Remembering The Five Foot Assassin

by: Michael Shields

With a heavy heart Across the Margin bids farewell to one of the founding members of hip-hop’s most influential acts...

Phife

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I can’t remember the first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest. Unlike many musicians that have affected me deeply, where an eye-opening, profound, and altogether unforgettable moment occurred when the first notes of their sound reached my ear, with A Tribe Called Quest that lasting baptismal moment is something I can’t conjure up. This lapse confounds me deeply, as there are few acts – genre regardless – that resonate more seamlessly with my being. But so what if I forget when we met, for when we did we were fast friends, and it astounds me to recall how many of the more boisterous moments in my life were soundtracked by Tribe. But Tribe wasn’t simply there to so frequently score my formative years and beyond; their sound was so revolutionary that they redefined what I thought about music altogether. The profound impact Tribe had on my musical tastes and in what I expected from hip-hop acts moving forward was monumental, and after they exploded on the scene in the early ‘90s, it truly felt like the genre would never be the same.

When The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, dropped in 1991, hip-hop was indeed changed forever. In the short time between their debut album and Low End’s release, it felt as if Tribe had perfected a brand of hip-hop so laced with jazz inflections that some sort of new creature was born altogether. With just the opening moments of “Excursions,” where a sultry, thick stand-up bass sample was implored to set the tone, something was different. Q-Tip’s smooth flow followed soon after, living entirely inside the bass thumps, and when the clean, pounding drum beat kicked in, it was on. As impressive of a debut as People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was1, it was evident immediately with The Low End Theory we were no longer in El Segundo (not hatin’ of course, just sayin’…). The entire album was a stunner, front to back, and Midnight Marauders, Tribe’s third album, would appear only two years later, matching its predecessor in lyrical finesse and robust production, but this time with an even funkier edge. Midnight Marauders found Phife and Q-Tip spitting straight fire at arguably the height of their lyrical genius. The album spawned a slew of hits such as “Award Tour,” “Electric Relaxation,”  and “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” all hailed unanimously as some of the greatest hip-hop tracks ever produced. It was clear at that point that Tribe was operating on an entirely different level. They went on to release three more albums, all fueled with their patented sound, and with hits scattered about. Now hindsight affords us the opportunity to look back at the Tribe’s mammoth catalog of burners, and to claim with a straight-face that these pioneers of hip-hop will forevermore be hailed as one of the best to ever do it.

Yesterday was a dark day in hip-hop. One where we lost Malik Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, one of the founding members of A Tribe Called Quest. Phife’s struggles with Type 1 diabetes (Phife often referred to himself as “The Funky Diabetic”) were well-documented. In Michael Rapaport’s 2001 documentary on the group, Beats, Rhymes, and Life, Phife lamented on his illness and his addiction to sugar, and it was clear how very real the struggle was. Phife left us at the all-too-young age of forty-five, and it’s an extreme understatement to state that Phife’s rhymes helped launch Tribe into the stratosphere of hip-hop royalty and onto commercial and critical success. He was an innovator, a sharp and nimble emcee. Together with Q-Tip, whom he had known since the age of two and rhymed alongside during Tribe’s most notable years, he dropped scads of unforgettable quotables and inspired generations of artists and fans for years to come.

The lyrical chemistry between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip is something hip-hop historians will be trying to understand unto the end of time. Quite possibly, Tip and Phife where the smoothest rap duo hip-hop has come upon, where their back and forth was so incomprehensibly natural it was reminiscent of a sinuous conversation between two close acquaintances. In fact this coaction was certainly the manifestation of their longtime friendship and innate magnetism. The perfect example of this otherworldly synergy is “Check The Rhyme,” where Tip and Phife trade lines, verses, and chorus hooks with such silky-smooth ease, you’d swear they shared a brain. Tip’s creamy and philosophical flow was a perfect pairing for Phife’s higher-pitched, brusque, and often humorous style, and the symbiosis which Tip and Phife displayed isn’t simply something hip-hop heads will be reveling in for eternity, but also truly marveling at.

