The world of hip hop was well and truly devastated when they awoke to the news of Phife Dawg’s passing on Tuesday morning.
At only 45, Malik Taylor, legendary founding member of pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest sadly passed away from diabetes-related complications after battling the illness for many years. A completely irreplaceable and unforgettable component of hip hop’s history, the legacy Phife leaves behind will continue to touch and inspire many for years to come.
Phife could almost be seen as somewhat underrated and overlooked as a talent in his own right, but when you’re a part of one of the most influential hip hop groups of all time, it’s easy to understand why. A Tribe Called Quest didn’t just produce some of the most acclaimed records of the Golden Age – they completely reimagined and redefined hip hop as a genre.
While Tribe were finding their feet in Queens, New York in the early 1990s, Gangsta rap was also on the rise on the other side of the States. While N.W.A. were saying ‘Fuck the police’, Tribe were keeping their cool, spitting relatable stories from the heart, with no violence or aggression. They were a breath of fresh air for rap culture. Famously fusing jazz with hip hop, their seductive sonics and audaciously metaphorical lyrics pushed boundaries. They gave everybody a reason to start listening to hip hop, mastering the balance of music that was perfect for bumping at parties but also kicking back and chilling with your friends. They did their own thing in their own way, and didn’t simply go with the grain.
But it was the undeniable chemistry between the main emcees Phife Dawg and Q-Tip that really brought the magic to A Tribe Called Quest’s music and set them apart from the rest. Phife’s exuberant, playful and bawdy attitude was the perfect complement to the more abstract, urbane and philosophical nature of Q-Tip. Their contrasting styles of lyrical poetry and delivery bounced off each other in a way that stopped people in their tracks and got people talking.
Phife Dawg himself, known for his constant references to popular culture, sports and sneakers and other hip hop and R&B artists, was behind some of the most ground-breaking verses in Tribe’s musical career. His clever verbal gymnastics were often far more profound than they seemed, touching on real visceral emotions and thoughts through playful, idiosyncratic innuendos.
A Tribe Called Quest and their legacy are a huge influence and inspiration for the Applebum crew – we even named ourselves after our favourite track “Bonita Applebum”. As a commemoration for the “gritty little something on the New York street”, we put together a list, in no particular order, of some Phife’s best lyrics and verses throughout his career with Tribe.
“Award Tour” – Midnight Marauders
Phife delivers one of his most stand-out opening lines in Midnight Marauder single ‘Award Tour’, making reference to his rhyming debut on De La Soul’s 1989 track ‘Buddy’, with a play on one of Afrika Bambaataa’s lyrics in the song.
“Back in 89 I simply slid into place / Buddy, buddy, buddy all up in your face.”
Though he maintained an admirably humble persona with his cleverly self-deprecating rhymes, Phife Dogg quietly knew of his capabilities and power and of Tribe’s success:
“When was the last time you heard the Phifer sloppy? / Lyrics anonymous, you’ll never hear me copy”
“Niggas know the time when the Quest is in the jam / I never let a statue tell me how nice I am”
“Electric Relaxation” – Midnight Marauders
“I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian /Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation”
You can almost hear the smugness in Phife’s voice as he spits the legendary opening line to his first verse in one of Tribe’s best known tracks. ‘Electric Relaxation’ proved Tribe’s ability to rap about sex in a tongue-in-cheek, intelligent way without an ounce of misogyny or offense, despite its hilariously filthy lyrics.
“Let me save the little man from inside the boat / Let me hit it from the back, girl I won’t catch a hernia” – In Phife’s true braggard fashion, he makes a witty reference to cunilingus in the first line, moving onto his other sex moves in the second.
“The Chase Pt. II” – Midnight Marauders
Phife’s verse on this track is probably one of the best examples of his uniquely conversational and effortless flow, carrying a real wow factor with both its opening and closing lines.
“(Damn Phife, you got fat!) / Yeah, I know it looks pathetic / Ali Shaheed Muhammad got me doing calisthenics” – Phife pokes fun at himself and his struggles with diabetes, referring to his weight issues and a self-confessed sugar addiction. And when was the last time you heard the word ‘calisthenics’ in a rap song?
“Battling, whenever – hot damn! / Give me the microphone boy, one time, bam!” – Phife delivers this line in true Caribbean patois, echoing his Trinidadian roots. ‘One time’ is also slang for the police, with an onomatopoeic ‘bam!’ to symbolise a gunshot, making this a powerful closing line to his verse.
“Buggin’ Out” – The Low End Theory
With only a few minor appearances on Tribe’s debut record ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’, Phife needed a real breakthrough to finally make his name on the scene. His unforgettable opening verse on ‘The Low End Theory’s ‘Buggin’ Out’ is often regarded as the moment he finally went from a background component to a major player in A Tribe Called Quest, showing the world what he was made of.
