Why Phife Mattered: Remembering Hip-Hop's Relatable MC

Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, who died in his home in Contra Costa County on Tuesday night.

First, let's talk about one of the greatest entrances in all of hip-hop: A Tribe Called Quest's “Buggin' Out” begins with a single bass line, loping around a rootless, vague key, when the drums come in... on the two? And Phife starts rapping to establish the downbeat... on the three? We're already disoriented. Phife sets us straight:

Microphone check, one two, what is this? / The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business
I float like gravity / never had a cavity / Got more rhymes than the Winans got family

We had arguments, my friends and I, over who delivered the better opening line: Q-Tip's “Back in the days when I was a teenager” vs. Phife's “Microphone check, one two, what is this.” We vacillated. We knew one thing, at least, in my circle of friends: if “Buggin' Out” came on and you nailed the off-time entrance, you were good. Q-Tip's lines may have made T-shirts, but Phife guides “Buggin' Out” in all its lopsided glory. Styles upon styles upon styles, indeed.

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Phife Dawg, who died at the age of 45 at his home near Antioch, in Contra Costa County, was hip-hop royalty while still seeming like one of us. Q-Tip gets most of the credit for Tribe, of course, and he deserves plenty for finding Tribe's samples, producing songs, crafting their structure. But whereas Tip was smooth, distant, impossibly cool, Phife was instantly relatable. He was short, he had diabetes, he was a little insecure about his crushes, and all these things made his successes on the mic more exhilarating.

'Check the Rhime' 12", A Tribe Called Quest, 1993.
'Check the Rhime' 12", A Tribe Called Quest, 1993.

It's a function of social media in the wake of celebrity death to don rose-colored glasses, but seeing hundreds of thousands of people type his lines into their phones all over the world makes a case that on the boulevard of Linden, Phife owned the more memorable ones:

Now here's a funky introduction of how nice I am
Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram

I like 'em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian
Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation

I never half-step 'cause I'm not a half-stepper
Drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper

These lines are woven into the fabric of rap music, and for a certain generation of hip-hop fans, it's impossible to think of Phife in any objective, non-personal way. (When my daughter was born and we brought her home from the hospital, The Low End Theory was the first album we played for her.) He used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue. Who didn't? Phife was your friend who got picked on in school, but who one day showed everyone just how smart and funny he was inside, and then nothing's ever the same in your circle of friends since.

Whatever rift existed between Q-Tip and Phife, in the moments the two reunited – locally, at the Berkeley Community Theater in 2006, Outside Lands in 2009, or Rock the Bells in 2010 – Tribe brought simple unadulterated joy. When the two were split, it was a shame. For Phife, who spent his last years living quietly in Contra Costa County and battling diabetes, the extended hiatus must have been tough. The uncomfortable documentary about Tribe, with heaps of drama and little about their artistry, must have been tough. Seeing Q-Tip's solo albums top critic's lists must have been tough. I'll echo what others are saying: I hope they made peace.

Why? Why do we care so much about those two being good with each other? People we never met? Because as confused kids ourselves, trying to find our way, the magic they made together told us that there was a better world. It could be attained out of nothing but our friends, our talent, our collective personalities and our close bond. And it could be expressed in the simplest of words:

You on point, Phife?

All the time, Tip.

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