a half or one of those slip-ons. That could be bad for your heart. It got to the point when it really started affecting my heart. That’s when I really got shook.
I went to the hospital Thanksgiving ’06. It had to be the worst Thanksgiving of my life. I couldn’t even eat because I couldn’t hold down no food. My appetite was rotten. It was just the worst Thanksgiving ever.
I was in the hospital for like two weeks and we just moved from our old house to a new house out here in California. The new house became a blessing in disguise. The old house was the last time I did dialysis on my own in the house and that was what I needed to get away from. That last visit at the hospital, they ended up saying that I was gonna start my hemodialysis which is when you go to the clinic three times a week. My days were Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Three days a week and they do it for you. That was the biggest blessing ever. I think that was what actually saved me from things being worse.
Okay so now I’m driving myself to the clinic and getting out of the house a certain amount of hours per day. Initially I didn’t want to be amongst other people having this stuff done, but that ended up being what I needed because they inspired me to get myself right. You got some old people in there and you know the elderly people, they’re the ones with the knowledge and the wisdom that sometimes you need to take heed to, if not all the time. I’m walking in the clinic and they’re looking at me like dude what are you doing here? You’re too young for this, you know what I’m saying? I really sat down and listened to what they had to say and it made a lot of sense.
I was on my grind with it then. I started losing the weight because I’m only 5’3 and my weight was like 190, an unhealthy weight. I can’t even stand looking at my marriage pictures since I was so big because of the medicine. I started losing the weight rapidly, but that’s when Hip Hop Honors had called me and said they wanted to honor Tribe. I didn’t wanna do it because people were gonna be like, “Yo, this nigga Phife. Yo, that’s not a good look.” What they failed to realize was I was feeling much better than what they saw that I looked like, you know what I’m saying? Because even though I looked normal when I was bigger, I felt rotten. I felt horrible and it was the complete opposite.
I ended up doing the Hip Hop Honors because of Fab Five Freddy. He really stuck his neck out for us to be there, especially me because he knew that I wasn’t doing well at the time, but he really wanted me to be there to enjoy us being honored. So I couldn’t say no to that and I went. That’s when all the rumors started.
It was all over the place. Wendy Williams talking shit. Other people. My father, my brother, and my moms, they still in New York. They listen to the radio and so they was calling me telling me what was being said. I didn’t really sweat it because I can’t really knock them for what they don’t know. Wendy’s been doing that for years so I didn’t really sweat it like that.
We went on the Rock the Bells Tour in ’08. I’m doing much better and I’m just waiting for my transplant. My wife wanted to get tested, but I was so much bigger than her at the time so the doctors was like that would never work, so she didn’t. My father got tested. He couldn’t do it because he had his own issues. One of my best friends, he was gonna do it. Physically, he was okay and he was a match, but mentally it was a whole new ball game for him because he’s never been under the knife like that before. He was shook, which is understandable, because that’s a normal reaction for somebody who’s never been under the knife. So now I’m worried where am I gonna get this kidney because personally I’m not built to ask anybody for no kidney because I’m looking at it like what if their kids need it.
My wife came home one day and was like, “Boo,” and I was like, “What’s wrong?” and she was like, “I’m a match?” I’m like, “You’re a match? What are you talking about?” She was like, “I got tested and I’m a match.” So there we were in the house bawling like little kids.
Phife: So she ended up giving me her kidney in September ’08, she actually enabled me to do this, you know what I’m saying? To get back in the studio, do what I love to do. Matter fact, I didn’t even wanna rhyme anymore, I just wanted to produce and put artists out and stuff like that. But then I went to New York in June, caught the bug again, came back home started writing like on the Blackberry 24/7 just writing rhymes, getting beats, because I was already making beats and so that’s how I got into it again. I felt like this could really set the table for my artists so that’s why I’m on it again. I had no choice but to do it because I felt like my life was a blessing.
OKP: Damn. That’s crazy, man, like really, really inspirational. I’m on the verge of tears.
Phife: Na, be cool man.
OKP: That shit is crazy like for real man, you’re a soldier. I’m glad you shared this.
Phife: I believe in hearing it from the horse’s mouth.
OKP: Yeah, definitely. So how do you feel presently? You feel strong? You feel good?
Phife: Yeah man, I been working hard. I hired a trainer. I’ve been working out, playing basketball like I used to, trying to keep in shape because when I go on this road, I’m going hard. I really can’t complain. I had the best year of my life since the transplant . All of my sports teams did good. Like I never really been through it like that. Aside from the Knicks, all my teams did pretty well. Right now my Tarheels are getting their ass beat like crazy. They’ll be all right because they got a nice little class coming next year, but it’s crazy right now, but the Yankees did their thing, the Jets almost made the Super Bowl, the Tarheels won, the Lakers won. I can’t complain. I was happy all year.
