Last fall, a Hip Hop open-mic called Listen 2 This broke the barrier of silence in the Main Library. Bass disrupted the usual calm and, without hesitating, Vibe and Phiyah got busy and swapped spit in front of everybody by trading crowd-motivating rhymes. The two moved with a fluidity that almost made them one performer. They rocked, strutted, bounced and waved hands in the air with the synchronicity of two Swiss watches set to London time. By the middle of their song, the gathering of guests in the library conference room knew the hook and chanted loudly as if protesting: "Get ... that ... dough!" Afterward, two boys who looked no older than 7 acted as PR people and passed out promo CDs.
Long before they met, Vibe One performed with X Nation, a mid-'90s predecessor to the award-winning, socially-conscious collective now known as Watusi Tribe. Phiyah was then known as Ms. Aditude. She was renamed when she impressed a Watusi member with a freestyle she spit under the pressure of having to "show and prove," and as a result she became the group's only female rapper. Phiyah would accept their acknowledgement by stepping up her lyricism.
" 'Phiyah' brought out an accomplished side of myself, because (she) was making a statement," she says, sitting across from her husband. "Being Phiyah, it gave me some self-assurance, like, 'OK, you can do this; blaze the mic, speak the truth.' I was rapping before, but just rapping, not really visualizing the power behind what I really could do."
She's since learned to keep stepping up, even at the risk of being burnt.
When she competed in Showtime at the Apollo's amateur night competition (which aired early last year), the unrelenting audience "womped" her before she got into the song. And getting womped at Apollo Theatre is like being stoned by angry villagers.
"It was immediately," she says in astonishment. "They didn't really give me a chance, but I've fought battles enough in my life where I wasn't given a chance. I learned something, to definitely come stronger and harder in whatever I represent."
She says she wrote her favorite verse after the name-change and Apollo experience: "Life is a battle/Don't get rattled or get mixed up/We were destined to clique up/Watusi, put your fist up/Umar, Last Poets fakers know it's official/Food for your mental/We floss like a rental/Positive credentials/Atumiy is a temple/No accidents/If we did it we meant to."
Vibe, born a week apart from his wife, is her biggest fan. "We clash, we battle," Vibe says. "I'm stubborn, so that causes issues sometimes. But we love each other to death. When we met each other, we knew it was it."
Vibe is one of the hardest working men in Cincinnati. He switches hats between MC and producer for Watusi and heads Atumiy/Eternal Sword, a familial extension of the ever-growing bloodline of the "Tribe." More notably, he's a diplomat.
"I'm the head of the label, but I'm the type of person, I can get onstage with her and not overcrowd her," Vibe says. "I'll only say a few things. I know how to accent other people. The producer has to know how to work with the artist and still get whatever they need to get out of that artist. It's always good to let that artist do what they do."
One day, Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets (featured on Common's 2005 hit, "The Corner") visited Vibe's studio where Watusi recorded a track on the spot with the Akron native (thus Phiyah's reference to him in the earlier quoted verse).
"Working with him was just great," Vibe remembers. "It's like working with your uncle or something, that uncle that'll have you cracking up all the time."
Recently, he and Phiyah did a duet album called Eternal Flame. In addition to recording his and Phiyah's solo projects, Vibe often makes the executive decision to promote himself last to keep the Watusi name visible. Two albums of his, Sign of the Virgo and Beats and Lyrics, waited while Watusi Tribe's, F.I.S.T.: First Installment of Soulful Tones, and the 2006 CDs from Phiyah and 7MoBeatz had a chance to sell through CD Baby and in stores.
All things considered, his diplomacy is really well calculated.
"That's what distributors look at, how much you're really doing," Vibe explains. "And you might be able to get some type of budget for producing."
Before continuing, he flashes a glance at Phiyah, then adds, "And then I can quit working!" Phiyah giggles, but is nodding in agreement. In addition to them being artists with full-time jobs, they raise six children.
"If we didn't have to work, you know, just do our music and take care of our children instead of going to work, come home, take care of the children, then work on music when you got the spare time, I would do so much more music," he says.
Last month, the couple celebrated their two-year anniversary, finished Phiyah's forthcoming CD, The Heat, and conceived material for a new group she calls a "street version of the Fugees" called The Quad, which includes herself, Vibe and his brother, Yung Eloh.
As one of the few female rappers in Cincinnati, Phiyah gives women's empowerment a shout-out in a new song she entitled, "Do It Good," and speaks directly to teenage girls on "Don't Give Up."
"I've felt violated in my life, so I don't want to be portrayed as somebody shaking her ass," she says. "The whole music scene has made a flip and I just want to be somebody who steps up. 'Ms Aditude' was like heat for the street, but 'Phiyah' is community-oriented. I probably was dumbing-down (before). I always was saying something, but I knew there was more I could say. There's more we all can say and do."
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