Sunday, March 27, 2016
R.I.P. Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest
Way back in 1990 I heard an odd little rap tune in which the people performing asked the same question what felt like a thousand times: "Can I Kick It?" The answer was always "Yes, you can!" Between this there were two verses. The first featured a guy I had heard on songs by other acts. His name was Q-Tip. The second was by someone I had no knowledge of whatsoever. He began with this...
Can I kick it? To my Tribe that flows in layers
Right now, Phife is a poem sayer
He went on to complete a fun, but not particularly memorable sixteen bars of rhymes. That was my introduction to Phife and the group that would become one of the greatest in hip hop history, A Tribe Called Quest. At first, I wasn't particularly impressed, but the song grew on me because damn if it wasn't catchy. I found myself randomly asking no one in particular "can I kick it?" Invariably, I would answer myself, "yes, you can!" Needless to say, a few weeks later I went out and purchased their debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It was a cryptic and overly long title, to be sure, but I loved the song plus another I heard from the group, "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo." They weren't my usually preferred brand of witty braggadocio over boom-bap beats or a militant battle-cry, my other go-to. They reminded me of De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers, two acts that Q-Tip was indeed associated with as it was their songs that I had heard him on before hearing one from his own group. The album was quite different, more jazz influenced than any rap album I had ever heard, and hailed by many as a classic. It certainly signaled a change in the landscape. I liked the album, but wasn't quite there with everyone else just yet. My big concern was that the rapping was a little to eclectic. It was mostly handled by Q-Tip, always a little too ethereal and smarter than the room. I wasn't the only one who thought so as people, including himself, referred to him as The Abstract. After listening to People's Instinctive Travels one could logically come to the conclusion that the group was just Tip and a bunch of dudes. That said, it did contain what would immediately become one of my all-time favorite songs, "Bonita Applebum."
About a year or so later, news came that a new Tribe album was coming. I was kind of lukewarm on the idea until I saw the video for the first single, "Check the Rhime" (yes, that's how they spelled it). The song was more straightforward than anything on the first album, but still distinctively theirs. On top of that, the other guy, Phife announced his presence as a major part of the team. As if he knew he were too far in the background on that first album, he started his verse with...
Now here's a funky introduction of how nice I am
Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram
What followed was a verse better than anything he did on People's Instinctive Travels and quite possibly better than Tip's verse on the song. Now I had to have this album. It was called The Low End Theory. It was released on September 24, 1991. I was in the military then, stationed in Hawaii. With no car, a friend and I walked over to the record store in town, remember those? Anyhoo, I bought it that afternoon around one o'clock. We stopped to get something to eat then walked back and got distracted by something I don't recall, but it probably involved beer. That evening around seven I popped it into my CD player. By eight o'clock my mind was completely blown. You may have been able to surmise that rappers had been incorporating jazz into their work for years, by this point. However, most only did a song or two. Tribe went all in on their first album. This time, they brought a street edge to it that was previously missing. A lot of it was due to Phife Dawg coming into his own and stealing the show from a lyrical standpoint. He brought his A-game to every track and has most of the albums memorable lines. His solo song, "Butter," is a high-point on an album filled with them. It was about a young ladies' man who meets his match in a fast girl named Flo. At least, that's what happens in the first verse. In the second, he takes aim at the girls who only started liking him once Tribe became successful. On the album's biggest hit, a posse cut called "Scenario" and featured a little group called Leaders of the New School, Phife got things started by letting us know...
Bo know this and Bo knows that,
but Bo don't know jack 'cuz Bo can't rap
Of course, he was referring to the legendary Bo Jackson. If you're ignorant of him and the "Bo Knows" Nike campaign go YouTube it, or something. It was a fantastic middle finger to haters like me who doubted the group's ability to rap following the first album. In it, he also name dropped Joe Namath (look him up, too) and Nyquil. Best of all, he gave us a wonderfully defiant and crass declaration of his own greatness...
I'm all that and then some, short dark and handsome
Bust a nut inside your eye, to show you where I come from
When he was through, he had dropped one of the most fun verses of all-time. Unfortunately for him, he was overshadowed by what literally became a star-making moment from the then relatively unknown Busta Rhymes. Busta's verse is phenomenal and when the song was performed live on The Arsenio Hall Show he took over the stage and instantly catapulted himself into stardom. But this isn't about Busta.
This is about Phife. A Tribe Called Quest would release several more albums. The Low End Theory and their third LP Midnight Marauders are hip hop classics. Having never met him, I got to know Phife through his art and he would come to mean a lot to me over the years. As an artist, he was the more grounded and relatable part of one of my favorite groups of all-time. He was never the deepest emcee, but what he said was just so clever and fun ("I like my beats hard like two day old shit"). He had a good time rapping. I had a good time listening. As a person, he was someone I could relate to on a number of levels. From a physical standpoint, we were roughly the same size. He often called himself The Five-Foot Assassin, and mentioned his actual height in his rhymes (5'3"). I'm ever-so-slightly taller. We're both from The Big Apple. As evidenced by his numerous references to them in his verses, he is a huge sports fans with an undying, if misplaced, love for the New York Knicks, just like me. We were roughly the same age. He's nine months my senior. Finally, another thing I learned through his rhymes, he was a diabetic ("Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic?/When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic?"). Back in the early 90s, I was not yet afflicted with the disease, but I knew that heredity made my contracting it a real possibility. In my mid 30s, about a decade or so ago, I learned that I had done exactly that. It's a scary thing to learn about yourself and tough to deal with on a daily basis. Phife has been open about his own struggles with it. Unfortunately, it would claim his life on March 22, 2016 at the age of 45.
It took me a few days to compose this post because, as you can see, unlike most celebrities, looking at him really has been like looking at my own reflection with so many commonalities. He's a reminder that I have to be a better fighter and develop stronger willpower. I have to learn to say no to certain things more often than I have. I wish he had fought a better fight and lasted longer. I'm sure he gave it his all. I just wish he had more. I would love to have seen him, and myself, kicking it at age 70. Without his asking, I'd tell him "yes, you can!"
Click here for my review of the documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest