Beats, Rhymes & Phife: Mourning The Death of a Legend

“Whaddya know, the Diddawg is first up to bat/ no batteries included and no strings attached”

Sometime between 2:30 and 3am yesterday morning I was scrolling through my newsfeed and came across a reference to the death of Phife Dawg, founding member of the legendary group, A Tribe Called Quest. Through a fog of un-sleep and cynical skepticism, I proceeded to google to confirm what I was sure was a hoax and a not-at-all funny one at that. The first thing I saw was an updated wikipedia page that had a death date. Even if it was true, that was fast. A handful of articles later, the shockwave finally hit me. My head was swimming. How???

“When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”

The obvious conclusion many of us jumped to was that it had something to do with his diabetes. The above lyric was enough to make it well-known among Tribe fans that Phife had been living with the disease. Later it was confirmed in a statement put out by his family. He seemed to be managing it well in his day to day life, but only those of us who know someone with the disease (or unfortunately have it) can really see in depth of how easily it can go sideways. One of my closest cousins and my stepfather were both diagnosed with it within a few years of each other. Even then, I foolishly made the assumption that because this man was a rap star, his health was being tended to by the best of experts and he couldn’t possibly be in any danger. It wasn’t until I saw Michael Rapaport’s eye-opening documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life that I saw the extent of the toll it was taking on The Five Footer. Learning that he was having great difficulty performing and seeing that he actually had to get a kidney transplant from his wife (if that ain’t soulmates, then it doesn’t exist) made me realize that his condition could turn from stable to suddenly fragile in what seemed like the blink of an eye. That transplant proved to be unsuccessful, he was listed as needing another after about four years. There’s no other reference to it in his music but I can’t help but wonder what a whole song from Phife tackling the subject would have sounded like. Prodigy’s “You Can Never Feel My Pain” talking about his sickle-cell anemia, is my favorite of all his solo songs. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Phife would have made something at least as good, maybe better. Alas, now we’ll never know.

“Here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am/ tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram”

Phife’s introduction to the world at large and the culture of Hip Hop came by way of his verse on “Can I Kick it?” from A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm. As I was listening to it while shaving yesterday, I realized even though I had heard the song around the time it came out, it was one I couldn’t immediately place. When I thought of Tribe in the beginning, I thought of Q-Tip. “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” and “Bonita Applebaum” didn’t have Phife’s signature punchlines and blunt style, only The Abstract’s smooth flow. As a result it would be a long time before I associated “Can I Kick It?” with Phife as a rapper or Tribe as a brand. When I first heard it, I had no idea who he was. As a result, my personal introduction to Phife Dawg came when I heard “Check The Rhime” from their sophomore album, the seminal classic The Low-End Theory. Knowing how influential he’d become later I think is akin to hearing Nas on “Back To The Grill Again,” and thinking “This guy’s gonna change the game!” or seeing Jay Z in the video for “Hawaiian Sophie” and thinking “This guy’s gonna make a half a billion dollars!” Imagine seeing 2Pac in the video for Digital Underground’s “Same Song” and thinking “everyone is gonna be copying that guy one day!” or seeing Cuba Gooding Jr. in the barber’s chair in Coming To America and thinking “That guy’s gonna win an Oscar!” Inauspicious debuts are commonplace even for people who change everything. But “Check The Rhime” made the idea of seeing Phife as second banana to Q-Tip a ridiculous notion. This was The Five Foot Assassin. There was no way he wasn’t going to stand out and shine on his own. His features on the Fu-Schnickens’ “La Schmoove” and the “Buddy” remix as well as his standout first verse on “Scenario” can attest to that.

“Now if my partners don’t look good, then Quest won’t look good/ if the Quest don’t look good, then Queens won’t look good/ but since our sounds are universal, New York won’t look good”

Without Phife Dawg, there would be no Quest as we know it, and Quest as we know it changed rap as a music and Hip Hop as a culture, all for the better. Q-Tip was different. His jazzy background made it natural for him to pick the kind of samples he used, and his style evolved to naturally match it. Phife sounded nothing like him. His presence alone on any Tribe track made it less ethereal, more grounded in reality. His wit, clever yet direct, and his down to earth descriptions of any situation were HD for the imagination. Tip’s voice and a hazy beat could have you seeing everything in a dream sequence but Phife’s first line was enough to snap you into focus. Phife made it okay to be a regular, hood dude on the kind of beats that normally would be reserved for sophisticated lyricists who played their style into an air of superiority above their audience. Phife stood right next to you and pointed. The contrast made them work in a way that few pairings could hope to. Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” or Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” had the kind of beats that normally would have made more sense under the vocals of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane or maybe Lord Finesse, but we got classics from the aforementioned artists because their audiences were acclimated to the idea that those songs could work with those opposing factors. I think A Tribe Called Quest, and Phife in particular had a little something to do with that. Tribe blended sophistication and simplicty together effortlessly in a way that hasn’t yet and probably never will be recreated, even amongst their contemporaries in Native Tongues. Black Sheep, Da Bush Babees, The Fugees, The Roots, The Pharcyde, Common, Little Brother, Digable Planets, Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell have all cited A Tribe Called Quest as musical influences. Who knows how they would have turned out without them?

“A gritty little somethin’ on a New York street/ this is how I represent over this here beat”

As late as 2008 there was talk that A Tribe Called Quest may reunite and make the album that would complete their contract with Jive Records but now that can never be. Phife didn’t go on to enjoy or even really pursue the rich solo career that Q-Tip did. After dropping the LP, Ventilation in 2000 after Tribe’s last album The Love Movement, Phife would quitely go into semi-retirement, occasionally performing at Tribe reunion concerts. As late as 2013 he was reported to be working on a solo album, but in the passing years it had yet to materialize. There may yet be a posthumous release of what he was working on, but it’s all too new to speculate. For now we can only mourn his passing, remember his music, and marvel at his influence. This is one time I’m sure that ATCQ fans wish Tip could play the resurrector and give the dead some life.

Rest In Peace Malik Isaac Taylor B.K.A. Phife Dawg 11/10/1970- 3/23/2016

 

 

 

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JoJo Kalita

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