Issue #171: Ventilation: Da LP by Phife Dawg
July 22, 2019
Released On September 26, 2000
Released By Groove Attack Records
There’s a very profound moment in the storied lore of A Tribe Called Quest (as told in Michael Rapaport’s documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest) where Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor takes it upon himself to mark his territory. Having put forth a somewhat lackluster performance on the group’s debut album, Phife returns to the studio with a renewed energy for the opening sessions of Tribe’s follow up, The Low End Theory. By all accounts, Q-Tip had established his dominance as the “leader” of the group, or at least the perceived top dog. But to the pleasant surprise of the group, and fans the world over, Phife would return to the mic to deliver his, and one of the group’s, most memorable verses on “Buggin’ Out.” After that iconic record, it was clear that Phife was a force to be reckoned with, and would play second fiddle to no one.
This scenario (see what I did there?) would rear it’s ugly head again years later after Tribe’s very bitter, very public break up. In mutual exile from each other, Q-Tip and Phife’s careers were headed in completely opposite directions at the start of the new millennium. Tip was basking in the solo success of “Vivrant Thing” & “Breathe & Stop” off of his acclaimed debut solo effort Amplified, plus a slew of guest spots on club bangers from the likes of Janet Jackson to Missy Elliot. He was that dude hanging with Puff Daddy, and Leonardo DiCaprio, and Lenny Kravitz, and that model, and that other model. Tip was a viable presence on mainstream radio, television and print, while Phife was… not. Did no major label want to give Phife a shot at the big time? Or did he just elect to go the indie route, having lived through the pitfalls of the music business for his entire adult life? We’ll never know for sure, but what was abundantly apparent by 1999 was that Phife was again playing the role of underdog, which leads us to Ventilation: Da LP.
Phife needed to vent; he needed to tell his side of the story, and reclaim his respect on the mic from his fans as well as his peers. And boy, did he not disappoint. From the jump, Phife attacks to booth with a bop in his step that we hand’t seen since his stellar verses on Tribe’s masterpiece Midnight Marauders. We all waited with baited breath until he unleashed what we all wanted to hear on “Melody Adonis.” There was a lot to unpack, and Phife brought the 18-wheel U-haul: “See when the label started frontin’, you were always there / When the management was frontin’, you were always there / There were times when I felt the group had want to replace me / Whether I’m right or wrong, you were there to embrace me… / That’s when I kindly picked you up, and moved to ATL / My attitude was like whatever, might as well go for self / Guess they felt I wasn’t worth it, didn’t think that Phifey had it / But now who’s moving units, motherfucking silly rabbits? / Peace to the few who had my back / For them fakers in clique, fuck you, that’s that!”
But what’s great about the album is that it’s not a diss-fest. Aside from the haymakers on “Melody Adonis,” and few subtle jabs here and there, Ventilation is largely an autobiography. Phife explores his religiously devout, West Indian upbringing on the introspective “Beats, Rhymes And Phife.” We get to swing a few episodes with his alter ego Muddy Ranks on the J Dilla produced “Ben Dova” (my favorite track). He gets to finally spread his elbows out at the table, and eat up the rawest of beats for himself on ferocious tracks like “D.R.U.G.S.,” “Flawless,” and “Alphabet Soup.” And as much as Ventilation is a musical autobiography, it’s also a love letter to hip hop, whether he’s outright expressing his devotion to the culture or defending it’s honor.
