Phife Dawg died today at the age of 45 due to complications from diabetes. The music world is reeling.
Q-Tip might have been the better-known MC, but the 5 foot assassin (real name: Malik Taylor) was an essential element in A Tribe Called Quest. Without his playful counterpoint to Q-Tip's smooth flow, the group might not have made the impact it did. They may have been positioned in the '90s as the "alternative" hip-hop group, but a whole generation of rappers and producers from all over the spectrum, from Kanye to Kendrick, grew up with Phife's voice in their ears. Without him or Tribe today's rap scene would sound very, very different. Certainly not as innovative. Probably not as fun.
Musicians have filled social media with tributes, and I've spent my morning filling my ears with A Tribe Called Quest classics. Here at Chart, though, we've been eulogizing people the same way since Phife asked Mr. Dinkins to be his mayor. This one isn't easy, because A Tribe Called Quest might as well be the dictionary definition of "cool," but in the interest of avoiding an 86,000 word tribute, here are 6 reasons Phife Dawg was cool.
His legendary microphone check
There's nowhere better to start than the immortal words everyone remembers first: "Yo, microphone check / one, two, what is this?" This, the rhyme Questlove calls his "rewind selector!" moment, is the instant the world listening to The Low End Theory, said "oh shit!"
In Michael Rappaport's 2011 Beats, Rhymes and Life this is the verse his assembled talking heads speak in hushed terms about, not Busta Rhymes' G.O.A.T. turn on "Scenario." That might have something to do with licensing issues, but nonetheless it better represents A Tribe Called Quest's peak in 1991. The Low End Theory is an all-time classic, and it's as much Phife's album as Tip's.
H was the Stockton to Q-Tip's Malone
Gilles Peterson likened Phife Dawg and Q-Tip to Lennon and McCartney, which is a nice sentiment, but ATCQ's afrocentric perspective offered an alternative to the great white man history of music that begins and ends with the Beatles. Phife was a huge basketball fan, and especially an appreciator of a good point guard, so let's instead call them Stockton and Malone.
Phife Dawg was the gritty, streetwise MC and Q-Tip was the smooth, dashiki-wearing lady's man. It's what let them be goofier and more introspective than their hip-hop peers, both at the same time. They played off each other. Along with the undeniable contributions of Ali Shaheed Muhammad (let's call him the Mark Eaton), neither would score as many points without the other.
He was a huge sports fan
Other than his 2000 solo album, Phife stayed mostly quiet in the time after Tribe's breakup. That had a lot to do with his personal struggles, mostly relating to his lifelong battle with diabetes and sugar addiction (his daughter says he drank a 2-litre bottle of Pepsi every day). But if he wanted to stay in the public eye, he would have made a great sports pundit.
It's why you saw him waxing to media outlets with his list of undersized point guards (he's probably the only MC to compare himself to Muggsy Bogues), or why as many sports sites are eulogizing him today as music sites. It's also why you can buy his personalized New Jersey Devils jersey for $225 (though it probably won't stay at that price for long).
He was funny without even trying
Or at least it seemed that way. His self-deprecating lyrics painted him as the "5 foot assassin," the "funky diabetic," the only MC with “height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck.” He was the short guy that would run circles around you on the court. The guy that would make you crack up without even really making a joke. He had the kind of swagger and charisma you can only get by not worrying about swagger or charisma.
He was as big a Tribe Called Quest fan as anyone else
Phife Dawg threw some shade at Q-Tip in "Flawless," sure, and Beats, Rhymes and Life painted a stark picture of their strained relationship, but he was willing to put it all aside for the undeniable greatness that came with their collaboration.
A Tribe Called Quest reunited a handful of times, including their final shows on Kanye West's Yeezus tour, and, most recently, for a 25th anniversary of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm performance on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. He was always open to doing another Tribe album, and you've got to think the performance would have been more than a one-off. Sadly, we'll never see what they might have done next.
He wanted to help others living with diabetes
Before he died, the "funky diabetic" was planning a charity foundation called Fight For Life to raise awareness of diabetes, renal failure, and lupus. Phife struggled with the disease for many years, in 2008 receiving a kidney transplant from his wife. Sadly, today, he passed away.