Phife Dawg, Remembering the Legacy of the Five-Foot-Three Brave MC
"Hip-hop will never die, yo, it's all about the rap," rhymes Phife Dawg on A Tribe Called Quest's cut "We Can Get Down." A piece of the genre feels missing today upon hearing the news of the rapper's death on Wednesday (March 23).
The passing of Phife Dawg, 45, has left the entire hip-hop community and its fans in a state of bewilderment, wondering how a legend so young could die so suddenly. Unfortunately, Phife's untimely death was due to complications resulting from diabetes. Fellow rappers, industry executives, athletes and entertainers alike are among the many paying their respects to the Five Foot Assassin and sharing their personal memories and his impact. A Tribe Called Quest supporters also offered their sentiments on social media to salute hip-hop's latest fallen soldier. But to fully appreciate the artist we lost today, you need to be aware of all that he contributed to the culture within the span of 10 years.
Whereas Q-Tip was the visionary of A Tribe Called Quest and its resident bohemian, Phife Dawg, born Malik Taylor, was the source of the group's swagger, infusing a distinct, street-wise vibe that was tangible in many of his appearances on wax. Announcing himself as "The Five Foot Assassin with the ruffneck business" on "Buggin' Out," off The Low End Theory, Phife was the combustible yin to Q-Tip's peaceful yang and had no problem putting a sucker in his place at the drop of a dime.
Tip's style is similar to a cold glass of water on a hot summer day, but Phife's is more akin to a swig from a 40 ounce on the boulevard. Both are refreshing, but one gets you amped up and ready to get loose, while the other is more relaxing. Q-Tip may have been considered the frontman to casual observers of the group's rise to power, but those who were privy to the totality of Tribe's essence as a group were well aware of the indelible and irreplaceable touch that Phife added to the group's albums.
Linking up with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad during their high school years, Phife and the group members scored a deal with Jive Records and released their first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, in 1990. The album was critically acclaimed and spawned three classic singles with "Bonita Applebum," "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" and "Can I Kick It," and although Phife appeared in the video for all three, he only rapped on the latter. He delivered a standout performance on "Can I Kick It," which earned him kudos among b-boys and fly girls.
But aside from his appearances on that song, "Ham N' Eggs" and "Mr. Muhammad," Phife Dawg's unbridled slick talk was sparse on People's Instinctive Travels and was considered a coming out party for Q-Tip. However, Phife's profile would be heightened in a big way on A Tribe Called Quest's follow-up, The Low End Theory, which landed in 1991 and revolutionized the way artists made music.
Listeners may have expected another healthy heaping of Q-Tip upon hearing The Low End Theory lead-off cut, "Excursions," but were in for a pleasant surprise when the album's second song, "Buggin' Out," came on. With only a few bass licks preceding his lyrical assault, Phife's brash rhymes were sweet music to listeners' ears, signaling what would be the grand arrival of Phife. Appearing on 10 of the 14 tracks included on the LP, Phife would be deemed hip-hop's most improved spitter and play an integral part in crafting what is regarded by many as one of the most important hip-hop albums of all-time.
It can also be argued that Phife's appeal was the missing ingredient from People's Instinctive Travels, which kept it from achieving the commercial success of The Low End Theory, which featured Phife heavily. Firmly established in his own right as an MC, Phife had the eye of the tiger heading into A Tribe Called Quest's third album, Midnight Marauders. The Low End Theory had been hailed as a perfect album my the most respected hip-hop publications and topping an album that is as highly regarded as The Low End Theory is would be an near-insurmountable task for artists of today, but Tribe defied that logic when the group gifted Midnight Marauders to the world.
Released on Nov. 9, 1993, Midnight Marauders was one of the most anticipated follow-ups to a classic album and A Tribe Called Quest did not disappoint. Running 14 tracks deep, the album offered all that Native Tongues' enthusiasts had loved about The Low End Theory, but with a refined and polished twist. The Low End Theory may have been more revolutionary as far as production and aesthetic, but Midnight Marauders was a tour de force from start to finish. If The Low End Theory was a coming out party for Phife, Midnight Marauders was a victory lap of epic proportions for the Funky Diabetic.
While the trio saved their secret weapon for the second song on The Low End Theory, he went off the chain on the Midnight Marauder opening shot, "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)." Phife forever immortalized Linden Boulevard in the annals of hip-hop lore and reminding all that Eric B. will always be President. Phife would run roughshod on all of the tracks he was featured on, but he again proved himself to be the ex-factor when it came to Tribe's more commercial-friendly fare, domineering the album's three singles "Award Tour," "Electric Relaxation" and "Oh My God," with some of the most cited rap verses ever laid on wax.
