Photo: Gonzales Photo/Michael Hornbogen // The Hell Gate
  /  04.05.2016

As the North Carolina Tar Heels and Villanova Wildcats go at it tonight (April 4) in what’s set to be a monster battle for the 2016 NCAA Tournament national championship, the spirit of Malik Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, will billow and loom through the rafters and front row seats of the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.

The iconic Queens rapper died last month at 45-years-old from diabetes complications.

The kind of scenario this NCAA game brings to the life and memory of the founding member of A Tribe Called Quest is a testament to his rich, enduring legacy because besides being rap’s Five Foot Assassin, who skates on crews like Mario Lemieux, Phife was, is, and will always be the self-professed “biggest Tar Heels fan in hip-hop history.”

His love for UNC has been well documented, stemming from the organization’s perseverance and strategic climb from underdog to champion — a narrative that has come to define Phife’s own life.

“If you a sports head you’d love Phife for his commentary on what was getting ready to happen, I’m sure he’s up there making moves now with North Carolina trying to make that happen for them because he’s a heavy North Carolina fan,” lamented Ralph McDaniels, one of the over 200 devotees who gathered at St. Albans Park in Jamaica, Queens on Monday (April 4) to commemorate the life of the founding Tribe Called Quest member.

Fellow Queens native, and Tribe Called Quest aficionado, Shaheem Reid shared similar sentiments. “He was always for his New York teams, but you know he represented for North Carolina Tar Heels.”

An underdog, who grew into a full-fledged hero — as a matter of fact, rap superhero — Phife defied odds throughout his career, like the Tar Heels and their multiple historic runs at the NCAA Championship. Beyond the basketball analogy though, Phife had always been a fighter who commanded and demanded attention.

One of the most memorable examples of such would be the sweat-raising fight for respect he endured after getting caught in the dust behind his partner-in-rhyme Q-Tip on ATCQ’s 1990 debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.

“I happened to run into Q-Tip on the train one night, right in between that album and the recording of the second album Low End Theory, he would tell HipHopDX in an interview last year. “And going into Low End Theory, it was either do or die as far as coming that far into the industry.”

Left outshined by Q-Tip, as he simply played sidekick with mere background vocal contribution here and there, Phife shot out like a sped up Sonic the Hedgehog and unleashed a lyrical coming-out-party on the group’s 1991 follow-up The Low End Theory. “That The Low End Theory was my coming out party for myself,” he would say in that same interview. “Because on the debut I appeared on four out of fifteen songs.” With lines on songs like “Butter” that found him rapping, “I am not the one, I got more game than Parker Brothers / Phife Dawg is on the mic and I’m smooth like butter,” it was clear that the Five Foot Assassin was nothing to mess with.

“He made the ordinary seem extraordinary, he was so poetic and witty and when you listen to his verses, the way he was putting them joints together he just bought so much life, painted life, and put you right where you needed to be when he was describing what he was doing,” says Reid about the impact of Phife. “He never stepped out of his realm.”

At the St. Albans Park gathering, folks like Dres of Black Sheep, Craig G, Large Professor and many others took a moment to reflect on Phife’s life, which will receive a big celebration on Tuesday (April 5) with tribute show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem along the premiere of a new J Dilla-produced single called, “Nutshell.”

Phife’s family will be donating 50% of the proceeds from the sale of the song to two organizations that were near and dear to Phife, the American Diabetes Association and the National Kidney Foundation.

Stay tuned to REVOLT for more on the life and legacy of Phife Dawg.


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