Phife Dawg Brought 'The Fun & The Technique' to A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love Says

Courtesy of the Artist
Monie Love

When Phife Dawg -- co-founder of groundbreaking hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest -- died Tuesday due to complications from diabetes, he didn’t just leave behind a wife and son; he left behind a musical family as well: The Native Tongues, which aside from Tribe originally comprised De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and Monie Love (Mos Def, Common, Black Sheep and others joined the fold later on).

In the first interview from a Native Tongues member since Phife’s death, Monie Love, the British rapper-turned-radio personality (she’s currently on the syndicated Ed Lover Show), spoke to Billboard about Phife’s friendship and music.

Talib Kweli Reflects on Phife Dawg's Legacy: 'He Embodies the Very Best of Us' (Essay)

Do you remember the first time you met Phife?

The spring of 1988, at either Calliope Studios or Q-Tip's house in Queens. Q-Tip was still living with his mother, of course -- we were all like 17 to 18 years old. Tribe’s first album [1990’s People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm] hadn't been completed yet, and my album was still being recorded. We would do pre-production out of either Q-Tip's house or [Jungle Brothers member] Afrika [Baby Bam’s] house, and then do proper vocals at Calliope Studios in Manhattan.

What was Phife like back then?

A jokester, a prankster, always finding something to laugh at. He was never serious; he's a silver-linings person. We also bonded because we're both of West Indian descent, him being Trinidadian and me being Jamaican. He would always bond with me over food, and the similarities between Trinidadian cooking and Jamaican cooking.

When I think of you and Phife, I think of the classic video for De La Soul’s “Buddy.” What was the vibe like on the set?

We were all very happy-go-lucky and having fun. Everybody was excited, because the craft services for that day ordered out pizza. Everybody was looking forward to that, especially Phife. He was a big pizza head. But he used to always order Egg Foo Young at the studio. I didn’t like that. [Laughs]

The Native Tongues was like a big commune -- a commune of hippies. We all lived there, and we all ate there, and we all showered there, it was pretty much like that, but with a studio. We all recorded in the same studio, Calliope. Everything extended from there: we would be at each other's homes, we would go to industry events together. I mean, that's my family. We're all still very tight and close. Phife was always just like, the small funny one. I guess you would sum him up like that.

Do you remember the last time you saw him?

I'm happy to say that we've always stayed in touch. It wasn't a situation where it was like, wow, I haven't spoken to Phife in 10 years, 15 years -- nothing like that. We would keep up with each other. I last spoke to Phife in January, because he was recording new music, and he wanted to get on a song together. He wanted the vibe of the song to resemble Ice Cube and Yo Yo's "Bonnie and Clyde." I was still waiting for him to send me the beat for that.

Phife Dawg, Founding Member of A Tribe Called Quest, Dead at 45

Did you know how sick he was?

No! You can live a very long time with his type of diabetes. We were all under the impression — from what he had told us and from his actions — that he had gotten hold of it. That he knew what he was supposed to be eating, drinking, that he knew how much exercise he was supposed to be getting. We never prodded him anymore about his health, because he had come to a place where he understood how he had to maintain himself in order to live a long life. It came as a surprise, because he really did get a grip. Nobody even knew he was diabetic until it started coming out in songs, like "when’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic" [from 1993 A Tribe Called Quest song “Oh My God”]. That's what I mean by him being the short funny one — even when he found out he was diabetic, he made light of the situation.

What do you think he brought musically to Tribe?

The fun and the technique. He just had a really fly technique about him when he rhymed, almost as if he put a jazz pattern out in his head first — like ba-ba-ba-ba-ba — and then put the words to it later. It was just always bubbly and fun; he brought the comedy. His lines were always the funniest lines in every song.

How do you think Phife and Tribe impacted hip-hop?

They gave people the stamp: We're different -- you can call us weirdos, but that's OK. They allowed people to feel comfortable with experimenting, more so than just your regular gangster 808 beats or your regular samples. They allowed people to feel comfortable experimenting with pop music, with jazz music, to not feel confined. Explore -- go everywhere!

It was just really cool for me, coming from a different country, to be involved with a collective that allowed me to be myself: I'm from England, I'm different, I'm not gonna front. They were the most welcoming with that. Phife was among the most welcoming of people when I got off the plane from England. That was everything to me! Phife is going to be deeply missed.

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