It’s not just the lyrics Phife wrote, it’s his delivery—the way he glides over every confession, but pauses at every name; the way his brashness contrasted Q-Tip’s learned swag.
Back in ’89 he simply slid into place. No—that’s a lie. The first time most of us came across Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor—in the video to De La Soul’s “Buddy” remix (of which he appeared on the 12” version) with the heart of the Native Tongues crew in 1989—he was pretty much Q-Tip’s plus one; and we didn’t even know who Q-Tip was at the time. Surrounded by ultra-charismatic stars who were comfortable in front of the camera and on the mic, Phife seemed to be searching his groove and finding his footing—an apt introduction for someone who grew up with hip-hop as it grew up with those of us who have survived somewhere between four or five decades on this planet.
There’s not enough that can be said about A Tribe Called Quest’s contributions to hip-hop—mainly because those offerings still reverberate through pop culture, reaching acts as disparate as Kendrick Lamar collaborator Terrace Martin and Mac Miller’s 100 grandkids. Often, though—in the telling and the praise, in the reminisce and flips down memory lane—the focus is on Q-Tip as the group’s nuclear center. And with good reason: Q-Tip was the main voice, sound provider, guiding force, and visionary of Tribe. Phife’s significance was much quieter, but no less necessary. He was a consummate team player who scarcely appeared on the group’s debut—1990’s People’s Instinctive Travel and the Paths of Rhythm—but still managed to emerge with unfading quotables from his turn on “Can I Kick It?” When he asked “Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?” it was a for us, by us New York sentiment that captured the political hope of the past century’s closing decade. We were post-high comedowns of the crack boom, unaware of what a Bush presidency would actually mean, and naive enough to think that a black face in office would result in fundamental lasting change to society. “You’ll be doing us a really big favor,” Phife rapped to The Empire State’s first and only black mayor.
This is how Phife spoke for us. Beyond the lyrics he wrote; it was his articulation, as he shared on the Fu-Shnickens “La Schmoove” in 1992. It was new for us. The ideas of flow and delivery had always existed in hip-hop, but no one had placed the notions front and center as much as Phife did. Gang Starr’s Guru emphasized that it was mostly the voice and the words that he manifested, which held power, but Phife was looking at the connective tissue between the beats and rhymes of life. Perhaps it was the time—coming at the dusk of the golden era’s halcyon—that allowed a more sophisticated idea to take hold. Our understanding of hip-hop was approaching 2.0—regionality was becoming clearer and clearer; Short Dog was in the house, Ice Cube had become AmeriKKKa’s most wanted by ditching Dr. Dre for the Bomb Squad while N.W.A. was still 100 miles and running, and X Clan was headed to the East, blackwards. Arguments, too, were becoming more nuanced: KRS-One provided edutainment, 2Pac began his rebellion on the underground, and acts like Freestyle Fellowship, Del the Funkee Homosapien, DJ Quik, and Scarface redefined what and where hip-hop could sound like, be about, and come from. These changes led to tiers of success and birthed the notion of the underrated rapper, of which Phife was one of the first, if not the first.
His rhymes were ripe with energy, light with delight, and heavy on bodily functions—he liked his beats hard, like two-day-old shit. He would bust a nut inside your eye to show you where he came from, or all over your couch and give you Seaman’s furniture. On The Low End Theory’s “Butter,” he was a b-ball playing, fly-rhyme saying, fly-girl-getting player juvenile in his womanizing:
I was a stone cold lover, you couldn’t tell me jack
Settlin’ down with one girl—wasn’t tryin’ to hear that
I had Tanya, Tamika, Sharon, Karen, Tina, Stacy, Julie, Tracey
Used to love ‘em, leave ’em, skeeze ‘em, tease ‘em
Find ‘em, lose ‘em, also abuse ‘em
My whole attitude was new day, next hon
And believe it or not, they all got done
Again: it’s not just the lyrics Phife wrote, it’s his delivery—the way he glides over every confession, but pauses at every name; the way his brashness contrasted Q-Tip’s learned swag. On “Buggin’ Out,” Phife was the five-foot assassin with the roughneck business, while Tip was coded and abstract:
Zulu Nation, mother’s last creation
Minds get flooded—ejaculation
Right on the two-inch tape
The Abstract poet incognito runs the cape
Not the best, not the worst, and occasionally I curse
To get my point across
Those are hard lines to shine through, as was the entire shadow cast by Tribe’s presence. But it’s also a shadow that was cast largely because of Phife’s grounding his feet in your Nikes. Before Big Boi allowed Andre 3000 to be as much as an ATLien as he desired, Phife was on point with funky introductions of how nice he was, slaying bodies in El Segundo and pushing them along. He placed himself in the center of his rhyme because if Malik didn’t look good, then Quest wouldn’t look good; and if the Quest don’t look good, then Queens wouldn’t look good—but since the sounds are universal, New York wouldn’t look good. To the core, Phife was a selfless contributor, and a passage from Midnight Marauders’ “Oh My God”—where he also makes a self-deprecating play at Dawn from En Vogue—sums him up quite well:
Now the formula is this: me, Tip, and Ali
For those who can’t count, it goes 1-2-3
The anti-batty boy, big up is who I be
Brothers find this hard to do, but never me
Some brothers try to diss, but Malik, you see him bitchin’?
Mi nah care about dem dibby MC, my shit is hittin’
Trini gladiator, anti-hesitater
Shaheed push the fader from here to Grenada
Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic?
When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?
It’s all there: his pride and prejudice; his crew love and heritage, his sharing of the physical condition that would take him away too soon. In all the moments of Phife being Phife on record, there exist none full of more joy and pain than this verse.
There’s this thing we do when death comes for our stars, especially when that death comes quick in ways we’ve prepared ourselves for but never quite got ready to face fully. We—fans, colleagues, documenters, and consumers—find ourselves in a dull frenzy of sadness, needing information, tributes, and other ways to process the disappearance of someone we never knew as a human being. Those who did know the deceased share illuminating stories; some express regret. Others overstate familiarities, share memorabilia, photos, interviews, remixes. It’s how we mediate on or our own mortality, or avoid doing so. And usually, the artifacts brought out are full of dust, but not with Tribe.
A Tribe Called Quest is a legacy act and, even though the days of releasing music together seemed irreversibly over, they are a living, breathing experience that still give us lyrics to go. It would be dishonest to say that we were all awaiting Phife’s tentative solo efforts—an EP named Give Thanks and the MUTTYmorPHosis album. But what’s undeniable is that Phife was still rapping, working on his projects, and promoting them up until his death. He didn’t see his death coming, in the ways that David Bowie did; he didn’t overly predict it like Tupac; though, he alluded to it all two years ago, in what may have been his last music video. Phife’s death, much like that of Sean Price last year, reminds many of us about the end game of growing up. Back in ’89, Phife simply slid into place. This week, he slipped from his mortal coil.
There should be something witty or uplifting, or an apt verse to close this out. There should be a story, or some sort of final insight, but there’s not. There’s just an absence, memories, and old lyrics that still sound new and fresh.