Brow Beat

Why It Hurts So Much to Lose Phife Dawg, the Irascible, Hilarious Soul of A Tribe Called Quest

Phife in 2011.
Phife in 2011.

Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

“Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am.” So opens Phife Dawg’s verse on “Check the Rhime,” released in 1991 as the lead single from A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark album, The Low End Theory. It’s a weird line, all garbled syntax and apparent non-sequitur: After all, Low End was Tribe’s second album, and introductions had already been made. But it’s got a quirky beauty to it, particularly the back end, “how nice I am,” a phrase that rushed out of Phife’s gruff voice with his inimitable friendly swagger. The line became a sort of calling card: “I never let a statue tell me how nice I am,” Phife declared on 1993’s “Award Tour,” a sly dig at unbestowed Grammys. A year later DJ Premier chopped Phife’s “funky introduction” into the hook for “ALONGWAYTOGO,” the de-facto opener of Gang Starr’s 1994 classic Hard to Earn.

A funky introduction is the only proper kind when eulogizing Phife Dawg, née Malik Taylor, the surly and hilarious soul of A Tribe Called Quest and one of the more criminally underrated MCs to ever grab a microphone. Phife died Tuesday at the age of 45, when he finally lost his long battle with complications from diabetes.

No hip-hop group in history was—is—more fiercely beloved than A Tribe Called Quest, and I’m not sure if any is even close. After their 1990 debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythman inventive and eclectic work largely dominated by fellow Tribe member Q-Tip that would have assured the group a sort of quirky immortality had they never made anything else—the group fired off back-to-back masterpieces with 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders, two of the best albums of any kind ever made. Depending on when you caught them, A Tribe Called Quest had three or four members: MCs Phife and Q-Tip, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi, an off-and-on, vaguely-defined presence who could be described as non-canonical. But the group’s heart and its magic was the interplay between Tip and Phife, Tip’s nasal, eclectic intellectualism in perfect alchemy with Phife’s raspy, irascible irreverence. Tip was a genius, and knew it; Phife knew he wasn’t, which often made him one in spite of himself.

He was one of the funniest rappers to ever touch a mic, an MC whose descriptions had the eclectic vividness of the best satirists. His grasp of pop culture was virtuosic, starting with television: “Styles be fat like Jackie Gleason/ the rest be Art Carney/ people love the Dawg like the kids love Barney,” or, “I’ll have you left without a job/ like Isaac from The Love Boat.” Then film: “I pull more peeps than the peeps at the premiere of Pocahontas,” a strange line finally explained by Phife in 2013 when he recalled, 17 years later, that “the premiere was of record breaking attendance!” Then books: “Cock is longer than the hat worn by Dr. Seuss.” Not worn by the cat, but by Seuss himself! And of course sports: too many to even mention, but the immortal “to top it off Starks got ejected” kicker to the first verse of “8 Million Stories” is to the mid-’90s Knicks what The Breaks of the Game is to the late-’70s Blazers.

And all jokes aside, he was a murderously great rapper. For starters, he’s responsible for the single greatest “Yo!” in hip-hop history, the first word of his opening verse on The Low End Theory’s “Buggin’ Out.” Twenty-five years later that “Yo!” still lands like a right hook, laying us out for what’s next: “Microphone check, one two, what is this?/ The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business.” Or his opening line on “Scenario”: “Bo knows this/ and Bo knows that/ but Bo don’t know jack / ’cause Bo can’t rap,” a perfect blend of sports, pop culture (riffing on Nike’s then-ubiquitous “Bo Knows” ad campaign), and irrepressible Queens swagger.

The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders are remarkably different works, with Low End standing as the apotheosis of hip-hop/jazz hybridity, and Marauders embracing a more collagist, boom-bap aesthetic that both absorbed and anticipated the influence of producers like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, RZA, and J. Dilla. (In an incredible historical confluence, Midnight Marauders was released the same day as Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.) While Low End might still be the (slightly) better album, Midnight Marauders is Phife’s high-water mark, a record he owns from front to back. Phife’s voice is the first heard on the album’s opener, “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)”: “Linden Boulevard represent, represent/ Tribe Called Quest represent, represent.” He delivers show-stopping verses on “Award Tour,” “We Can Get Down,” and “Oh My God,” and “8 Million Stories” remains his greatest solo showcase, hip-hop’s answer to the Book of Job.

Marauders’ best track—and to my ears the greatest piece of music in Tribe’s magnificent catalogue—is “Electric Relaxation,” a gorgeous back-and-forth between Tip and Phife over an incandescent sample of Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew.” The production is flawless, the texture and complexion of the track shifting subtly depending on who’s rapping. “Electric Relaxation” is perched squarely between love and lust, a song about desire thrillingly teetering on the edge of the disreputable. Towards the end of the song Phife, unable to, uh, contain himself, lets off an off-color remark about a sofa that steals the song. If you don’t know it just listen, and if you do, listen anyways.

A Tribe Called Quest broke up in 1998, on the heels of a woefully under-appreciated final album, The Love Movement. Phife’s post-Tribe career was speckled and uneven. In 2000, he released his only solo album, Ventilation: Da LP, which was terrible. In the mid-2000s, Tribe set off on a series of reunion tours, one of which was captured by Michael Rapaport’s terrific 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. And Phife was the most memorable part of Rapaport’s film—warm, generous, funny, relentlessly upbeat in the face of trying circumstances.

It’s always awful when a beloved musician dies. When it’s a B.B. or a Bowie, there’s something about the magnitude that feels sort of ungraspable, like the universe just lost some massive treasure that it’s still struggling to understand. Phife wasn’t one of those, and wouldn’t claim to be. But hey, when’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic? Legends die more often than we’d like, but today I feel like I lost a friend.