With three classic albums in the chamber, A Tribe Called Quest were riding high, but Phife wasn't as engaged with the dynamics of the group and would move to Atlanta and start a family, putting a strain on the group's creative process and brotherhood. By the time Beats, Rhymes and Life, the group's fourth album, arrived in 1996, there was trouble in paradise and the magic seemed to have been tainted. The inclusion of Q-Tip's cousin, Consequence, along with a tepid reception for the album, cast a dark shadow on what is otherwise an above-average album.
Phife's contributions on Beats, Rhymes and Life is similar to the group's previous two albums in terms of volume, but a notch below as far as explosive performances. Turmoil within the group would cause A Tribe Called Quest to call it quits after their 1998 release, The Love Movement, but closed the chapter on a high note, delivering an album that saw Phife rejuvenated and dropping some of the finest bars of his career. Shining on the breezy single, "Find A Way," as well as album cuts like "Busta's Lament" and "His Name Is Mutty Ranks," Phife would end his run with A Tribe Called Quest still in top shape as a rhymer. He then decided to try his hand at a solo career by releasing an album, Ventilation: Da LP, in 2000, which would be his last official release.
While Phife is often overlooked when it comes to debates about the best rappers of all-time, anyone would be remiss to say that he was nothing more than a sidekick or a footnote in the lyrical department as he is one of the wittiest poets the game had to offer. Some of the hottest opening lines and punchlines wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the Five Foot Assassin. Seaman's Furniture would never be associated with doing the nasty if it wasn't for Phife's unforgettable reference to the furniture company on "Electric Relaxation" and we wouldn't know he could kick more game than a crackhead from Hempstead on "God Lives Through."
As an MC, Phife Dawg was as diverse as they come and represented the everyman in urban America with a sense of self, but wasn't too caught up to be able to appreciate current events. One of Phife's most endearing qualities as an MC was his knack for nifty sports references, which he peppered throughout a number of his stanzas in his music career. From giving Bo Jackson the gas face during the peak of the jock's other-wordly exploits on "Scenario" to comparing sucker MC's rhymes to the erratic passing of Vinny Testaverde and mentioning missing the Knicks game due to a shorty, Phife was the originator of the random sports reference, which has lived on through the likes of Wale, Fabolous and Joe Budden, to name a few.
Pop culture references were also aplenty with Phife, with the wordy verbalist dropping names like Kato Kaelin in his verses while also subtly influencing product placement in hip-hop with his homage to brands like Duracell and Nyquil, among others. He become one of the first rappers to openly endorse a politician on a rap single by bigging up New York mayoral candidate David Dinkins, who would become the first African-American to hold office on "Can I Kick It." He also addressed colorism within the Black community on "Butter." Phife proved that he was worth more than a dope rhyme, but was also in tune with sociopolitical issues of note to his community.
The MC even gave nods to his Caribbean roots by his incessant mentions of his Trinidadian heritage, such as referring to himself as a "Trini Gladiator" on the Midnight Marauders' track "Oh My God" and bragging about being "treated like the Mighty Sparrow" when he's in Trinidad on "Stepping It Up" from The Love Movement. While older hip-hop denizens were around to catch Phife and A Tribe Called Quest via radio, cassette, TV or a live show during the peak of their historic run, many younger fans of the trio fell in love with their music during the the twilight of their career or after.
For anyone too young to appreciate People's Instinctive Travels, an introduction to the group could have been experienced while watching sitcoms. Shawn and Marlon Wayans of the iconic Wayans family tree had a TV show on the WB network called The Wayans Bros. in the late 1990s. The brothers decided to use the instrumental to A Tribe Called Quest's timeless single, "Electric Relaxation," as the theme song to their show. Another sitcom that threw a nod to A Tribe Called Quest was Brandy, who included the group in a 1996 episode of her TV show, Moesha, on the heels of Beats, Rhymes and Life. This planted the seed of A Tribe Called Quest into any viewers' consciousness.
Whether a staunch A Tribe Called Quest supporter or a fan in passing, Phife Dawg's sudden passing is a shock. The fact that the rapper was very open about coping with his diabetes is also an indication of what sets him apart from the pack. In the days when many rap heroes seemed invincible, he was willing to admit that he was mortal just like his fans. Phife effectively provided a glimpse of the man behind the music and inspired those with medical conditions of their own to be just as funky.
Phife Dawg's lyrical style can be heard in many artists leading the charge in rap today. Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and a number of other MC's moving rap to its next renaissance are essentially carrying the rap torch he lit back in the 1990s. As one of the greatest to ever hold a mic, his impact on the game will be forever felt. The memorable lines he and Q-Tip exchanged on "Check the Rhime" ("You on point, Phife/All the time, Tip") have been recited by rap fans far and wide for years, but it's lyrics like "I'm just a fly MC who's five-foot-three and very brave" that serve as a reminder of the inner battle he was facing up until his untimely death.
RIP Phife Dawg.
See How Hip-Hop Reacts to Phife Dawg's Death