His name was weird. He was the harder of the two lead guys in A Tribe Called Quest to love, because come on: Q-Tip is the most charming guy imaginable. He dropped rhymes that will be stuck in my head forever, about Seamans furniture, Dawn from En Vogue, Mayor David Dinkins.
Phife Dawg, insanely, horribly, is dead at 45. His rhymes were inscrutable, bouncing from playful to gross, his voice full of energy and bite. But he was a guy you learned to love, listening to Tribe Called Quest albums a million times over, because he was so honest and not trying to impress. Even when A Tribe Called Quest became one of the most influential hip-hop groups of all time, he felt like a dude in the neighborhood who maybe said too much, who made you a little uncomfortable, even, with how much detail he went into. But who you had to appreciate for being himself, and staying himself, no matter what he did. And he was funny, so funny.
Phife meant a lot to me. In ninth grade, in 1990, hip-hop felt like a very serious thing. I’d found my way into it from gateway groups like The Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, respected and feared the gangster horror stories of Ice-T, thought NWA was just way out there. I didn’t learn to really love hip-hop, though, until my best friend turned me onto an album called “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.”
Weird title, right? A Tribe Called Quest — also a weird name! Everyone in the group was weird, just like I was — showed me that hip-hop could be strange and quirky and eccentric and gleefully dumb. It didn’t have to be about straight-ahead bragging rhymes with Rick Rubinesque beats and charging guitars, or the gorgeous sonic chaos of the Bomb Squad and revolutionary straight talk of Chuck D. It could be Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” looped over a simple beat, while Phife and Tip delivered understated, completed infectious rhymes I would spend the next 25 years mouthing along to in the car, walking around, just thinking about:
Can I kick it? To my Tribe that flows in layers
Right now, Phife is a poem sayer
At times, I’m a studio conveyer
Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?
I don’t want to ruin those lines — the start of Phife’s verse on “Can I Kick It” — by overanalyzing them. There’s a lot happening and nothing happening. There’s an electric, pleasurable hum in the made-up phrase “studio conveyer” that evokes Phife’s pulsing creativity, wit as a communicator, and status as an everyman just looking for anything that rhymed with “layers” once he boxed himself into that rhyme scheme.
The part about asking Dinkins to be his mayor — it’s just a phrase that rhymes, but it’s also filled with pride at NYC’s first African-American mayor, a casual civic-mindedness, a political consciousness that didn’t have to be the thing Phife led with, because it was just part of who he was.
A Tribe Called Quest, felt to me, like the first fully rounded, fully formed hip-hop group, because they could bounce so easily from politics to self-effacing jokes to sex rhymes to words that just sounded good together. Again, I was 14 when I got into them. They seemed to go on the same dopey misadventures my best friend and I did. I can’t see a sign for El Segundo without thinking of “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” their song about driving from New York to a town about 15 miles from the one where I grew up.
It was obvious Tribe had never been there — they make it sound like a remote Mexican village — but it was as foreign to them as New York was to me. We were all a bunch of kids figuring it out. (Tip and Phife, childhood friends, were still teenagers when the group hit it big.) Phife rapped on “8 Million Stories” about getting on the wrong plane once and ending up in Boston instead of Georgia. One time my best friend and I took the wrong bus to the comic book store and ended up in Compton.
It’s tempting to tie this into a big racial thing about how Tribe called quest made me, a white kid from San Pedro, California, understand a distant, East Coast, African-American culture. But honestly, I found them so soon, or they found me so soon, that I didn’t have time to register them as something different. They got to me at the exact age when I was first finding my own tastes, before the prejudices and expectations of the world had much time to mess with me, and everything clicked.
Tribe just clicked with millions of people, and Phife’s humanity was a big part of the reason why. White kids liked them, black kids liked them, the best friend who introduced me to them (‘sup Juan, schtooops) was born in El Salvador.
We might like to think that people unite and rally around the high-mindedness of Chuck D or KRS-One, but the truth is, we’re more likely to find paths of rhythm on dumb road trips where we talk about politics, talk about girls we like, and maybe lose our wallets.
Rest in Peace, Phife Dawg. Thank you.