When Lou Reed passed away I heard a quite few fellow Springsteen fanatics explain that they found Lou through Bruce. My story’s a bit different – that is, I found Lou not through Bruce, but through Tribe. As in, A Tribe Called Quest who sampled Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” for their immortal “Can I Kick It?” (which will automatically win me over to any movie sharp enough to use it no matter how mediocre it otherwise might be), and the latter made me seek out the former, which is an anecdote I relay to convey just how much sway A Tribe Called Quest held at one time in my life. As a teenager, I had a few favorite pop artists, and a ton of favorite pop songs, but I was mostly into rap, and while I adored Chuck D so much that I often suspect my youthful political streak stemmed directly from his influence, and while I loved Public Enemy, I loved A Tribe Called Quest more when I found them a little later. They were my first “My Favorite Band”, which is a distinction that probably never means more than it does when you’re a teenager, which means that in a way Tribe is still my favorite band.
That band had two disparate personalities at its forefront, two masters of ceremony who would spend songs trading verses, and occasionally trade lines within verses (“You on point, Phife?” “All the time, Tip”). Run-DMC did that too, of course, but while Run rapped a little faster and DMC rapped a little slower, the forceful nature of both their voices was harmonic. Q-Tip, on the other hand, was just about the smoothest rapper there ever was, a voice that went down like cognac beside a quietly crackling fire, while Phife’s was like a guy playing whack-a-mole (and winning). And even though each one had stellar solo tracks, the common rule was you couldn’t have one without the other, music history’s most immaculate yin & yang. This wasn’t Flavor Flav occasionally relieving Chuck D’s workload; lyrically, Tip and Phife were equals. Still, it’s like The Beatles; you gotta have yours, and my Tribe member was Phife Dawg.
Tip was cool, so cool he could be in a John Singleton movie with Janet Jackson, so cool he would date freaking Nicole Kidman(!). Phife Dawg…well, let him tell it: “Height of Mugsy Bogues/complexion of a hockey puck.” He wasn’t the leading man; he was “the five footer”, and he knew it, and was okay it, but wasn’t as okay with it existing in the minds of others, which was why his rhymes were always so much more bam-boom-splat than Tip’s love affair with the abstract. In “The Chase Part 2” Tip introduces his co-conspirator by marveling “Damn Phife, you got fat”, which woah. But Phife rolls with the punch. “Yeah I know it looks pathetic,” he raps. “Ali Shaheed Muhammad got me doing calisthenics.” He quickly moves on: “Needless to say boy I’m bad to the bone.” By the end, he’s back to tossing disses. “Sit back and learn, come now watch the birdie. Your style’s incomplete, same as Vinny Testaverde.” He didn’t get defensive; he just absorbed the hit and hit back. Still, he could do so much more, like in “Buggin Out”, which is, for my money, the greatest rap track of all time. Phife’s second verse opens like this:
“Yo when you bug out, you usually have a reason for the action
Sometimes you don't it's just for mere satisfaction
People be hounding, always surrounding
Pulsing, just like a migraine pounding
You don't really fret, you stay in your sense
Comafied your feeling, of absolute tense
You soar off to another world, deep in your mind
But people seem to take that, as being unkind.”
Those are still my two favorite stanzas in rap, and it’s not close. When you’re a kid, you want someone, more than at any other time in your life, to get you. Phife Dawg, née Malik Taylor, of Queens New York, somehow got this scrawny, socially awkward white dude from the middle-west. I tensed up around people as a teenager, but didn’t really understand why, and so I’d soar off to another world, deep in my mind, and sure enough, people would take that as being unkind. So often in those years Tribe was my refuge. “Hip-hop is living, can't yank the plug.” I knew what he meant.
“The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders” were all-timers, and “The Peoples Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm” was brilliant when it wasn’t sprawling. Their fourth album, “Beats, Rhymes and Life”, was released in July of 1996, two months after I graduated high school, and I remember listening, and liking some of it, but feeling my mind wander, my attention having slowly going in other directions, like toward this girl named Gwen, which was perhaps a strange place to go after Tribe but then I have always followed musical whims that make no sense. Phife’s mind was wandering too. He said as much. He said “Beats, Rhymes and Life” was when he felt himself drifting away from the band and them from him. “The Love Movement”, the band’s last in 1998, had its moments too, but you could already feel everyone with one foot out the door. Phife’s best song there doesn’t involve trading lyrics with Tip at all; it's just Phife, which was appropriately symbolic. And he went out swinging: “I'm the captain of the ship, fuck a William Shatner.” Only Phife could diss James T. Kirk.
In the 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”, director Michael Rappaport sought to determine what splintered the group, honing in on the adversarial relationship between Tip and Phife that by the band’s end had stopped burbling and boiled over. Phife memorably termed it as “Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest, like Diana Ross and the Supremes.” He summarized: “I’m Florence Ballard!” No you are not, I wanted to say; Tip was Donna Summer, you were Grace Jones.
Yesterday Phife Dawg, née Malik Taylor, passed away due to complications from diabetes at the too-early age of 45. I first turned to Bruce Springsteen’s “Terry’s Song”, which he composed in the wake of his longtime friend and assistant, Terry Magovern, passing away. In it he sings: “They say you can’t take it with you / But I think that they’re wrong. All I know is I woke up this morning / and something big was gone.” Choosing a Bruce song as my go-to mourning might sound odd, but I think I know why. When I first saw the news of Phife’s passing, I felt, hand of God, an inexpressible whoosh in my stomach – not a knot, not a pit, a whoosh, like an essential ingredient to my makeup had just exited the universe stage left.
Something big was gone.