Illustration by RXCH
The 21st Century feels like the twilight of the rap group; the incentive for rappers to form these kinds of partnerships dwindles as the returns from recording and touring do. Maybe it’s easier to go it alone. Maybe no one wants to cede the spotlight. It shows in the collaborations. So many feel calculated… assembled… rappers elevating themselves but rarely each other. Helping others shine on the mic is a dying art. The loss of Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest this week drives this home especially poignantly. Phife was a great rapper on his own, but more than that, he was one of the form’s greatest team players. In a game brimming with guys angling to be point guard, Phife coolly played forward, posting up killer verses and earworm choruses when needed, bounce passing lines back at Q-Tip for the greater good of the song.
Phife flipped the larger-than-life bravado of rap stardom in on itself, both in the way he didn’t seem to crave the spotlight and in his routine ranking on his own skin and height. Phife peppered Tribe’s righteous rhymes and boasts with a mile-wide streak of self-ridicule. (“The height of Mugsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck.”) In Midnight Marauders’ good-day-gone-horribly-wrong narrative “8 Million Stories” he gets robbed on the street but snarks that he didn’t even have two dollars in his pocket for them. He announces a crush on Dawn Robinson from En Vogue in “Oh My God,” then notes humbly that she probably doesn’t care. Phife’s sillier impulses complemented Q-Tip’s headier style perfectly, not quite punctuating Tip’s thought provoking yarns with comic relief so much as grounding them in everyday struggles. Q-Tip enriched us, but Phife was one of us.
Q-Tip would go down as the enduring star of A Tribe Called Quest as his solo and production work kept him afloat (while his partner-in-rhyme released excellent but frustratingly unheralded music on his own), but Phife never met a verse he didn’t try to pulverize. His storytelling gripped with methodical pacing. (“Went to Carvel to get a milkshake / This honey ripped me off for all my loot cakes,” “1988, senior year at Garvey High / Where all the guys were corny but the girls were mad fly.”) His punchlines were unshowy but brutally funny. (“The madman Malik makes MCs run for Milk of Magnesia / Maybe that’ll ease ya,” “I float like gravity, never had a cavity / Got more rhymes than the Winans got family.”) Saddled with the unenviable opening slot on “Scenario,” the legendary Low End Theory posse cut that rises to a world-beating Busta Rhymes guest appearance, Phife carries the energy from zero to a hundred off top with a baseball joke (“Bo knows this, Bo knows that / But Bo don’t know jack cause Bo can’t rap”) and never lets up. He was great at turning sticky situations into gold.
This went for health as well. Phife was diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager and took to calling himself “the funky diabetic,” owning his condition as proudly as he did his Trinidadian roots and Queens upbringing. “I found out I was diabetic the month after the first album came out,” Phife said in a heartbreaking 2010 Okayplayer interview, “so I thought my career was gonna be derailed from then, but I stayed with it. I stayed touring.” It’s hard to eat well while criss crossing the country, though, and diabetes is only managed through steadfast dietary restrictions. Phife’s time on the road with Tribe endeared him to the masses at the cost of much of his well-being. By the mid-2000s he would fall into a strenuous dialysis regimen and a series of transplants of failing kidneys.
Phife Dawg is gone now, but his work is seeded in the very bedrock of hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest’s influence has trickled down through the ages, and you can see shades of Phife’s sharp wit and self-effacing sense of humor in avowed fans like Mac Miller and Kanye West, the latter of whom would strike up a working relationship with auxiliary Tribe member Consequence early in his rap career and reform the group to open two shows on the Yeezus tour that would prove to be their last. Phife was dedicated to the song and the craft, to the good of the group as much as himself. The mold is broken. We won’t see its like again. But let’s take time at last out to give one of rap’s most selfless support players his due, and push the man and his work out into the spotlight he deserved all along.
Craig never thought the day would come that he would sob through "Scenario," but here we are. Follow him on Twitter.