These past few months, as legendary musicians have been falling like there's a plague — Lemmy, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson, Natalie Cole, George Martin — none hit me as hard as hearing that rapper Phife Dawg died Tuesday, and I wasn't alone.
The same day that more than 20 people were killed in the Brussels terrorist attacks, rather than social media profiles draped in the Belgian flag, I saw peers and old high school classmates paying tribute to the man born as Malik Taylor, which made me think maybe that card player was on to something.
If music never hits you as hard as when you're a teenager, then a Tribe Called Quest has a permanent spot in my soul. The trio from Queens, New York, might not have had the mania and popularity to be considered the Beatles of the Golden Age of hip-hop, but it was surely the Velvet Underground of rap, the act that became the favorite of everyone who had the good fortune to discover it. You had DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad breaking jazz and R&B beats to the smooth, silky vocals of Q-Tip, and then came the energizer deliveries of Phife Dawg. Phife Dawg's verses were a powder keg. It seemed he could go on forever spitting out bravado, clever metaphors, and comedic one-liners.
His lyrics were so dense with pop-culture references from the now, now they require footnotes for younger generations. If you don't remember the era of Nike Air, can you really care that "Bo knows this and Bo knows that/but Bo don't know jack, cause Bo can't rap"? And if you didn't watch MTV in 1992, can you appreciate the silly wit of "Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue/It's not like honey dip would wanna get with me/But just in case, I own more condoms than TLC"?
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But many of Phife's words, I'd like to think, have a universal, timeless appeal in their playful manipulation of the English language. William Shakespeare has nothing on "I like my beats hard like two-day-old shit." One of the great shames is that, similar to how the Beatles couldn't make music past the '60s, a Tribe Called Quest collapsed after the '90s. They recorded five albums in the last decade of the last century, then nothing. They reunited several times to tour, but after 1998's The Love Movement, no new music. The great 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life that celebrates a Tribe Called Quest shows a rift between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip that broke a childhood friendship and artistic collaboration.
As a fan, I prefer to remember Phife from this clip from 1993. The interview on the Arsenio Hall Show is an early-'90s time capsule. Q-Tip talks about working with Janet Jackson, Phife talks about rapping with Shaquille O'Neal, and they bring up a young guy they're working with named D'Angelo, whom they describe as "Prince, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder rolled into one." The highlight comes at the two-minute mark, when Arsenio suggests they freestyle. Q-Tip starts beatboxing and Phife struts toward the crowd, as playful and creative as ever: "Kickin' rhymes, kickin' beat/Strictly for the street/And if it's Burger King, then I suggest you eat."
It seemed like he could go on forever. But that's never the case.