It wouldn’t be a J. Clyde piece if I didn’t talk about the production. Surely Phife knew the standard that Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed set throughout Tribe’s impeccable discography, and fans would expect nothing less on his solo debut. So he went out, on an indie budget, mind you, and put together a murderers row of hip hop’s late-’90s underground. Jay Dilla, also not on the best of terms with Q-Tip at the time, by the way, contributes two tracks. Pete Rock comes down from Mount Rushmore to man the boards for two records. Supa Dave West (of De La Soul fame), and west coast stalwarts Rick Rock (who would later produce classics for Jay-Z and many others) and Fredwreck (who would go on to produce countless gems for Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent, and others as a staff producer for Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label) fill out the album. But in my mind, this is Hi-Tek’s album. The Cincinnati beatsmith (who would also go on to produce a bevy of classics as a staff producer at Aftermath) that everyone knew from Black Star and Reflection Eternal used his four tracks to sprinkle just the right amount of funk and bounce to let Phife shine as brightly as possible. Hi-Tek is the heart and soul of this allbum. Each one of his tracks brings an undeniable energy that either makes you smile, or makes your face crunch up into what is the ugliest, funkiest possible opposite of a smile. He gave Phife exactly what he needed to… vent.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Amid the controversy, memes, and videos of kids singing it, what I find most interesting about Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is what it says about hip hop and country — especially their stylistic convergence. The argument over whether “Old Town Road” is country enough to top the genre’s charts clicks into a narrative that’s been part of the story of country music for eons — each generation claims that the following generation’s country isn’t “real” country. (Tyler Mahan Coe gives an excellent history of this on his Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast. I can’t remember which episode it was, but they’re all worth listening to.) But here’s the irony: This is another area in which hip hop and country bear a striking resemblance. The battle over what is and isn’t “real” hip hop is as old as the genre itself, and on Ventilation: Da LP, Phife Dawg flexes his well-earned status as a protector of the realm. Lines in the authenticity sand are drawn with near-constant frequency. Lesser wordsmiths are often deemed “fake.” In “Lemme Find Out,” Phife criticizes younger contemporaries by saying “All they know is chips, whips, dank, hoes and smoke / What we need is raw peoples who will practice they craft,” going so far as to call himself “the Cal Ripken of the industry.” And the chorus of “D.R.U.G.S.” reads like a mission statement, ending with “It’s for the betterment of hip hop,” giving this emphasis on authenticity an altruistic slant. It’s not braggadocio if you’re pointing listeners toward more fulfilling music. Longtime Off Your Radar readers might remember I zoomed in on a similar idea when we dug into De La Soul’s The Grind Date album — also chosen by Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford. The real takeaway? My colleague Mr. Ford knows what’s real, and all of us in the OYR orbit benefit.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
I confess that blinded by the sun of A Tribe Called Quest and being completely satisfied listening to their greatest hits on repeat, I had no idea Phife Dawg released a solo record. I know, I know — I can feel Michael Rapaport screaming scathing but witty profanity into my ear as I write this. I followed some of Q-Tip’s career, of course, thrust into the spotlight as he was. I was even aware that Ali Shaheed had gone on to multiple soul-flavoured projects which isn’t my particular bag. Having already been a fan of both the Beastie Boys and The Chemical Brothers who would later work with Q’Tip, he always seemed to be top of mind. I can say this with confidence, however: Had I known that Phife had released a record and I’d heard Ventilation: Da LP in 2000 when it came out, it would have almost certainly dropped into my heavy rotation list. Though it sees Phife brandishing a harder edge than the answer-back and trade-off verse style we heard him using with Tribe, it’s a solid hip hop record in which he’s clearly front and center, handling it with ease and trying to step up his game to demonstrate that he doesn’t just help Tribe carry rhymes, he can carry a whole record by himself. The lyricism is pretty standard stuff for the era, beginning with the over-the-top bravado and getting slightly more introspective and exploratory as the album continues. The production, featuring both Hi-tek and legendary Pete Rock, is on point. “Tha Club Hoppa” would actually fit right in with even some of the more experimental stuff Q-Tip was doing around the same time. Though I missed out on this record the first time around, I can’t say I am totally disappointed. Discovering it now is like finding a long lost hip hop artifact you never knew existed. 19 years since its release, it still sounds amazing bumping in my bass bins on a hot summer day. Phife didn’t deserve to be overlooked.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
