Fans of classic hip-hop are awaiting the release of Phife Dawg’s Forever, a new solo album from the Queens rapper and A Tribe Called Quest member who died in 2016 at age 45. But it won’t be the five-foot assassin’s first time headlining; his first solo album, Ventilation: Da LP, was released in September 2000. The album was a minor success but it has been largely forgotten today, in part because it was out of print and relatively inaccessible for several years. It’s not a classic on the level of his work with Tribe, but Ventilation is valuable as a time capsule of Phife rhyming on his own, dealing with fallout from his group’s breakup and commenting on hip-hop during a transitional period.
A Tribe Called Quest announced their breakup on the cover of VIBE Magazine’s October 1998 issue, which hit newsstands around the release of their fifth album The Love Movement on September 27, 1998. Q-Tip began his solo career with Amplified in 1999, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad launched the new group Lucy Pearl with Raphael Saadiq and Dawn Robinson.
“I mean, you always wish for guys to stay together and keep the same vibe going. And you know, he always wished for that,” producer and friend Pete Rock said on the phone this May. “But, if you got to go separate ways, then do solid foundation music. Tip also went solo and did some really solid music. Ali was involved in some solid groups. And everyone made sure that they did something leveled up.”
Phife began work on his own solo project soon after, its title inspired by his need to let off some steam: “I'm upset at about 50 percent of the people in hip-hop today,” he told an Orlando Weekly interviewer in 2000. “Just because you can say, 'cat, hat, bat, sat,' doesn't mean [you] can rap.” On the title track, Phife raps “How many you murdered on your album, or is that just for attention? / These labels got ‘all like Muppets so I’ma play Jimmy Henson.”
The beats on Ventilation came from a mix of veterans and then up-and-coming producers, proof of Phife’s hip-hop bona fides. Pete Rock first met Phife Dawg in the early ‘90s, when like-minded producers like Rock, Q-Tip, and Large Professor would go crate digging together. “We used to call each other to talk about sports, you know, joke, laugh, talk about music, too,” Rock said on the phone this May. “And then, when it was time for him to do a solo album, he immediately called me and was like, ‘Yo, I need you.’ I said, ‘Alright, bet.’ And I was there for him.”
Rock produced two songs on the album, the love song “Melody Adonis” and shit-talking “Lemme Find Out,” and the latter also features his signature ad-libs. The sessions were low-stakes between two recording veterans, more like two friends catching up.
“We laid the beat down, you know, I do what I do in Greene St., and then he came through and laced it,” Rock said. He continued, “Good soul, good person to be around. Yeah, it was fun working with Phife.”
Hi-Tek was building his name through his work with Talib Kweli and Mos Def, so he was “ecstatic” to hear from Phife’s manager Fudge Luver about working with the MC.
“I still couldn't believe he was reaching out. He came out to my small studio in Cincinnati.” After years of listening to Tribe, Hi-Tek was nervous to meet Phife but “he was just such a down-to-earth dude,” he said. “The way he stepped in, was like he knew me already. We became brothers instantly, you know what I'm saying?”
Hi-Tek produced four tracks for Ventilation, including the lead single “Flawless,” as well as a remix for the “Miscellaneous” single. Phife didn’t offer much direction in the studio.
“He was just like, ‘Do whatever you do.’ That's all he wanted me to do, just be me,” he said. It was an important lesson for the young producer: “He actually taught me a lot during those sessions. Just how to be free, and just let it flow. He was one of those artists that let you do you, man.”
The Cincinnati producer found the only downside of working with Phife was the negativity present in some of his new versesl. Phife had aged out of starry-eyed jokes and was looking to show his dominance in Hip-Hop. And in addition to qualms with rap in general, Phife placed the bulk of the blame for Tribe’s dissolution on their former label, Jive, which he thought had deprioritized their rap artists in favor of teen-pop acts like Britney Spears and *NSYNC.
“After sensing where the energy was at, I was a little torn because I hated to see him in that mindframe of bitterness or whatever him and Tip had going on with the record label,” said Hi-Tek.
