Life After Phife: The Legendary MC’s Best Friend Looks Back on a Career of Highs and Lows
On the night his best friend died, Dion “DJ Rasta Root” Liverpool was playing in his Tuesday soccer league. He’d been fouled, and was set to take a penalty kick. He missed. For anyone else, rec league shortcomings don’t seem like a big deal, but for the guy with roots in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Brazil where soccer is life, it wasn’t just the uncharacteristic miss. “Something about that night felt off,” he says.
Earlier in the day, Rasta Root reached out to Malik “Phife” Taylor, telling him to call Posdnuos from De La Soul about a feature the MC agreed to do with the group. Phife never called him back. Instead, at 11 p.m., while sitting in his house with longtime friend and collaborator DJ Fudge, Rasta Root got a call from Phife’s wife.
“She was like, ‘Dion, I just want to let you know I came home and I found Malik unresponsive. The paramedics are here,’” he recalls. “I’m still thinking, ‘He’s fucked up, but he’s fine.’ And then she’s like -- very calmly, too -- ‘he didn’t make it.’”
The next day Phife’s family revealed in statement to Billboard, that the legendary rapper passed away due to complications from diabetes. He was 45.
In the year and a half since Phife passed away, Rasta Root has been diligently working to put the finishing touches on Forever, the last solo album from the A Tribe Called Quest co-founder. The two men have been friends and collaborators since 1999 and first bonded over their Trinidadian backgrounds. Phife, the New Yorker, appreciated that Rasta Root, the Canadian, wasn’t the typical manager with an East-coast-rap-dominance complex.
That ATCQ was putting the finishing touches on their first album in 20 years, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, didn’t keep Phife’s team from focusing on their main goal: release the next solo album. For Rasta Root Phife’s posthumous release was two decades in the making -- a diary with years worth of thoughts, observations, and dope ass rhymes. He’s happy the world will hear what was on Phife’s mind even though he won’t be here to share the music himself.
Rasta Root spoke to The Boombox the highs and lows of Phife’s career, moving on from his death and celebrating his life.
When was the first time you were presented to the rest of Tribe as Phife’s official representation?
It’s weird because they’re such a dysfunctional family, like any other family. Tip and Phife weren’t talking for a while, and they’d try and meet and work…
So they weren’t talking when you guys got together right?
They would talk but they weren’t friends for a few years until I think it was [San Diego] Street Scene in 2004 where they had to come together and do this show and all managers had to start talking. At that point, I think that was my formal introduction to the group as his manager. We went up to Jersey for a few meetings to discuss them recording, and that didn’t work out because they couldn’t agree on stuff. So they decided let’s do shows for right now, so anything dealing with shows I was representing him. They knew me as his DJ but I kind of had to show myself as his manager to not just be looked at as just his DJ.
So why did some of those early talks and recording not happen?
Well one did happen which was for the Violator compilation that Chris Lighty put out that had song with Erykah Badu in it, but Ali wasn’t involved in that and didn’t really have the Tribe feel people expected so it didn’t do well--although that was the first time back in the studio together in years, which was good...I think it was ego. It’s like splitting a pie. If you can’t decide on dividing the pie then there’s going to be an impasse and that’s what kept happening.
What was the trickiest part of navigating and managing Phife’s solo career?
That’s a very hard thing to do because no matter what you do people are always going to compare to it your best work. Or even Tribe’s worst work is somebody’s best work -- it’s hard. So I think it was always keeping him confident in his abilities and keeping him motivated to say, “You know what, give it your best shot. It’s not going to be Tribe. Yes, people want Tribe but it’s OK to express who you are as an artist and if they accept it they accept it. Not everyone is going to love it.” That was the hard part and that is why he didn’t put out music for a long time. It’s that fear. It’s like that fear of jumping.
Was it like Ventilation dropped and he was like, “Damn nobody’s feeling this”? Was he feeling discouraged?
Definitely discouraged, and discouraged with the industry. A lot of producers were spawned from his [collaborations], J. Dilla, Hi-Tek -- all these guys were involved and they branched out but everybody just didn’t look at Ventilation like a Tribe album. Honestly he’d be the first to tell you, “I hated that album.” It was literally him venting about all the issues he’d had over the years. He got it out of his system but the fans are like, “Wait, this is Tribe. Why are you complaining?”
Well, he also had his health issues to deal with. I remember when I interviewed the group for CNN in 2011, everyone kept asking me, “How did Phife look?” There had been some red carpet years prior where everyone was alarmed by his physical appearance.