By the way I’m working on my own sports talk show, sports/music talk show, working on a pilot for that and I think Imma call it “The Fanalyst”. I’m also working on a clothing line – well I’m in a partnership for this clothing line called King Duce and it’s also a record label that I’m partnering with. I’m gonna be head of urban music as well of head of urban wear.
I’m still basketball recruiting for a prep school in Connecticut and I coach an AAU team out here in Oakland. They just started back so I’m about to start going to practice when I get back from overseas the end of next month.
OKP: When is Songs in the Key of Phife coming out?
Phife: I’m not sure because I been out of the game for at least eight, nine years now. I wanted to record the whole album and then go shop it. I wanna go in there with at least five full songs and maybe five snippets. I’m still in the process of recording right now. I got like at least forty, fifty songs but now I just want to pick the top fifteen and throw in three bonus cuts. In a perfect world like Keri Hilson would say, I wouldn’t mind it coming out sometime between August and November.
OKP: Who’s doing the production for the most part?
Phife: Well I have my production company. It’s called Riddim Kids. It’s myself, it’s DJ Rasta Roots and it’s my man Stat Box. He’s about to be 22 tomorrow. He’s from out here in San Jose, California, and he’s a beast on the beats. I’m not just talking Hip-Hop. I’m talking alternative. He can do a beat for Lady Ga-Ga, a beat for Pink, and then come back and bless Ghostface and myself with a track. He’s well rounded, he’s young, he’s hungry, and I’m letting him get his grind on so he can learn his business. So he did about six, seven tracks. My man in Toronto, he did about six tracks. I did about three. I got a track from this kid named Oh No, banging track. Ali Shaheed gave me one and my man Illmind gave me one. So far we doing it big.
OKP: That’s a diverse palette right there.
Phife: Yeah, I’m still waiting for a track from DJ Scratch and Rico Wade and a couple of other people, but if they don’t make the album, I’m about to start the next one as well as a compilation with all my artists.
OKP: Wow, that sounds like it’s coming from all directions. Do you have any major artist collaborations that we should look out for?
Phife: Well actually we’re doing this one track that I’m trying to get Big Boi from Outkast on as well as Cee-lo on the hook. He can do a verse for me as well because he’s a beast on both ends of the spectrum as you know. I’m looking forward to this track with KRS-One as well. So far so good. Imma also holla at some dude named Q-tip see what’s good and we gonna get it poppin like that.
OKP: You have any idea what you gonna put out as a first single?
Phife: Yeah I do. I do have an idea. It’s this one joint called “Sole Men” and it features one of my artists. He’s actually the same person we call Stat Box. Stat Box is his production name. He did the track and he’s featured. It’s basically our ode to loving sneakers.
OKP: You mentioned Q-tip. You’re probably tired of this question, but is there ever gonna be another Tribe album? People who have grown up on a Tribe always want that update every now and then. They wanna hear from the horse’s mouth.
Phife: It’s not that I’m tired of that question being asked because you have to expect that when people have grown up on you, I’m tired of it not being answered. Just real talk. I don’t know how to answer it, so I’ll answer it from a Phife Dawg perspective. I would love to do a Tribe album. I think it would be dope. I think the climate’s right, but I honestly don’t think it’s gonna pop off, you know what I’m saying? But maybe it will because we do have a documentary coming out which is being filmed by Michael Rapaport, executive produced by Nas Escobar so maybe we can piggy back off of that and get some things done. I think with the documentary coming out, the demand might be kind of high for us to come out with something brand new. But I’m not sure that’s gonna happen. Just getting all three together in one place, you’re better off pulling out your own teeth. You never know though. Knock on wood, keep your fingers crossed, whatever you wanna do, we’ll see what happens.
OKP: I hear you on that. The documentary is exciting. Is it gonna be a whole timeline of the Tribe’s history? Did you have new interviews?
Phife: It’s a little bit of everything. The good, the bad, the ugly. It’s gonna be some things that you’re looking forward to seeing. It’s gonna be some things where you’re gonna be like, “Word it went down like that?” It’s just bugged out, man. I couldn’t even look at the trailer when Rapaport was showing it to me because when I was going in for my surgery, Rapaport was right there filming. I couldn’t even watch that part of it. It’s on y’all. Y’all tell me what y’all see. But it’s crazy. There’s some good times. There’s some bad times. You’re gonna see it all.
– Sidik Fofana
(for more from Sidik, check out his blog www.cornerboyjazz.blogspot.com)
*If you’d like to DONATE to the American Diabetes Association, just CLICK HERE.