“Yo, microphone check one, two, what is this? / The five foot assassin with the roughneck business”
Later in the verse, whilst showcasing his impressively effortless flow, he dropped in one of his many sneaker-related references with:
“Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have / You wanna diss the Phifer but you still don’t know the half / I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path / Mess around with this you catch a size eight up [your ass]”
“Baby Phife’s Return” – Beats, Rhymes & Life
An almost entirely solo joint, minus the hook from Consequence, Phife delivers some slick punchlines while he tells a more personal story, including references to the influence of his family, his faith and fellow Tribe members:
“Big up pop Duke, that’s where I caught my athleticism / My mama, no doubt, that’s where I got my lyricism / My nana, that’s where I got my spiritualism / As for Tip and Shah, they made me stop from smokin’ izm”
“Keep shit hotter than a sauna / Or better yet, the hormones on your Christian daughter / Hey, I tried to warn her” - One of the many “oh shit” moments in his lyrical career, he drops powerful mysterious lines like this before swiftly moving onto the next one in true Phife fashion.
An avid sports fan, Phife keeps up the basketball references with the line “Kid, you know my flava, tear this whole jam apart / Fuck around and have your heart, like Jordan had Starks’”, relating his dominance and skill to Michael Jordan in comparison to John Starks.
“8 Million Stories” – Midnight Marauders
Another solo track from Phife, ‘8 Million Stories’ is an almost ‘It Was A Good Day’-esque tale, except Phife turns the idea on its head and spits a humorous story about his day full of woes and misfortunes, including getting pick-pocketed and even burning a hole in the shirt he was going to wear for his date.
“You know I gots to look dipped in the fresh new gear / Cool I found something so I ironed it / I then got caught up on the phone, oh shit, I’m frying it / Will someone tell me what did I do to deserve this?”
Similar to the menstrual hints in the previous record’s track ‘Infamous Date Rape’, Phife dares to go there again as he complains that he couldn’t get laid as he had caught his date Sheila at the wrong time of the month:
“I need to hit a honey off, Jarobi pass the phone / Pulled out my book of hoes, oh yo, Sheila’s home / Steady smiling like a mother yo I’m read’ to bone / Went down on hon, she’s in the red zone”
Known for launching into rants about girls who do him wrong, Phife later moans about picking up a gold digger who expected him to pay for everything:
“Picked up this girl in the hooptie / Just because I rhyme she tried to soup me / Pay for this, pay for that, loot for nails and hair / Who the hell do you think I am, Mr. Belvedere? / Go and get a bloody job, then can we look cute / Even if you give me boots, you’ll never see my loot”
He then drops another Afrocentric term in his lyrics, using the Jamaican term ‘botty face’ to describe the gold digger who “wasn’t even all of that”: “Sometimes you gotta put the hoes in their friggin’ place / Just move in front of me with your botty face!”
“Butter” – The Low End Theory
Another story about his romantic escapades, this Phife-dominated track is reminiscent about the girls of his high school days while he asserts the notion that his game is “smooth like butter”.
He remembers one girl called Flo who really messed with his head: “Yeah I messed around with the one called Flo / All the troopers round the way used to call her a ho / But deep down in my heart I knew that Flo was good to go / ‘Cause I thought it was me like Bell Biv Devoe / But little did I know that she was playing with my mind / The only thing I learned is that good girls are hard to find”
He later launches into a rant about try-hard groupies and fakes, including the hilarious diss: “You barely have a neck but still sporting a rope”
“Your whole appearance is a lie and it could never be true / And if you really liked yourself then you would try and be you / If your hair and eyes were real, I wouldn’t have dissed ya / But since it was bought, I had to dismiss ya”
“Oh My God” – Midnight Marauders
Phife’s verse in the catchy ‘Midnight Marauders’ track arguably contains some of his punchiest and most clever rhymes.
“I like my beats hard like two day old shit / Steady eating booty MCs like cheese grits”
“It’s not like honey dip would wanna get with me / But just in case I own more condoms than T.L.C” – Phife’s rhyme game was on point with this genius reference to how T.L.C.’s Lisa Lopes wore a condom over her left eye.
“Trini gladiator, anti-hesitator / Shaheed push the fader from here to Grenada” – a clever nod to his Caribbean roots, he makes a comparison between Shaheed switching the beats with a fader, and Phife himself swiftly moving from New York to Trinidadian rhyme styles in his cyphers.
“Mr Energetic, who me sound pathetic? / When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” – one of Phife’s most famous lines, in reference to his illness.
Saturday 9th April we come together in London to pay tribute and celebrate the life and legacy of Phife Dawg. Come hang with the Applebum crew at Efes Snooker Hall as we spin our favourite A Tribe Called Quest tracks all night long.