Yeah, that was 2007 [VH-1] Hip-Hop Honors. That’s when the public and fans seem to collectively lose their minds in shock. People were saying he had AIDS. He didn’t want to do that. I think he was going through illness where you can’t do dialysis for an extended period of time; your body just can’t take it. So every time you take fluid and put them back in, when there’s an imbalance in the fluids, when you take it out, you’re going to be drained, so you’re going to lose weight. So his weight would go from really puffy when he’s about to go and do the dialysis till after.I think at that stage he was dealing with a little depression because of the health. It was limiting his movement and work -- life stuff. For me in Atlanta and him in Cali, I was like, “Let’s just do it. It’s a good opportunity,” not seeing what he’s looking like. He was sick the night before. Just normal stuff that people who go to dialysis go through. It had been a rough road for him so of course the media being the trolls that they are -- Wendy Williams said some shit that was crazy. It’s going to leave you jaded to want to do anything, and I felt bad because I felt like a pushed him, not maliciously, but I pushed him to say, “Hey, they’re honoring you.” I didn’t know. When those couple of pictures came out that he looked withdrawn, he looked really ill. I think he was ill but it wasn’t to the extent of what people were saying because they didn’t understand the illness.
How did you deal with that as a manager? You have your career, Phife’s career and then his health adding another element to manage.
Having enough compassion to know the timing of when to talk about certain work things that he may not want to talk about. Knowing what the cues are, the physical cues where I know when to leave him or let me make a decision on my own, and use my best judgement because he’s not even thinking about that. It was definitely a huge learning curve for me as far as how to deal with health, and someone who is so public. So, it was definitely some missteps on my part, and we learned together, but the friendship is what kept us trusting each other to where I’d trust him and he’d trust me. He knew everything I did was in his best interest.
Let’s talk about the documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. There was some controversy, but the sense I got from Jarobi and Phife was “let’s just do this thing and ride it out.”
I had stopped working with him in 2008-2009. A lot of the documentary stuff, I wasn’t involved with business-wise. I don’t appear in it. At the end of it, when you interviewed them and they started doing the marketing we started working together. I started being involved. One side is, it was their idea to do the documentary. There’s a picture of Rappaport, Leo DiCaprio, Phife and couple of other people -- it was that night somebody jokingly said we should do a Tribe documentary. That would have been 2006-2007 and that’s when the idea sparked. The group was with it, and I think the business was wrong between whoever negotiated the business. The group was encouraged for doing interviews and making everything happen. Midway through something went wrong and they decided to pull back. Phife was more like, “I’ll never get another opportunity to go Sundance and all of these other festivals. I’m going to enjoy this because it’s the fruit of my labor and I encourage you guys to do that too,” and they really didn’t until Tribeca [Film Festival]. He felt like this is my life and I’m going to enjoy it because it’s never going to happen again. They had a little discord because they looked at Phife as a somewhat disloyal because he went against the group thing but he also had a huge friendship with Michael Rappaport who to this day is a good friend of mine, and he’s been very instrumental in everything we’ve done keeping Phife’s name and legacy alive. I understand it’s a friendship thing, it’s a loyalty to your friend too.
I remember watching this and thinking, “I’m not mad at this. This happened.” I remember thinking, “Phife’s incredibly brave.” I’d argue that a lot of good came out of that documentary.
Absolutely. I think a person like him, with what he’s had to deal with in his life, I couldn’t imagine a better soldier to fight next to in a war and a person who had the courage that he had to put all that on the table and express what he had to be vulnerable. That’s not easy to do. You could easily shut down and be depressed and be like, “Fuck the media! Look what they did to me 2-3 years ago.” I think he was excited because he was getting the transplant from his wife and he had a new lease on life, and that’s super brave. I don’t anybody in my life that’s brave like that.
As he started to find his groove solo-wise, did you ever think there’d a be reconnection with Tribe or were you guys more focused on the solo stuff?
There’s always something going on, something bubbling, even if the answer is no. I think the frustrating part for him was the stop-n-go nature of, “Well, I want to do my solo stuff,” and then the Tribe thing comes up and it totally snowballs and no one is even thinking about letting him express himself as a soloist. He promised me and I promised him that no matter what was going on we’d make sure his solo stuff was at the forefront, and that’s why he did catch his stride a few years back. He started writing more and his pen got sharp. I remember one time we were in Denver for the recording of “Nutshell.” He’s spitting the lines, and I remember just looking at him and thinking this is the Phife I’ve been missing. This is the post-Tribe Phife; this dude is really on. His therapy was the music, so it might be verses and songs that you and I are like “Eeh,” but for him, he’s getting it off his chest because he refused to go to therapy. That was his therapy. I realized that and I shouldn’t have fought that as much…
You were trying to get him to go therapy?
His wife was. When he would have issues I would say, “Phife, just go talk to someone. It’s not AIDS. It’s nothing to be frowned upon.”
So he wanted to talk to someone about his diabetes?
