"Yo, microphone check, 1, 2, what is this…"
As the story goes, I was in my 9th grade English class, taught by Mrs. Sproul, and asleep. Which never happened: I’ve always been an astute student, sitting at the front of the class and being the first to raise my hand to answer questions posed to the class. Not to mention, this was honors English; I was one of two Black students IN the class, just me and Deuce. Deuce was not his real name, of course, but his nickname, and on that day in Mrs. Sproul’s class, I was about to get a nickname too.
Apparently, Deuce called my name several times in attempts to wake me up and nothing worked, until he yelled out “PHIFE!” and I woke up.
After class in the hallway, Deuce told everybody that my nickname was Phife (I would eventually respell it as Phyffe) and everybody was like, “cool”. From that day forward, my nickname was Phife. This was in 1993. I still have friends from high school who call me Phife when I go home, over 20 years later. I even had a vanity license plate affixed to the front of my car that said “Phyffe”.
I woke up this morning, which happens to be my son’s first birthday and my mother’s 21st birthday, to the news that one of my favorite rappers, Phife Dawg aka The Five Foot Assassin aka The Funky Diabetic aka Malik Taylor, passed away at the age of 45, an age that used to seem so old, but is now less than 10 years away from where I am now. And it messed me up.
In 1993, when I was given the nickname, I wasn’t much of a fan of A Tribe Called Quest. Of course, I was super familiar with them, “Check The Rhime” and "Electric Relaxation" were favorites on Rap City’s The Basement, but I was a West Coast rap head for the most part. It wasn’t until college when I really, really (that’s how you know I mean it) found a true appreciation. I had their albums because I was a hip-hop head, and oddly enough, despite being in Alabama for high school, I ran with a number of true East Coast rap heads and die hard Wu-Tang stans. I have hated Wu-Tang for many years because of my boy Titus and the one summer I was forced into listening to nothing but Wu-Tang clan all day, ayanday.
But despite coming to ATCQ party a bit late, Midnight Marauders changed my life. It is in my top 5 albums of all time and remains one of five albums that I would go back out and by on compact disc if I THOUGHT I lost it, with the others being: The Chronic, de la soul is dead, ATLiens, and Reasonable Doubt. In fact, you know how people used to ask questions like: if you were deserted on a island and could only have one album, what would it be? My default has always been Midnight Marauders. And I always had a particular affinity for Phife Dawg.
For one, I never felt like he got the credit he deserved (apparently he didn’t either, famously proclaiming that he wasn’t Tito Jackson on the Beats, Rhymes, and Life documentary). When you talk about ATCQ, everybody always views Q-Tip as the de facto leader – which he was – and almost made Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad seem replaceable, and they weren’t by any stretch. Q-Tip wasn’t even a better rapper, though as a producer he was AMAZING. Though, in the 90s, somehow folks thought Q-Tip could spit like Dylan. I remember in college when my crew was having one of those starting five rappers arguments and somebody legit put Q-Tip in there as a top 5 lyricist, with the likes of Nas, and nobody batted an eye. We were so misguided then.
Plus, Phife always had the best one liners. The first line of this piece, from The Low End Theory’s “Buggin’ Out” is one of the most amazing intro lines ever. The words? Eh. But the way he came in on that song, forget about it. A few lines later he said that he's got more lines than the Winans got family. Butter. Or the types of women he likes. Or how he'd bust a nut inside your eye, to show you where he comes from. One liners for days, b. For days.
Then he is ALSO responsible for unquestionably the most famous line in the entire ATCQ catalog, from “Electric Relaxation” on Midnight Marauders: “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…”
Even not knowing that Seaman’s Furniture was a real place (making the line a pun) that line made me laugh SO hard and I NEVER forgot it. I always felt like Phife was the underdog looking for his proper respect. I love Q-Tip but there’s no Tribe without Phife and it always felt like people, magazines, and interviewers didn’t realize this. I hope that he gets his proper respect in death. He had the energy and punchlines where Q-Tip had the voice, flow, charisma, and beats. As we found out later in life he was very sick and it was chronicled in the documentary, so I’m guessing complications from his diabetes are what caused his untimely death.
One of the reasons I’m glad that I’ve been able to carve out a space in the world via writing is that it means some part of me will live forever. My children can always go somewhere (as long as the server fees keep getting paid) and read thoughts, ideas, philosophies, and humor from their father. My words will outlive my physical presence, and that is a blessing. Rappers are the same way, especially those who have been part of groups that will live as long as the genre lives. ATCQ is one of those groups, and even if Phife never felt like he got his just due in life, he will be remembered forever as being part of one of the greatest groups in hip-hop history and for helping change the landscape of the game.
And also, for having some of the best one-liners of all time.
You are appreciated.
Rest in Power, Phife Dawg.