Photos by Derek Scancarelli, except where noted
As hip-hop continues to mourn the loss of Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, it has come into sharper view just how much the rapper, and his group, meant to the culture, not just as an arbiter of good taste and music but as a role model for generations of new artists. Tribe announced a memorial service in a park in Phife’s home neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens over the weekend that was to happen Monday morning, promising a special surprise for the first 200 fans who made it out. On short notice, dozens of fans showed up in the cold rain to pay their respects alongside hip-hop pioneers like Video Music Box’s Ralph McDaniels, Black Sheep’s Dres, and Tribe’s Jarobi White. Fans were handed commemorative Phife Dawg shirts and tickets to a clandestine Tuesday afternoon event at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Yesterday, the same fans would line up again for another Phife tribute, the nature of which would not reveal itself until the evening rolled along. Early speculation was that it would be a concert, but upon entry into the storied Manhattan venue, attendees received a program arranged quite like a funeral. But whispers that the event would be streamed to the public via Bad Boy Records impresario Puff Daddy’s music television Revolt hinted at more. The event took off in earnest, hosted by Tribe associate Quest Green, a charismatic presence perched squarely between a preacher and a b-boy. For a time the night did play out like a proper funeral, but as the program began to unfold, fans, who were seated upstairs in the Apollo’s steep balcony, and therefore, largely unable to tell exactly who was present on the ground floor, began to grasp the magnitude of the event.
Early on, singer Kelly Price treated the Apollo crowd to a moving rendition of the inspirational gospel tune “Because He Lives,” and the Roots backed R&B vet Angela Winbush on her 1987 smash “Angel,” which Winbush peppered with dedications to Phife and the testimony of her miraculous rebound from stage 3 ovarian cancer. Roots rapper Black Thought joined his band to tribute Phife in a verse peppered with quotes and references to the fallen MC. Public Enemy’s Chuck D paid tribute, as did longtime Tribe affiliate Busta Rhymes, who tearfully traced how instrumental Tribe was to his career and tiny ways each of the group’s members served as the older brothers he never had.
D'Angelo backed by the Roots
Through a pall of tears, Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest director Michael Rapaport recounted the joy of meeting his rap hero and presented a memorial video collage he’d created for Phife collecting classic displays of the rapper’s outsized persona through the years. There was a sports tribute from several NBA players and a loving story from SportsCenter co-anchor Scott Van Pelt, introduced by rap radio fixture and recent ESPN hire Peter Rosenberg (who likened A Tribe Called Quest to Led Zeppelin), detailing Phife’s excitement to finally sit in a sports analyst’s chair, as a well known rapper with an underrated and reportedly encyclopedic knowledge of basketball and baseball.
The emotional evening would soon turn extravagant as Quest Green quietly introduced a sharp-dressed D’angelo, who joined the Roots for a funky cover of the James Taylor standard “You’ve Got a Friend.” Immediately after D’angelo left the stage, Green motioned for Kanye West, and West, dressed in all black, stressed the importance of Tribe’s music and the impact of their 1991 classic Low End Theory on his own work. (“Anything I ever did wrong, blame Tip and Phife, ‘cause y'all raised me.”) He took public issue with Rosenberg’s comparison of Tribe to Led Zeppelin, snapping “I don’t wanna hear about Led Zeppelin at Phife’s funeral” and admitting he’d never heard a Zeppelin album all the way through. West demanded respect for hip-hop’s innovators, stressed by the commodification of black culture at the expense of the livelihood of its heroes and pioneers.
Kanye West, photo by Joseph Swide
As Kanye’s tearful, impassioned speech ended, Outkast’s Andre 3000 came up and spoke about his group being styled after A Tribe Called Quest early on, himself and Big Boi being marketed as “the poet and the player,” after the thinking man / everyman interplay of Q-Tip and Phife. He acknowledged the generations of talent in the audience and stressed the importance of passing inspiration on and not shutting out the new generation of rappers, shouting out Young Thug in a room full of innovators like DJ Kool Herc. (3000 also let slip what would be the night’s juiciest tidbit: that he and Big Boi were in talks not long about about making a collaborative Outkast/Tribe album that never came to pass.)
The night was rounded out by appearances from a boisterous KRS-One and Kid Capri (whose rendition of the Boogie Down Productions classic “I’m Still #1” shook the literal foundation of the Apollo balcony), Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and others, before the floor was finally ceded to the remaining members of A Tribe Called Quest. You could tell they were still in shock, rattling off small remembrances and speaking directly to Phife’s family, offering and asking for support in a tough time. The night closed with remarks from a pastor and the video for Phife’s J. Dilla collaboration “Nutshell,” which sadly hinted at the music he was ready to make but never would. Then, bleary eyed and exhausted, the crowd was turned back out into the night.
A Tribe Called Quest's Jarobi waving to fans at Tuesday's service in Queens
KRS-One, backed by Grandmaster Flash, Teddy Ted, Special K, and Kid Capri
Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi of A Tribe Called Quest