PHIFE DAWG, with SKITZ, DJ FATSKI and P-PLUS, at the Comfort Zone (480 Spadina), Wednesday (August 23). $10-$12. 975-0909. Rating: NNNNN
In the months following the 1998 breakup of A Tribe Called Quest, there was a conspicuous silence from one-third of the New York hiphop powerhouse.
While Q-Tip reinvented himself as a glossy pop star with jiggling backup dancers, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad sank even lower with soft R&B trio Lucy Pearl, Phife Dawg was nowhere to be seen. Far removed from the music scene, the gruff-voiced MC had happily relocated to Atlanta and become as quiet as Jarobi.
Maybe he was saving his energy. The acrimonious Tribe meltdown clearly still weighs heavily on Phife. Any conversation about music turns back to the group's dissolution, and the topic is the primary thread running through Phife's comeback album, Ventilation, due out in October.
Pissed off The Hi-Tek-produced cut Flawless is a serious bridge burner, dissing the current hiphop scene, Phife's former label, Jive, for signing Britney Spears and, with varying degrees of subtlety, his old sparring partner Q-Tip.
"The album's called Ventilation because I'm getting a lot of stuff off my chest," a disarmingly frank Phife explains from Oakland. "Yeah, you could say I'm pissed off.
"I put Tribe first, but certain individuals, whether it be managers or a certain member of the group, didn't have the love that I had for them. After Midnight Marauders came out, I didn't want to be in the group. That's when the bullshit started circulating. None of us wanted to be there then, and it showed in the music. We just ghosted through that shit.
"I just don't think people were honest. If you want to do an album by yourself, all you have to do is say it. Don't be devious and try to stab me in the back. Even to this day, no one's man enough to say why this shit went down. Nothing's straight between us, so fuck it. I can do this by my damn self."
German allies In keeping with his lengthy layoff, Phife's comeback will be decidedly low-key. While Ventilation features top-name producers like Pete Rock and Jay Dee, the album won't be released by an American major label. Instead, Phife is signed to enterprising German hiphop imprint Groove Attack.
"I'm independent by my own decision," he insists. "I could have had that major label deal, but it was bullshit as far as I was concerned.
"Where I'm at now is almost like starting over again. Fuck America. Germany's deep, kid. Overseas they appreciate real hiphop. Here you got a lot of cats talking about Range Rovers and Benzes, but there they don't give a fuck because they use those cars as cabs.
"They rhyme about shit that's relevant. They want to hear the Mos Defs and the Commons and the Saukrates and the Choclairs. They love that real hiphop shit, and I'm glad to be part of that."
Of course, if Phife has his way, Ventilation could well be the last we hear of him.
"Music is all fun and everything, but what I really want to do is be an NBA or college basketball analyst," he laughs. "If they ever call, I'm outta here. Goodbye.
"I'll always be involved in music somehow, whether it's managing people or giving cats a break, but as far as being that rapper onstage getting busy, no. There's life after hiphop. A lot of people in my position don't understand that, but the sooner you get it, the sooner you'll be gone."