On “Flawless,” Phife cites Jive as “the reason me and my former partner don’t talk now,” but some fans even speculated that other lyrics, like “go ‘head, play yourself with those ho-like hooks / sing ballads if it’s all about that Maxwell look,” might be shots at Q-Tip. Similar lines throughout Ventilation could apply to many musicians at the time of the album’s recording with neo-soul’s influence at its peak, but it’s likely not a coincidence that Phife promoted himself as a savior of “real” rap while his former partner was in the studio with D’angelo and posing shirtless for his album covers.
Phife’s repeated criticisms of rappers’ singing and fashion choices ring false, as well as somewhat misogynistic, now that rap stars regularly sing and influence runway looks. In a November 2000 interview with Hip Online, Phife diplomatically clarified “I only really said one thing about him on it, but I’m really talking about the state of hip-hop in general.”
Ventilation: Da LP was released on September 26, 2000, with production from Rock, Hi-Tek, Fredwreck, Supa Dave West, Allah Ricks & Jason Chung, and J Dilla, then known as Jay Dee. Phife released the album through European independent label Groove Attack, hoping that ownership of the work would eliminate any hassles. On major labels “it’s always their shit at the end of the day. With Groove Attack, at the end of the day it’s my shit,” he said that November.
Reviews of the album were mixed, with critics generally happy to hear Phife but disappointed that his sound had evolved from the Tribe classics of his youth. VIBE Magazine praised Phife’s range of rap styles and wrote that he “demonstrates the special mix of humor and intelligence that made Tribe famous” in a reviewed starred 3.5 out of 5. CMJ New Music Review took issue with the surplus of sex talk on the album, concluding “this back-alley rendezvous will leave you feeling spent and wondering.” Rap Reviews.com summarized it neatly: “If Q-Tip’s solo album left you with mixed feelings, Phife’s album will probably do the same.”
Ventilation spent just four weeks on the Billboard 200 albums chart, peaking at 175. In 2001, Phife explained that he was happy with what he achieved in the studio, but that the distributors had let him down: “They only put it out in certain markets. In like about 40% of the markets, and it did well for the markets that it was in but it could have done better and I felt like it was a waste a time basically, and I hate working my tail off and it goes in vain.”
A Tribe Called Quest reunited on record in 2003 with the single “I C U,” then throughout the ‘10s for concerts and festival performances. Phife recorded the occasional feature verse for will.i.am or Al Jarreau, but the bulk of his musical output came at the end of his life, working on 2016’s final A Tribe Called Quest album and the beginnings of Forever.
Phife’s collaborators miss him dearly. Pete Rock mused that Phife would have been happy to see how their beloved Knicks performed this post-season. “I remember him being a light, in a conversation, or in each other's presence. I miss him very much,” Pete Rock said. “I miss him a lot.” Hi-Tek was grateful to Phife for always staying in touch and treating him like a little brother. “I just want to say man, I love Phife to death, man,” Hi-Tek said. “He was a good, great person, and I miss him.”
Hi-Tek points to Phife’s move to Atlanta in the late ‘90s as proof of his artistry. “He was a real dude, he was ahead of his time on the direction that hip hop was going,” he said. “Phife moved to Atlanta early, like Too $hort and a lot of artists, before it became the Atlanta of today. He was ahead of the game.”
And he was honored to be a key part of Ventilation: “It sounds better now, to me. Like I was just playing it before you called, just to get refreshed. Yeah, it just sounds really good to me now.”
Hi-Tek was recently contacted to be a part of Forever, the new Phife Dawg project. As we concluded our call, he joked that Phife sounds so good on the track that he must have faked his death. The producer’s goals haven’t changed much since he first linked up with one of his musical heroes over twenty years ago. “It's just not really too far from what you would expect to hear from Phife,” he said. “I just want to come with a dope ass beat.”
*HEADER CREDIT: Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest during Rock the IV Bells Concert - August 6, 2006 at Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord, California, United States. (Photo by A. Doheny/WireImage)