There are few rhymes more memorable in A Tribe Called Quest’s catalog than Phife’s first verse from “Electric Relaxation” off of Midnight Marauders, where he cleanly spits, “I like ’em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, or Haitian / Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation / Told you in the jam that we can get down / Now let’s knock the boots like the group H-Town / You got BBD all on your bedroom wall / But I’m above the rim and this is how I ball / A gritty little something on the New York street / This is how I represent over this here beat.” If being a Tribe fan were a club, reciting this rhyme with the proper cadence would be the only way to gain admittance. Because Phife’s verses stuck like that, and his legendary turns in “Oh My God” and “Buggin’ Out” (“Yo, 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”), just to name a few, are some of Tribe’s best. And let us not forget that it is Phife who brazenly opens up “Scenario” (“Well what do you know, the Di-Dawg, is first up to bat / No batteries included, and no strings attached”), a track that assaults in the manner of getting jumped by an angry mob – one of the most energizing romps in hip-hop’s storied history.

While Phife’s talent was so entirely apparent, so too was his struggle. An enduring battle against the sovereignty of his ego (“I never walk the street thinking it’s all about me / Even though deep in my heart, it really could be”) and the demon that ultimately got a hold of him was omnipresent throughout Tribe’s reign. “Even though I knew I had [diabetes], I was in denial,” he is quoted as saying. “I had to have my sugar. You have to accept it. If you don’t accept it, it’s going to kick your ass.” Phife was relatable in this way, and his flaunting of his primal urges, while often raunchy (“Let me hit it from the back, girl / I won’t catch a hernia / Bust off on your couch / Now you got Seaman’s Furniture”), only served to present Phife as one of us. But assuredly he wasn’t. Phife’s flow poured from him so naturally and so smoothly that his skill is more easily understood as a gift rather than a talent. A gift which he wielded with unfathomable finesse, and although paired with one of the nicest emcees to ever hold a mic right, Phife stood out with his imaginative punchlines, brassy shit talk, and saucy yet wholly polished delivery.

It’s unique to think about all the great hip-hop acts in the ‘90s, and all they had to offer. Wu-Tang along with Mobb Deep stimulated our bravado and allowed for a cathartic release of angst and aggression. Snoop and Dre gave us that lean and that bounce, while Jay and Biggie gifted us with that swagger and Outkast hooked up that Stank. Mos, Kweli, Common, and Nas (et al.) provided for introspection and crafted a space for social consciousness in hip-hop2. While Tribe dabbled in all of the aforementioned characteristics, it’s safe to say that what they achieved at the most basic level is to keep the party live. This is not to diminish their impact, but I am going to go so far as to suggest that the advances in evolution that led to the ability for a human to nod their head in rhythm might have occurred in preparation for A Tribe Called Quest’s arrival. A maturation of abilities in readiness for the moment in time when crisp, funky jazz beats would intermingle harmoniously with insane lyrical prowess in a way that would possess your body into movement. A Tribe Called Quest, who Nas once referred to as “hip-hop’s Beatles,” were the perfect commingling of groove-centric beats, thought-provoking and witty rhymes, and an untethered soul that enlivened the spirit and just felt flat-out right. From the early days when the smooth jazzy funk of “Bonita Applebaum” put us on, to that final staged performance of “Can I Kick It?” on The Tonight Show3, the music of A Tribe Quest hasn’t aged a day, and, remarkably, when I listen to it, I feel like I haven’t either.

Rest In Paradise Phife. And Thank You.

  1. In 1985, Phife Dawg and childhood friend Q-Tip formed A Tribe Called Quest alongside Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. []
  2. Mind you, I had to stop there as this is just a small sample of the artists who impacted hip-hop in the Golden Age of the ‘90s. []
  3. Their first television performance in over 15 years, where they united to celebrate the 25th anniversary reissue of their debut LP People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. []

1 Comment

  • atcq. The dignitaries of beats and rhymes. My whole sensibility on what rocks and what don’t is in large part founded on what they did.

    Phife was a beast, unforgettable rhymes.

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