I never imagined that my first time seeing A Tribe Called Quest would be in celebration of the life of a lost member. Even as a bona fide fan, hailing from Queens, I didn't even realize how much I actually loved these guys until I learned of Phife Dawg’s passing.
On the morning of March 23, I learned of his death and initially I didn't have a reaction. How could it be true? It's the Five Foot Assassin!
But moments later when it did sink in, tears rolled down my cheeks. I have no shame in admitting it. That’s when it also occurred to me that it was the first time I felt this way when hearing of a rapper’s passing. We, in the Hip Hop community, lost a great MC, and if testimonials from his close friends and family mean anything, it's that Phife we also lost a great man.
Learning and understanding the Tribe, you’ll know that Phife's role in the group was more than just being an emcee. He couldn't be replaced by any dusty old rapper from New York. When it came time to rock the mic, you could count on Phife to give you all that he had. Whether he was brushing off his enemies or wack rappers, rejecting chicks, or just simply kickin' rhymes, he always had something to say. He was a man rhyming among his brothers. Emphasis on brothers. The unity between the four was greatly reflected in the music that they produced and the videos they shot. Having brothers, myself, I can say that you are at your personal strongest when you and your siblings are all on point. And despite all the bickering within the Tribe, this loss may affect them the most. I just can’t fathom that feeling.
In no way am I trying to take away from Phife’s wife Deisha or his children.
Sitting on a shelf of mine, is a copy of A Tribe Called Quest's seminal album, The Low End Theory. The copy actually belongs to my mother and recognizing what a fan I’ve come to be, she gave it to me. If there is anything I know about that woman, it’s how much she loves Low End. Anyway, it sits on my shelf with records from Jay Z, Nas, Sean Price, and Dr. Dre and with any emotion, what you like can sometimes vary. There have been moments in my life where The Low End Theory completely outshines any project or body of work based on how many gems we were given. From top to bottom we got a classic. “Excursions”. “Buggin’ Out.” “Scenario”. “Butter”. “The Infamous Date Rape”. Literally a handful, and then some.
What makes the Tribe all the more special is that they come from my borough. In the same way they admired LL Cool J is the same I admire them. I know what it feels like to walk around the St. Albans section, walking on Linden Boulevard, or even drive through Hollis and viewing the mural of Jam Master Jay. As I’ve gotten older, I can say I live and breathe Queens. The Bronx created Hip Hop, that’s a fact. Brooklyn gave us Biggie and Hov. Staten Island gave us The Wu. Harlem gave us the bunch we know as Dipset. Much love to those other towns But Queens spawned some guys who undeniably mastered the craft, from Nasty Nas to Pharoahe Monch... certified legends. It’s a legacy I take pride in and feel committed to maintaining.
Phife Dawg and A Tribe Called Quest definitely fit the bill.
At the Apollo, a table was set up for guests and the sign read "Tell the family your favorite Phife lyric", and in hindsight I regret not doing so. I’m not the type to choose a favorite. It’s a difficult decision, but on that note I offer the Five Footer's lines from one of my favorite Tribe cuts, "Check the Rhime":
"I'm like an energizer ‘cause, you see, I last long/My crew is never ever wack because we stand strong/Now if you say my style is wack that's where you're dead wrong/I slayed that buddy in El Segundo then Push it Along."
Rhyme in Paradise Phife!