Wide Angle

A Final Farewell to the Funky Diabetic

Phife Dawg was the heart of A Tribe Called Quest. Hanif Abdurraqib’s book is a moving tribute to the lost rapper.

Phife Dawg.
Phife Dawg.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival.

The late 2016 release of A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, should have been a moment of absolute triumph. The group’s first album in nearly two decades was a spirited, invigorating reunion, a parade of greats returning to claim their crown. But the album came in the wake of, and was colored by, deep tragedy: first, the untimely death of member Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor as he succumbed to complications from the diabetes that had plagued him for much of his life, and then the 2016 election, a devastating exhibition that gave bigotry a new national voice. Although not originally intended as such, We Got It From Here became a response to both those things: The verses Phife prepared before the grave echoed all over the record, last gasps about love and music and America transmitted to listeners just when they needed them most. But his ghostly presence proved there could be no one worthy of filling the gap he was leaving behind, and the end of his life would be the final stand of Tribe.

Cultural critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s book Go Ahead in the Rain is the first major work about Tribe created in the sad years since We Got It From Here. Part biography, part autobiography, part historical narrative, and part collection of letters—most addressed from Abdurraqib to individual members of the group—the book sees Tribe through Abdurraqib’s eyes as a black Midwestern teenager coming of age in the ’90s, enraptured by the verbal jabs of a “funky diabetic” hissing through his cassette player. But while the book is a deeply personal, moving meditation on the entire group, I found it most poignant as a tribute to the late Phife Dawg, the “5-Foot Assassin,” to whom the book is dedicated.

Abdurraqib’s attachment to Phife stems in part from how he could see parts of himself within the mythos of Phife: sharp rhymer, jokester, sports fan, distracted slacker, pop culture scholar, member of various creative crews, lover of sweetness and sugar, sometimes insecure character always ready to transcend his position. In the personal letters, bundles of which are scattered throughout the book, Abdurraqib writes to Phife as if he had been a slightly inscrutable yet easygoing friend whose psyche could have used some prodding—someone with whom he could break down great rap songs, rant about the latest Knicks game, and get into how it feels to be the overlooked member of your family or your crew of friends. There are other closer, more heartbreaking ties: In one letter, Abdurraqib writes to Malik’s mother, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, addressing her upon the moment of her son’s death, speaking of the grief that Abdurraqib can understand, having buried a parent himself—a motherless son speaking to a sonless mother.

There’s something fitting about this Phife focus—the late Malik Taylor was often hailed as larger-than-life, while never seeming to occupy the spotlight. As legendary as Tribe is, it’s often most immediately associated with the distinctive nasal tone and production wizardry of Q-Tip, who was (and still is) often seen as the central driver of the show, with Phife relegated to little brother status, the petulant sidekick and never the frontman. Abdurraqib makes a passionate case, though, that they were “both equals, fighting for [their] own space in relation to each other,” something that led to the infamous tension that would split the group up in the late ’90s. Tip may have sculpted most of the backbone of Tribe, but without Phife’s anarchy, it may never have been truly great—and they both knew this.

Abdurraqib achingly, beautifully illustrates the evolution of Phife’s role. From Tribe’s debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (in which Phife only raps on a few songs), through the final album of the ’90s era, The Love Movement, Abdurraqib highlights the unique energy Phife brought to the group—the punchlines and disses and movie references and ribald dick-swinging—and how he gradually became a more dominant presence in each subsequent Tribe album, in part because he stood up to Q-Tip, making sure he was given his due. Most of the album lyrics showcased throughout the book are Phife’s own, taken from songs like “Butter,” “Oh My God,” and “The Hop,” to show off his penchant for wordplay, his combative nature, his use of patois, and his lovable self-centeredness. (“You see you, your career is done like Johnny Carson’s/ Get me vexed, I do like Left Eye, start an arson.”) Abdurraqib contrasts Phife’s style with Q-Tip’s: how Tip spit his verses declaratively and confidently while Phife would walk in and bellow an opening line that would sweep away everything that had come before, roaring power versus poised self-assurance. Following Tribe’s sad breakup saga, Abdurraqib even explores Phife’s solo album, Ventilation: Da LP, a vibrant project that was unfortunately nowhere near as successful as other members’ post-Tribe works and eventually fell out of print and into obscurity. But Abdurraqib, a lonely fan of the tape at the time, picks apart the features of Phife’s performance and presence that so resonated with him, to see him win and have his journey be a just artistic triumph:

I loved how bitter you sounded, Phife. I always wanted you to sound like you wanted to prove yourself again. I get that you thought you didn’t get your shine, and I believed you then, and I believed you always. I saw you in interviews, sometimes bursting at your edges to speak, only to be drowned out. I saw you in photos, playing in the background. What you gave in song was so much larger than what you were asked to give outside of it. I was thankful for your anger, Malik.

Phife never attained the universal stature outside of Tribe that Q-Tip did—as the go-to assist for acts from Mobb Deep to Kanye—and that only cements his legend with that of Tribe more deeply. As Abdurraqib proves here, there wasn’t much for Phife outside of Tribe, but Tribe was nothing without him. So it’s apt that Go Ahead in the Rain is as much a love letter to Phife as it is to his group and the decade at large, for few embodied the still-beloved ’90s “golden age” of rap and the ethos of Tribe better than Malik: the verbal jabs, the sense of abandon, the vibes and stuff, and most importantly, the constant battle to prove and assert yourself—especially when no one believes in you like you do, and you have to do it all on your own.

Book cover of Go Ahead in the Rain.
University of Texas