This is not your standard hip-hop record. The second track makes that very clear. Before everybody was trying to throw rap verse over acoustic guitars and punk tracks, Phife Dawg had the concept on lock in 2000. I’m going to cop to the fact that the reason we often consider rappers like Phife Dawg and XXXTentacion innovative when they rap over rock tracks is partially racial. It’s much easier to point out that it’s unusual to see a black artist associated with rock, alternative, and folk genres, then call it innovative, than it is to do all of the research necessary to explain why a piece of hip-hop is ahead of its time within the context of hip-hop itself. I’m calling myself out on this one, but I know I’m not the only one who’s made this mistake. The beats on this record remind me of Soulquarian era, J Dilla drunk drumming style stuff. That approach to beat making and drumming is so ubiquitous by this point that it’s really hard to look at history and tell who rode the initial wave and who’s just now wading into the water as the initial inspiration fades into the distance. I’m sure that one of the members from A Tribe Called Quest would’ve known what was going down with that style from the very beginning. Regardless, this is a wholly enjoyable record, and just reminds me that, for as much as I enjoy hip-hop, I need to really dive into the history so that I can fully appreciate the sounds that I love so much.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
“I am hip-hop, I walk hip-hop, I talk hip-hop”
When I picked up Phife Dawg’s album Ventilation: Da LP this week, I was excited for the trip back in time. From a hip-hop album dropped in the year 2000, I knew I could expect some hallmarks for music from that era which I have always really enjoyed. As a former member of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg had a heavy reputation to follow, too, which only raised my expectations for what I was about to hear. I loved Q-Tip’s solo work, with his dancey, hip-pop type tracks pretty great background music for the last days of my high school career, and so coming into this album I had what feels almost unfair levels of expectation. Phife Dawg has a serious flow and rhythm, with tangled up lyrics that take the listener down a maze of industry criticisms that are as cutting as they are lyrically well done. There are also little musical quirks, little weird snippets of background sounds that popped up on albums from all genres during this time, and finding them on tracks buried like little Easter eggs made for a fun journey through the album. However, I was truly surprised to encounter as my favorite track on the album a sweet song written for Phife’s long-term love. The gruffness he always brought to ATCQ runs all over the album, and it’s still in this disarmingly honest and emotional song, but it just hits that much harder, adding to the sincerity he has for her as he sings about knowing her from years before and hoping to know and love her for years after. He sounds like a man in love and also like a man who would kick the ass of anyone who questioned his expression of it. I found myself listening to that track more than any of the others maybe because it encompasses all that fun nostalgia, references back to his former band, and cultural references from around that time combined with the sweet surprise of that heartfelt moment. This track, stacked up with some of the rougher moments of the album, gives it a more well-rounded feel, taking the whole from only a post-band industry rant to a track about emotions and honesty.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
“On a cheese mission, like Wisconsin — feel me, Pablo?” As soon as I heard that line, I knew what I was gonna talk about. I’ve lived in Wisconsin for 31 of my 33 years on this planet, and I can tell you that the whole “Wisconsinites are all about cheese” thing is some true shit. It may be a stereotype, but it’s an accurate one. You’ve got cheeseheads, you’ve got cheese curds, and you’ve got this Wisconsin native (wearing a cheesehead!) that named 27 different cheeses in 30 seconds at a Bucks game. While looking into this topic, I came across WisconsinCheese.com and found some fun facts that I didn’t know. Wisconsin has a master cheesemaker program. It’s one of only two in the world, and the only one in America. We as a people have been making cheese since before Wisconsin was a state. In 1988, we apparently made a 20-ton block of cheese and toured it around the country in a semi-truck. Wisconsin has won 5,500 awards from the World Championship Cheese Contest since 1995, more than any other state. And I guess if you really wanted to get into the culture, there’s a cheese tour that runs through most of the state. I don’t know if I like cheese as much as the culture would suggest, but I do appreciate something benign that brings people together. Unfortunately, I can’t ask Phife Dawg this, but I’d bet he didn’t know how close to reality he came with that lyric when he came up with it.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Gone too soon, Phife’s work still lives on thanks to his vibrant skill & sublime charm.
