Today we lost Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest at the young age of 45.
He finally lost his long battle with diabetes, which included kidney transplants in 2008 and 2012. There will be plenty of detailed remembrances of Phife’s career and accomplishments, so I’m keeping mine a little smaller and more personal.
The first piece of recorded music I ever bought was the ‘Check the Rhime’ cassingle. My Dad, born and raised in Brooklyn, was very excited to hear someone shout out Linden Boulevard on a track. It didn’t matter that Linden runs the length of the outer boroughs on Long Island, and the stretch of Linden mentioned in ‘Check the Rhime’ was in Jamaica, Queens, miles away from my father’s old stomping grounds. It was 1992, we lived in Palo Alto, California, and someone was rapping about the street he grew up on.
Rappers have been repping their locales since before hip-hop existed, but Phife had a way with random references to his corner of New York City. It never felt like the provincial blinders of a world limited by a lack of opportunity, or the bluster of a modern teen ready to throw down for his obscure block on the Southside of Chicago. It just seemed like Phife had never considered people might not know what Carvel was. That is, he sounded like a true New Yorker.
But Phife’s charming locality stood out because Tribe was so universally known. He was far from the only artist peppering his raps with the names of local spots, but his were reaching the most arbitrary ears. I grew up in the 90s in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and it seemed like everybody I knew had a copy of Midnight Marauders, regardless of color or gender. If someone had only one rap CD, there was a very good chance it was that or Low End Theory. Across the board, not a damn one of us got the Seaman’s Furniture line in ‘Electric Relaxation’. (Also, shout out to Steven at Home Depot.)
That’s not a knock to Phife at all. It was actually the secret to Tribe Called Quest’s appeal. Phife’s everyman chill kept Q-Tip’s infinite cool in check; This was especially evident when Tip went solo and quickly drifted into Wyclef-esque crossover territory. It was dope, but it was missing something, and that something was Phife on deck, metaphorically drinking a Nutrament in front of a bodega.
With that said, Phife’s passing sadly closes the book on A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe hadn’t really functioned as a unit in more than a decade. While they reunited for shows and tours sporadically, including a blistering opening stint on Kanye’s Yeezus tour, the group hadn’t released new music since 2003’s (actually really good) one-off ‘ICU’ with Erykah Badu. But as long as Tip, Phife, Ali and Jarobi walked the Earth, the future of Tribe was always an open question. Without Phife, there is no Tribe Called Quest.