What Phife taught me

Q-Tip (left), Phife Dawg (centre) and Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest perform at Barclays Center on November 20, 2013 in New York City. (AFP)

Q-Tip (left), Phife Dawg (centre) and Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest perform at Barclays Center on November 20, 2013 in New York City. (AFP)

Last week marked a year since A Tribe Called Quest emcee Malik Izaak Taylor, popularly known as Phife Dawg, met his untimely death at 45.

Tribe fans Ofentse Mboweni and Luke Feltham revisited some of their favourite lines, from some of the band’s most famed and acclaimed hits, to dissect some of the Phifer’s work and reflect on what these mean to them.

Ofentse

  • Award Tour (and why we should always give ourselves props)

a) “When was the last time you heard the Phifer sloppy?/ Lyrics Anonymous; you never hear me copy.”

Great artists make music for themselves first, and their audience after. The finished products we continue jamming to decades later had to be redone and polished countless times before reaching our ears.

The five-foot assassin, in his view, had a justified and true belief that he was serving us the finest cuts and was “never sloppy”.

Had he not believed his own hype, we never would have a had a Midnight Marauders (or The Low End Theory or People’s Instinctive Travels, for that matter.

We should all believe our hype sometimes (it might turn out to be more than just that) and stay true to our craft.

b) “Niggas know the time when Tribe is in the jam/ I never let a statue tell me how nice I am.”

Imma let y’all finish but I’ve got this to say: with rap continuing to get the cold shoulder at the Grammys, the line above could not be more pertinent. True Tribe fans know the group always came “with more hits than the Braves and the Yankees” and they never needed accolades for us to recognise this.

  • The Chase, Part II (and the importance of self-care)

“[Q-Tip] Damn Phife you got fat.

[Phife] Yeah, I know it looks pathetic/ Ali Shaheed Muhammad got me doing calisthenics.”

Older emcees like KRS-One waxed lyrical about self-mastery and Phife, Tip and their compatriots of the jazz-rap era continued this tradition, always stressing the importance of understanding oneself and rising above one’s environment.
In this line, Phife shows us that, not only was he “in lyrical fitness” (to quote Canibus), but he made efforts to stay in shape physically too. Through this line alone, the Phifer, who was diabetic, reminds us posthumously of the importance of caring for oneself, regardless of the circumstances.

  • Electric Relaxation (and the need to tear down borders)

“I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican and Haitian/ [The] name is Phife dawg from the Zulu Nation.”

It speaks for itself. Although he was most likely speaking about his preference for women, Malik is down with all shades and nationalities.

United States President Donald Trump could surely learn a thing a two from Dawg - building walls ain’t cool. As a member of the Universal Zulu Nation, which has internationalism as one of its core tenets, Phife sought to promote the idea of !ke e: ǀxarra ǁke (or unity in diversity/ diverse people unite).

  • God Lives Through (and standing tall)

“Big up myself every time when it comes to this/ MCs be runnin’ scared as if they watching the exorcist.”

“Confidence is key” is basically the message here. Now this seems like the point already made in the second Phife quotable, but belief in self is an overarching theme in Malik’s raps. At five-feet, Dawg showed us why we should always stand tall.

Luke

  • Buggin’ Out (and why we should make our own way)

“You wanna diss the Phifer but you still don’t know the half/ I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path”

Before New Balance shoes became a must-have for any hipster to complete a perfect, pretentious outfit, they were the shoe your awkward dad wore for his monthly run. In the 90s, much like today, Nike and Adidas reigned supreme in the world of hip hop fashion - which is why Phife didn’t bother with them. The five-foot assassin wasn’t interested in following any trend or prescribed route, he made his own.

Of course, the significance of the line goes far beyond a choice in footwear but would come to define the trailblazing influence Phife would have on the genre in the next decade.

  • We the people… (and not letting the bastards get you down)

“You bastards overlooking street art / Better yet, street smarts but you keep us off the charts / So motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians”

Fuck y’all know about true competition?

15 years after after the release of The Low End Theory and shortly after Phife’s death, ATCQ would release We got it from here … thank you 4 your service - an album which proved that right up until his death, Phife was on the same Tip.

There’s still no place on the ‘Narrow path’. As if awakened from a malfunctioned cryogenic chamber, Tribe emerged to an arguably more facile hip hop world. One that is far quicker to reward mediocrity with adoration and awards. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t bother the Phifer. Chart numbers and sales say nothing about your talent. If anything, they prove that you’re easy to consume and palatable to a superficial audience uninterested in “Street smarts”. Phife’s attitude throughout his career definitely had a hand in giving contemporary artists like J.Cole to say “Fader. Fuck your magazine hater” and not compromise their sound.

  • Steve Biko (Stir it up) (and stir some more)

“Hip hop scholar since being knee high to a duck/ The height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck”

An intellectual of rap, Phife gave his all to hip hop from day one. Us hip hop fans, probably more so than those of any other genre, can’t help but appreciate someone who evidently has spent a lifetime honing their craft so as to better represent their style of music.

What was truly endearing about Phife was his glee in embracing who he was. He didn’t view being short as any sort of hindrance, he was happy to be the size of the shortest player in NBA history. He even bragged that “they call me Dr Pepper”, over his predilection for soft drinks.

  • We can get down (and yet still higher)

“My man where ya going, you can’t escape/ When the Tribe is in the house that means nobody is safe”

The Five-Foot Freak has moved on, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting off lightly. With their sultry jazz-rap, Tribe and Phife helped shape hip hop forever. And you can’t escape that. Even in 2017. Phife entered the house and will not be leaving anytime soon - so watch your back.

So thank you, Phife Dawg and ATCQ, for the 8-million stories and for taking us with you, sonically, on your journeys to El Segundo, your local bodega in Queens and many more places we couldn’t even dream of being at.

Sincerely

Your South African fans

Luke Feltham
Ofentse Mboweni

Ofentse Mboweni

Ofentse Mboweni is the communications officer at Grow Great. He holds an honours degree in Political Studies from Wits
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