Call me a heretic, but I was never a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest. I own none of their records and when I saw them in 1998 opening for the Beastie Boys, it was a performance best described as “phoned in.” Talk about your ill communication. I wasn’t surprised when I heard they broke up shortly afterwards and was completely unaware that one of their two MC’s, Phife Dawg, cut an album of his own in 2000. Not totally his fault as he was competing with one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, by which I mean Stankonia by OutKast. Most hip hop suddenly sounded out of date after that bomb dropped and it became a serious obsession for me after seeing this on The Chris Rock Show. If I had heard Ventilation back then, I probably would have would have thought, this dude is just not keeping up! Listening now, however, I hear a proud exponent of basic hip hop, employing the sharp and spacious grooves and lighthearted lyrics that would keep a party going in any decade. Listening closely to some of the lyrics proves that that is exactly what Phife set out to do. Check this out from “D.R.U.G.S.:” “When folks say they want some raw hip hop, guess who they quick to call? / Diggy Dawg, cuz my shit be neanderthal / Some call it primitive, retaining to an earlier time / Can’t help but go back to them years like ’89 / When brothers gave a damn about the beats and rhymes.” While I’m not a nostalgist like him, I can’t really argue with the idea that beats and rhymes are the foundation of hip hop, and when you have a pro like Phife and producers like Hi Tek, J Dilla, Pete Rock, et al on the tracks, you can be reasonably assured the album will be tight — and in the case of Ventilation, you would be correct.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
It’s hot. Too hot to do much more than lay around on ice packs with fans pointed at me, but since I actually have shit to do, that hasn’t really been possible. I was super looking forward to listening to and writing about this week’s album (not just because I love Pfife Dawg from his work with A Tribe Called Quest, but also because I recently bumped Go Ahead In The Rain up on my reading list after one of my best friends raved about it so he’s been on my mind recently), but the heat has conspired against me. I did have Ventilation: Da LP on all week as I did the things I needed to do around the house, but the noise of all of the fans on high kept me from hearing much more than the backing tracks. I briefly tried headphones, but they made my ears sweaty and itchy, so gave up on that fairly quickly. All of this to say that I can confirm the beats make for excellent getting shit done music, but I have zero idea what he actually said, and the heat has addled my brain enough that I likely couldn’t process it, even if I could hear it… though, of course, as I type this while bumping up against my deadline, the clouds roll in and the rain begins. I guess I know what I’m listening to tomorrow.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
“I am hip-hop, I walk hip-hop, I talk hip-hop…” Among all the potent rhymes and heavy lines on Phife Dawg’s debut record, it’s this one that stuck with me the most. Filling the hook of his single “Flawless,” it brings up something I’ve wondered about rap for a long time: Can you be an elite MC without bragging? I mean, success across any medium requires some bit of confidence and swagger, right? And even if it’s not visible at all moments, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. The best guitar player in the world could happily spend his time just strumming as part of a four-piece, but I highly doubt he goes through a whole concert without at least a single moment of flashy, but pointless soloing. Even those full of self-doubt and anxiety can have moments of brilliance that inflate the ego as much as assert dominance. Just look at Kevin Durant. Everything the guy does off the court screams uneasiness and indecisiveness. But on court? He’s a bad motherfucker who’s not afraid to shoot the ball in your face and scream “game!” before it’s even left his fingertips. Elite MCs brag. They just do. But they do so in a way that’s undeniable and reaffirming, and Ventilation is certainly undeniable and wildly reaffirming. (Though I don’t know anyone who would pick up a Phife Dawg record and try to argue otherwise.) Ultimately though, what I think really wrapped my ear around that line is that it’s not a standalone lyric. It’s meant to pair with this conclusion: “…I need hip-hop, I lust hip-hop, I love hip-hop.” It grounds that confidence in adoration and loyalty, making it endlessly endearing just like every other piece of music Phife Dawg recorded over his rich, but ultimately short life. There are a million reasons why this record ultimately flew under the radar, but just know that this is a vital member of A Tribe Called Quest performing in the prime of his career, and using bar after bar to prove two things: He is hip-hop, and he loves hip-hop.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Aims by Vienna Teng
Chosen By Doug Nunnally