“From sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, your mind had to be on nobody but God,” says Phife Dawg, remembering weekends at his grandmother’s house growing up, in last year’s documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes and Life. “So I had to sneak and watch Soul Train. I had to sneak and watch Scooby Doo, or whatever cartoon was popping off at the time. But when it came to the block parties and the hip hop, once I saw them grabbing mics and getting busy, I risked my livelihood, getting kicked out of the house and everything, just to be a part of it.”
So how did this hip-hop legend, who lived for his music, go on to be the same one who later said, “I love hip-hop, but at the rate its going right now, I could do with or without it?”
That’s the strange story of Phife Dawg, who performs at Axis Nightclub in Santa Clara this Friday. Growing up in Queens as Malik Taylor, he was not just one of the founding members of Tribe, but the common demominator of the group, the one who basically brought them all together. His childhood best friend and fellow MC Q-Tip jumped out front to become the recognizable voice of Tribe on their first album, but on their second, 1991’s The Low End Theory, Phife started to emerge as an MC, especially on “Check the Rhime,” one of their most famous songs. By their next, 1993’s Midnight Marauders, the interplay between Q-Tip and Phife was an integral part of their sound.
After the group broke up, Phife put out one solo album in 2000, but the follow-up has been delayed by over a decade as he dealt with crippling health problems culminating in a kidney transplant in 2008. While Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary is far from the definitive statement about Tribe, it seems to have at least re-ignited Phife’s career—he was the only member of the group to stand behind it and even tour around it.
Phife’s show is one of the first from Alan Lim and Johnny Caron, who as Avant Productions have started booking shows at Axis Nightclub in conjunction with longtime DJ Dave Dynamix. So far, they’ve been on a roll, bringing the kind of bigger hip-hop shows that the South Bay has never really had a spot for. Last weekend, Axis had a “Legends” show featuring pioneering Bay Area turntablists Q-Bert, D-Styles and Shortkut of Invisibl Skratch Piklz.