I have to start by saying that this is very, very hard for me to write. Only a few hours ago, it was reported by DJ Chuck Chillout that the one and only Phife Dawg, one third (or one fourth, depending on your grasp of Hip-Hop history) of the seminal group A Tribe Called Quest, passed away.
Many of us in the Hip Hop community knew good and well that Phife was battling many health issues over the course of his last few years, specifically with diabetes. And now that he is unfortunately gone from us in the physical, there will be a ton of social media salutes to him and a slew of radio shows across the country and Internet radio playing Tribe and Phife-featured songs throughout the day and the week.
For many of us not part of the first generation of Hip-Hop heads but did come up in what some would consider the third or fourth wave of Hip-Hop music and culture in the late 80s and early 90s, Phife Dawg is a figure that can never be replaced, matched, discounted or forgotten.
My personal introduction to Phife came with the “Bonita Applebum” video. This was the time in my life when in elementary school the music video was king. After school, my sister and I would go over to her best friend's house and watch music videos damn near all day long until our parents picked us up. We watched all kinds of stuff back in those days. And when those four weird yet charismatic, Afrocentricly-dressed guys came on the screen, with Q-Tip rhyming about his unquenched lust for the girl of his dreams, Phife, Ali Shaheed and Jarobi were right there with him in the background. And for many of us who were used to the macho leanings of N.W.A. and Public Enemy, it was a game changer.
But Phife’s real introduction came on the next album, The Low End Theory. This was his moment. This was his time. This was where he stopped being Q-Tip’s little homie in the background and established himself as a true lyrical force to be reckoned with on songs like “Scenario”, “Jazz (We Got It)” and “Buggin’ Out”.
With no Phife, there is no Tribe. And he made that perfectly clear on The Low End Theory by creating the persona of the dude from up the block that might be a little short, but packs a slick mouth and a grimy attitude…and you didn’t want to get on his bad side. Ever. Because you didn’t know if Phife would get scrappy with his fists, or just pummel you with his wordplay.
And that role continued throughout Tribe’s career and discography. Would classics like “Award Tour”, “Electric Relaxation”, “Sucka Nigga”, “Stressed Out”, “1nce Again”, “Phony Rappers” and more be even a distinct possibility without the genius, the delivery and the braggadocio of Phife? Never. Would we even have People’s Instinctive Travels…, The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders, Beats Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement without the contributions of Phife? Not likely.
He was much more than a sideman. He was a lyrical giant in his own right that helped to mold and form many of us into the Hip-Hop nerds that we are today. Many of us would sit and analyze his lyrics, trying to decipher their meaning. That’s if we weren’t just cooling out to them, riding to them or just nodding our heads to them.
And Phife can and should never be pigeonholed into only being part of A Tribe Called Quest. He had his own solo career, starting with Ventilation: Da LP from 2000. And sure, maybe that solo career didn’t quite turn out the way that it should have, for whatever reason. But you still have to give Phife his respect as one of the greatest lyricists to walk the face of the earth. He gave us new energy and life through his music. He gave us things to think about and ponder at a young age. He helped us have fun. He helped us to think and build our vocabulary. He made it cool to be a kid who was also the complexion of a hockey puck.
In the end, it is important to note that the passing away of Malik Isaac “Phife Dawg” Taylor, Phife Diggy, The Five Foot Assassin, makes us reflect on many different things. Or at least it should.
Most notably, the many health concerns that continue to plague the Hip-Hop community, and communities of color. It cannot be ignored that Phife struggled with Type 2 diabetes and needed a kidney transplant. And even when we speak about his music, we must also remember that he was more than just an emcee, a performer, a rapper or an entertainer. He was a person that had struggles, as we all do. And we must concern ourselves with caring for and healing ourselves of these ailments and issues.
But for now, let us do our best to remember what Phife did for us as Hip Hop fans. And what he did, what he accomplished, what he was part of and a founding member of…was something truly special that can never be replaced. We love you, Phife. And we’ll always remember what you did for us.