Phife has always been the under-rated underdawg of A Tribe Called Quest–one of the most important groups in hip-hop history–even as Q-Tip was acknowledged as the group’s ambassador and charismatic frontman. If ATCQ is rap’s Clash or Rolling Stones then Phife and Tip are the genre’s Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, (or if you prefer Mick Jones and Joe Strummer); their undeniable creative chemistry and on-again, off-again sibling rivalry the engine that drove the only rap-band that ever mattered. Theirs is a Mutty-and-Jeff tale for the ages, a tension that’s been explored everywhere from Michael Rapaport‘s Tribe-umentary Beats, Rhymes & Life to yesterday’s interview with Hot97. Like many classic groups, they have been musically handcuffed together by the love and demand of ATCQ fans, even as each has moved on to focus on their respective solo projects and careers.
On the eve of their reunion for Sony Legacy’s reissue of the group’s groundbreaking debut album–being celebrated with a NYC release event at Santos Partyhouse tomorrow night and slated to kick off with a reunion on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon tonight, Okayplayer writer Scott Heins got the immortal Mutty Ranks on the phone to get his feelings on the reissue as he looks back at his youthful debut verses. In the process he got a hell of an exclusive preview of Phife’s next solo project, and best believe it’s J Dilla involved! Read on to learn more and scroll all the way down to get a sneak peek at the video for Phife’s next single, the J Dilla-produced banger “Nutshell,” which we’re told will be dropping sometime in early 2016, and that’s all we can say. Except this: undeniable.
OKP: How do you feel about these new remix tracks that have dropped off of the People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm reissue—the joints from CeeLo and Pharrell?
Phife: I haven’t even heard them yet.
OKP: Really? They’ve gotten pretty strong receptions, especially CeeLo’s flip of “Footprints”—have you been going out of your way to avoid them? How do you feel about the whole thing?
Phife: I haven’t avoided them. I actually did hear the “Bonita” that Pharrell did, but I haven’t heard the other ones. It’s cool, but it’s kind of difficult, I mean I can imagine doing a remix like that. It’s kind of difficult being that everybody’s so used to what they have been already after 25 years. It’s just kind of tough—I think people are going to cater to what it was.
OKP: There was a bit of a backlash —people saying these songs are such classics after 25 years…and that they should just remain untouched.
Phife: Right, right. It’s like somebody trying to redo a Luther record or a Stevie Wonder record. There’s just certain things that I can imagine you’d be scared to do.
OKP: I’m conflicted about it as well. I don’t think it necessarily hurt the originals or anyone. It’s not like it’s trampling on your guys’ legacy…
Phife: I don’t see that at all, being that the original is always going to be there. But those guys are like the cream of the crop right now, and I thought it as definitely a cool idea.
OKP: Can you take us back to when you guys were working on that album and what you were thinking about lyrically, or production-wise? Why do you think people keep coming back to that album?
Phife: To be honest I really wasn’t a part of that album. I’m on like four songs out of fifteen and none of hose lyrics were written by me. I vaguely remember different sections, but that was definitely Q-Tip’s baby.
OKP: The last remix that came out is J. Cole’s remix of “Can I Kick It?” Have you heard that one at all?
Phife: Nah, I haven’t heard it yet.
OKP: That’s one of the more prominent Phife tracks on the album! Do you feel any protective instinct over it and your verse?
Phife: Nah…other than I hated my voice back then. That’s really it. I hated it, and “Can I Kick It?” is one of my least-favorite Tribe records to be honest. But people love it, so it’s like something that you can’t avoid or run around. It has to be performed, it has to be done.
We’re doing Jimmy Fallon the day that it comes out [that’s tonight – ed.] and that’s probably one of the songs we’re gonna do. You can’t really avoid it.
OKP: Do you have a favorite song on ‘People’s’ then?
Phife: Yeah, it’s a toss-up between “Bonita”; “Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts” and “Youthful Expression. It’s like a three-way tie. Oh, I’m tripping. “Footprints” is my favorite record on that album.
OKP: Let me ask, for this Fallon performance, do you know if you’ll be performing with The Roots?
Phife: I’m not sure what’s going to fit, but I imagine we’ll probably end up performing with The Roots, being as they’re the band. I’m just assuming…
OKP: You said you’re kind of lukewarm on “Can I Kick It,” so what would be your ideal Tribe setlist?
Phife: I don’t have a problem with doing “Can I Kick It?” Because I know the people like that record a lot. You have to give the people what they want, so I’m cool with it. I just don’t like it because I hated my voice.
OKP: Back when you guys were active with Native Tongues and the Zulu Nation, and still today, there was sort of a group-effort mentality or spirit to a conveying a conscious message and carrying the torch from artists that had come before you. Do you feel there are current artists that are really following in your footsteps today?
Phife: Not too many, I have to say. But I do enjoy listening to the J. Cole record. I like Joey Bada$$ and that whole Pro Era unit. Kendrick is amazing and there’s definitely a few out there doing their thing, but I wouldn’t say it’s reminiscent of Tribe. It’s just them doing them.
OKP: Do you have a favorite album that you’ve been blown away by and having fun with?
Phife: Yeah I like the J. Cole album and the Kendrick album.
OKP: Did you get a chance to listen to the new Dillatronic release? It just dropped..
Phife: I haven’t heard it, I didn’t even know it was out but I will definitely get my hands on that.
OKP: We’ve had some debate in the office of if it’s proper to be releasing rough draft material from Dilla that he didn’t necessarily want to come out. Do you think it’s good for it to be out, or should it stay in the vaults?
Phife: I really don’t know how to feel about it, but I know I’m a Dilla fan and I’m definitely going to listen.
OKP: There’s no such thing as having too much Dilla to listen to…
OKP: How about you own music—have you been writing?
Phife: I have a new EP coming out early next year and a new single as well. There will be an EP and the single is called “Nutshell,” so I’ve been working on that. And then following that I’ll release an album called Muttymorphosis.
OKP: We actually have been talking with Rasta Root about possibly premiering a video for “Nutshell.” We won’t spill too many details, but if you wanted to give people a heads up, how would you describe the sound?
Phife: Basically, the track is done by the late great J Dilla. And it’s hip-hop the way it should always be.