Just in general. You pluck some kids out at 16-17 out of the hood in Queens and then send them on this whirlwind ride for 20 years there’s an arrested development that happens somewhere in there where there’s coping mechanisms that aren’t in place. No one is telling them how to deal and communicate. You kind of just do what you feel, what you think is right. There were parts of him that were arrested, childlike. When I’d bring that up, he’d be like “Fuck that,” but I didn’t realize that him recording, whether it was a good song or shitty song, that was his therapy. It was his journal.
When the topic of a Tribe album was brought up, why do you think Phife was hesitant at first?
I think he was hesitant because he was in his stride with the solo career, and the minute something happens with his solo career, now there’s Tribe talk and Fallon (*note A Tribe Called Quest performed on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in November 2015--their first TV performance in 15 years)-- it’s disrupting. So, I let him just have that moment, and I remember it was a really rough night for all of us. They did Fallon, the Paris thing happened and the next night, Tip’s -- not beating him in the head -- all, “Let’s do it, let’s do it. I’m feeling it.” Phife’s like, “All these years -- why are we doing it now?” He had just done dialysis that day. He was really, really frustrated, so I was like, “Yo, just go take a walk, leave your phone here and don’t worry about that.” So then, Ali and Tip are calling me on the phone. I told them, “I’m sure guys would agree with all these years and bumps and bruises, you guys have had, you’ve got to learn to love each other again. You can’t just jump in the studio and start recording. It’s not like that. Y’all aren’t 18-19 anymore. Give him a minute to breathe.” I said, “I’m sure he’s going to do it once he gets out of this funk, but don’t press him.” He just needed his time. I said, “Let him have his time to feel how he feels.” Keep in mind, at that time, we had already shot the “Nutshell” video. He had his stuff. We’re taking meetings and he had his album almost done. He didn’t want that to stop.
Do you agree then with Tip’s assessment that Phife didn’t come and do the album because he wanted to do the album, he came on because he wanted to make sure he and his friends were good?
I think that was an inherent part of it which was hanging out with your boy again, get through whatever you’ve got to get through. It was amazing to see that. The other side is Phife was very much an advocate for his fans. “If I’m doing this, I’m doing it for the fans. I’ll sacrifice, whether it’s my health, sacrificing my sanity, the fans have treated us so well these years I cannot go without honoring that.” The other side is it’s unknown to go into the situation and be at Tip’s house recording. He said as long as I was there and he had his own hotel, he was good. So I was there for every trip because it’s literally like life coaching where it’s like, “Phife, we got this. We’re here.” We were able to shoot a remix video for one of the songs because we were in New York, because a lot of expenses were taken care of. I learned to make it make sense whether it’s like “Ok, we’re going to be here -- let’s go to ESPN up in Bristol. We’ll get you on the show with Scott Van Pelt.” Those things kept him motivated. It was like OK if he’s doing these things for me let me go and do this for him. It was like being on the schoolyard bartering Now-And-Later candies with your friends to get them to move.
What do you think Phife’s thoughts were on the album as it fit into the greater picture of Tribe’s legacy?
See, I’ve never been with them recording the old Tribe albums, so I’m not sure what the process was as far as picking the beats and stuff. I think a lot of the stuff that’s on there he liked but maybe he didn’t love. I think he realized, “This is going to get us through this. This is going to allow me to make peace with my friends. I may not be crazy about it but I don’t hate it.” A lot of the stuff he recorded was more skeleton beats and once he transitioned, Tip was able to change a lot of the beats out. A lot of the stuff you hear is not necessarily what Phife heard when he recorded it.
I remember you saying watching him record “Solid Wall of Sound” with that Elton John sample was your favorite memory of him recording this album?
It gives me chills just thinking about it. I remember thinking “This is some crazy shit!” Hearing them talk in the same room together on a musical level--I was like we can’t not record this. I talked to the manager and said "I think I can reach out to GoPro and get them to send us some cameras. This is crazy content!" Everybody agreed, I got the cameras set up at Tip’s house and was just recording and that song was the last song he recorded for the album in studio with them.
Once his wife made that call to you about Phife’s passing, you had to make some hard phone calls yourself...
I’m pacing around my house, of course I’m bawling, crying. She was like, “I haven’t been able to reach his father or his mother. Can you please let the group know.” So in the midst of me trying to figure out what the fuck she just told me now I’ve got to start calling blood relatives and group members. I called the dad and didn’t get through, called the mom and didn’t get through. She texted me and said she got through to the mom because they didn’t want the media to find out and then they find out online. I called De La. I called Ali, told him, and then I called Tip and called him. He picked up, and I told him pretty much verbatim what his wife had said. He started balling, like a kid. Literally, dropped his phone and for two minutes I’m on the phone like, “What do I do?” I’m trying to be balanced but I’m fucked up too. I hang up the phone, a couple of minutes later he calls back and is like, “please tell me this isn’t so!” It’s kind of like a kid who’s told his dad isn’t coming back from the war. He sounded like a kid and reverted back to that. That’s that arrested development where it took them right back to when they were kids.
