Rest In Power, Phife
The Five Foot Assassin. The Funky Diabetic. The Five Foot Freak. Dynomutt. Any hip-hop fan worth their salt will know who all these illustrious titles belong to. It’s surreal day in hip-hop history as fans around the world try and wrap their head around the loss of one of hip-hop’s seminal pioneers, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest.
A Tribe Called Quest has been a constant in my life for close to 11 years. As music lovers we all remember the first artist or group that truly affirmed our love for music and the power it has to tangibly impact our lives, and A Tribe Called Quest was that group for me. Music is the lifeblood of my family. For as long as I can remember music of all genres, eras and styles coursed through my house and set the foundation for my early formative years. From Erykah Badu to Steely Dan my parents provided me with a soundtrack to life that without question lead to my love\borderline obsession with music.
As a kid, whenever my dad and I would hangout he would always play and teach me about the artists that he admired when he was my age. My dad is one of the most knowledgeable music listeners I’ve ever known in my life and through Osmosis he gave me a taste and ear for music that would be impossible for me to have without his guidance and influence. Music was a given in my household so I didn’t think twice about the gift my father was giving me by immersing me in music and its culture the way he did.
From 5–9 years old I listened to everything my parents listened to and didn’t really think much about what I thought of it or how it affected me. Like any kid that age you trust anything and everything your parents tell you at that age because in your mind there is no way they could ever steer you in the wrong direction. I saw how good the music they exposed me to made them feel and subconsciously I knew that it had to be an essential part of life that all people must feel connection to.
My relationship to music transformed when I turned 10 and for the first time developed my own taste and opinions around music. I got into Jazz and started listening to greats like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Branford and Wynton Marsalis. Using these artists as a jumping off point I constantly bugged my dad to show me more Jazz and further grow my appreciation.
“Poetry” by Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Erykah Badu and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest was the first song that I cared to remember and constantly ask my dad to play for me over and over. I was enamored with everything about that song, the horns, Erykah’s singing and most of all Q-Tip’s rapping throughout the track.
I was mesmerized with Q-Tip’s verse in particular. The first time I heard that verse on “Poetry” I distinctly remember being blown away by his lyrical prowess combined with his signature calm and collected style. My dad noticed how much I latched on to that song and suggested I check out A Tribe Called Quest. He told me that he would buy me some of their albums for me to listen to. When I learned Q-Tip had his own group I was floored and could not wait to hear what ATCQ would sound like. The stories my dad told me about there popularity back when he was a kid caused my mind to wander and wonder just how amazing these guys had to be.
I got my first real taste of Tribe when my dad finally, after about of week of telling how amazing they were, bought me their greatest hits album The Anthology on Itunes. I immediately grabbed a blank CD, burned the album onto it and ran to my room to play it on my boombox.
The knock of a sturdy bass drum sit under the Q-Tip’s lax voice as he begins to rap “Relax yourself girl please set-tle down\ Relax yourself girl please set-tle down.” The cool, distant bass and guitar riff from Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” floods the room as “Electric Relaxation” played for the very first time. From that moment on I knew I would be a Tribe and hip-hop fan for life. Hearing “Electric Relaxation” for the first time made me realize why music was such key part of my parents lives. For the first time ever I was truly astounded and moved by music.
As the song played I experienced an indescribable joy wash over me. I heard Q-Tip’s familiar and welcoming voice and my face lit up as my love for hip-hop was born. Just as I settled into Tip’s verse the mic was passed off to the scrappy sounding, slick talking and effortlessly braggadocios Phife Dawg.
Over the near flawless beat Phife raps “I like ’em brown yellow Puerto Rican or Haitian\Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation\Told you in the Jam that we can get down\So let’s knock the boots like the group H-town\You got BBD all on your bedroom wall\ But i’m above the rim and this is how I ball\A gritty little something on the New York street\ This is how I represent over this here beat.”
When Phife came on I was instantly a fan of his roughneck approach and style that perfectly complimented Q-Tip’s smoother, cooler delivery. His skill and presence as a performer was undeniable and he quickly became my favorite member of Tribe.
As I write this and reflect on the pivotal role A Tribe Called Quest had in kickstarting my affinity for hip-hop, it’s hard to believe Phife Dawg, my favorite MC from my favorite group of all-time is really gone.
When I first read the news, my first thought and hope was that it was a death hoax common for celebrities out of limelight for a long time. Unfortunately, as I started seeing more stories confirming his death my fears were realized and I was speechless.
A Tribe Called Quest is a profound and dear part of my adolescence. Tribe at that time meant everything to me as a teenager navigating high school and the trials of growing up. For me, Tribe is more than just another hip-hop group, they are the cornerstone my young life and some of my greatest memories of it. Through a love of their music Phife, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed helped to create an incredible bond between me, my friends and my family.
As news of his passing spread reverence and support of Phife and his family came from everywhere imaginable. If I’m being honest I was pretty surprised by how many other people really love the music he created with Tribe. Of course I knew he was impactful and he sure meant a lot to me, but I truly had no clue how respected and adored he was by people in every walk of life.
It was incredible to hear the tributes both in song and written form to a guy who had an indelible influence over my life, musical tastes and experience as a young black man.
Though A Tribe Called Quest hasn’t released new music in 18 years, Phife’s death feels like a permanent closure to their story and the end of an era for golden age hip-hop. They’d been broken up for years but knowing there was always possibility of them reuniting to perform the songs that so many identify with, was an exciting and comforting prospect.
Calling Phife Dawg a visionary is an understatement. There are simply no words to properly encapsulate the impact he had on american music culture. While he made his name in hip-hop, Phife’s talent and appeal transcended the genre and reached people from all facets of life. He and Tribe showed me the true power music can have in connecting people around the common goal of engaging in positive creativity.
I am eternally grateful that you and A Tribe Called Quest were the foundation to my love for hip-hop. I’ll always love hip-hop because of your unforgettable rhymes. Rest In Power, Phife.