‘He Embodies the Very Best of Us’ (Essay)
The Native Tongues crew is the reason why I rap today. Hip-hop was woven into the fabric of New York City when I was growing up and I was drawn to the magnetic beauty of graffiti and breakdancing, but the Native Tongues connected with me in a unique way. The music they made was for the mind, body and soul. The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were the cool kids at the high school lunch table of my life. They are who I wanted to hang out with when I grew up.
It was De La Soul that got me into the Native Tongues. I went back and discovered the Jungle Brothers after. But it was A Tribe Called Quest that made the world want to be down with the clique. Q-Tip had inspired me since I first heard him on Jungle Brother’s “Black Is Black,” and when “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” dropped, I thought he was ATCQ’s only MC. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm… followed “El Segundo,” and Phife made his professional rhyming debut on songs like “Can I Kick It” and “Ham ‘N’ Eggs.”
When Phife asked David Dinkins to be the mayor on “Can I Kick It,” I felt him. We had never imagined a black man could be mayor of New York, and I loved the way that Phife found a way to be political through his music. He didn’t make a statement; he asked a question. “Ham ‘N’ Eggs” was my least favorite song from ATCQ’s debut album, but when Phife came in like “drop the beat,” I felt like I knew him personally. Out of all the members of ATCQ, Phife dressed the most “normal.” Ali Shaheed, Jarobi and Tip looked like they may have been competing for who could take the most Afrocentric fashion chances, but Phife looked like a dude I went to high school with; he was way more understated. It seemed to me back then that he was the anchor of ATCQ, ready to reel the homies in when they went too far into outer space.
Rap groups sometimes have their heads in the clouds on their first album, and after experiencing how shady the record business can be, they come back down to earth a bit on their sophomore efforts. Listen to the differences in the beats and subject matter of the Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde and Labcabincalifornia, or Souls of Mischief’s 93 ‘Til Infinity versus No Man’s Land. De La Soul went as far as to declareDe La Soul Is Dead with their second album. After the lofty aspirations of People’s Instinctive Travels, ATCQ used the bass to ground them. The Low End Theory was a celebration of the funk, soul and jazz bass samples that drove contemporary hip-hop, complete with a Ron Carter feature on “Verses From the Abstract.”
Whereas People’s Instinctive Travels seemed to be more about Tip’s vision, Low End Theory brought balance to the group. Rhyming far more often, Phife came into his own on Low End Theory. The song “Butter” was a master class in story rap, and Tip and Phife rhyming back and forth on “Check the Rhime” like their Queens-bred heroes Run-D.M.C. was the stuff of legend. Phife even influenced the look of the group. Gone were the Afrocentric beads and daishikis; now ATCQ wore crisp athletic gear, Polo and Tommy Hilfiger, looking more like Phife and less like hip-hop hippies. Where Tip was abstract, Phife was more relatable. This balance set the group up to record one of the greatest pieces of music of all time: Midnight Marauders.
Midnight Marauders may be the album responsible for getting more people into hip-hop than any album before and after it. It’s a flawless piece of work, and the reputation that Phife began to build on Low End Theory was expanded on greatly while recordingMidnight Marauders. On the solo cut “8 Million Stories,” Phife painted an eloquent picture of himself as the homie from around the way. With lyrics like “everybody knows I go to Georgia often” and “to top it off, Starks got ejected,” Phife let us into his life in a very personal way. Very early, Phife let us know that he was getting sick of NY and that sports was beginning to interest him more than hip-hop. When I first heard Phife rap “when’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” on “Oh My God,” I winced. It was so brutally and beautifully honest of a lyric, it made my body react.
Phife was the king of rapping about R&B singers. He used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue, he had more condoms than TLC, he told you to call Mr. Babyface so he can bring out the cool in you and the all true man, like Alexander O’Neal. He had the best metaphors for “finishing,” like when he said “bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s furniture.” But my favorite Phife verse is from a song on Midnight Marauderscalled “God Lives Through,” where he connects his success and his group’s success to the ultimate success of New York hip-hop. He shouts out the Queens rappers who were large at the time, showing that at the end of the day, he was all about the hip-hop community.
On a more personal level, I got to know Phife’s mom, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, while I was working at Nkiru Books in Brooklyn as a teen. Cheryl is an internationally known poet from Trinidad who raised Phife in Queens and used to come to poetry readings I would throw at the store. She talked about her son Malik with such pride; she was elated that hip-hop fans like myself revered him so much. I automatically thought of Cheryl when I heard of Phife’s passing, and she is in my prayers. I cannot imagine having to go through this as a parent, but I know she is strong and will remain so.
And even though Jarobi left ATCQ for a bit, his relationship with Phife only grew. They were tremendous friends and I know Jarobi is feeling this hard, so my prayers are going out to him and his family as well. Tip and Ali have to be experiencing an immense feeling of loss right now, my prayers are with them. I love those brothers. Phife’s wife, who gave him a kidney some years ago, must also be going through a lot; she is in my prayers as well.
The most exciting thing about Phife was watching him grow as an artist in front of us. He went from Tip’s homie to Phife Dawg to the Funky Diabetic to the Five Foot Assassin. He utilized his Trinidadian roots to add a Caribbean favor to his verses and commanded the respect of a giant even though he was smaller than most. When ATCQ broke up, Phife never stopped, recording great music with producers like Hi-Tek and J Dilla, and starting a business with DJ Rasta Root in Atlanta. He reinvented himself as a sports analysts and regularly appeared on sports programs.
Phife Dawg was authenticity in the flesh. Loyal to a fault and fiercely protective of this culture we call hip-hop, Phife embodies the very best of us. The Trini gladiator, the anti-hesitator — Phife will forever be a part of the reason for the music I love and make a living from. And for that, I owe him the world.