So why didn’t you like the title of Touré’s New York Times profile of Tribe?
What was it called again?
“Loss Haunts A Tribe Called Quest’s First Album in 18 Years”...
Yeah I didn’t like the title. And I don’t know if he was misquoted, but Jarobi said something I didn’t like.
Yeah the direct quote was, “Doing this album killed him.”
That sounds crazy.
And he said, “he was very happy to go out like that.”
That’s also crazy. I didn’t like any of that. Just even hearing it now I’m getting pissed. The title is to draw readers in. It doesn’t haunt them. There’s nothing haunting about the album or its title. Whether Phife was here or not it was going to happen. It was a media play to me, and I don’t know if what Jarobi said was out of context. I don’t think it was out of context. I just don’t agree with that. I think Phife was very much excited about living, he was excited to work with them, he was excited for his solo stuff to come out. I don’t think he wanted to leave.
It’s not like he was trying to grind himself to death.
No. Being on dialysis, it’s not easy and your body cannot sustain that type of activity over extended periods. It just can’t.
So is that what happened?
It was just complications. Your body says, “you’re putting liquids out, you’re putting them back in for hours on end, weeks at a time for years -- I’m done. I need a break.”
Q-Tip said it was hard putting together the Tribe album having to work Phife’s posthumous voice, how was that process for you in putting this solo album together?
I think initially, in the grieving process, I would hear his voice and it would take me back to when he was recording. I have memories of specific, non-musical moments when he was recording a vocal or a discussion we might’ve had about the song. I have layers of memories, personal, professional, as well as public. It’s hard at first because he’s got songs that are very prophetic. I think there’s a reason he was so charged to finish his work. Maybe somewhere in the divine design he was told without knowing, “Get this done. Patch this shit up. Make peace with whoever you need to make peace with. You’re coming home.” I really think that. I’m charged to finish the job he started even though we started together. It’s like he wanted to be heard, he wanted his voice to be heard. It’s exciting now because I know he has some dope-ass shit.
Yeah, you said the last song he ever recorded, “Forever,” was a testament to that spirit of him using music as therapy...
I sent him the beat and he’d already written the verses. I heard the verses in Jersey and I said, “Phife, those are 32-bar verses -- they’re too long. With peoples’ attention spans you’ve got to cut it down.” He was like, “Man, fuck that shit! I just want to rap. I want to talk.” I was like, “I understand that but let’s be smart.” He grabbed his phone and started editing the verse. It was a spat, more of a business disagreement. He knocks it out and sends it back to me, [and] I’m like blown away. You listen to the song, and it tells the whole history of the group, what went wrong, what he would have done different. It’s like a goodbye; it’s bugged out. It’s literally like a goodbye to the group, but beautiful. You hear that shit and it’s like, “This nigga knew something.”
Yeah, the greats always seem to know when their time is coming. ‘Pac and Big both often rapped about their demises or at least carried themselves in a way.
It’s a hip-hop personal letter. Like how Common did “I Used to Love H.E.R.” It’s like that to his group. You hear the energy and the spark in his voice. It was like “I want to get this off my chest. I love these guys. I’m good.” That could have easily been on the Tribe record and blown everything away on that album.
Well it’s obvious that his spirit and energy is alive and well in you. How do you carry his spirit into what you’re doing with your career now?
Once he passed away, Dres from Black Sheep called me, and I told him two days after he passed, I was like "yo man, make up with your boy Mista Lawnge. It’s not worth it. One day you’re going to wish you had." Even when Chris Lightly passed, I told Phife, I told Ali, “Life’s short, man. God forbid one of you guys pass. Chris Lighty died and if you guys don’t say what you want to say to the person, really how you feel, you’re going to live with that for the rest of your life.” I didn’t think the outcome would be like this, but it’s kind of prophetic in its own way.
When can we expect the album?
We’re hoping this year, but I’ve got to dig through some hard drives, find some other songs and fill in some pieces. I want people to know that Phife lived for his fans and lived for the music. He’s probably the realest person I ever met. As much as I would fight when I’d seem him arguing with people on Instagram and Twitter for no damn reason he’d be like, “I know you’re right but I can’t help it.” How can you be mad at someone who saying, honestly, “This is who I am”? I learned I had to accept that’s who he is. He can’t be me, he can’t react like me. Just be happy that he’s comfortable in his own skin. That’s one of the bigger lessons to me.
Watch Phife's Video for "Nutshell:"
Watch Phife's Video for "Dear Dilla:"
Watch Phife Dawg and DJ Rasta Root Perform at the Toronto Raptor's 20th Anniversary Celebration: