Following the tragic news of A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg's death earlier today, countless fans and musicians have poured out their thoughts and memories of the legendary MC. Among them is actor and director Michael Rapaport, who spoke with Complex about his longtime friendship with Phife and the legacy that he left behind. Rapaport worked with Phife on the 2011 documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest that takes a close look at the rise of the group and their journey to becoming one of the most influential groups in hip-hop history.
“[Phife] was part of one of the most important, influential groups in music. The thing that appealed to me about a Tribe Called Quest, in the long run, is that it’s classic American music. They’re one of the groups that put it past just being this genre. He was just a sweetheart of a guy—scrappy. He was, you know, the five foot, short guy, little guy, and he was the first one to tell you that. He was tough, but a sweetheart. A scrappy guy, loving guy.
“I never saw him not light up when someone approached him about being Phife from a Tribe Called Quest. And you know we did that press run and I never saw him not light up every time someone approached him. 'Appreciate that fam,' every single time. He never seemed to take that for granted. As much as Phife loved hip-hop, I’d have to say he probably loved sports just as much, if not more. There’s so much footage we cut out of the movie where he’s talking about sports. We have stuff in there, but he loved sports. Sensitive guy, emotional, vulnerable.
“The difference between him and Tip in music… Tip is this eccentric musical genius. Phife was always like the guy you could relate to on the corner. He was the dude you felt like you knew. He was the dude chilling on the corner who would be like, 'Yo, what up fam?' Together that contrast and that mix worked beautifully for a Tribe Called Quest—you know their voices, their energy, and what they rapped about. It would be hard to find someone to say anything bad about him. He was just a good dude, a sweet dude. His voice is something that I think is so unique. There’s that sort of this boyish quality to his voice, you know that enthusiastic, boyish quality. He had a great sense of humor.
“[When we were working together] we would literally be like, 'Talk to me about this one song,' and then we’d be on this tangent about Earl Campbell as a running back: Like, 'Phife, I need to talk to you about 'Midnight Marauders.' I’m not sure how we got on Earl Campbell, or why we’re talking about Walter Payton, can we stay on topic?' He was just the most approachable, regular dude. He’s a gem in the hip-hop shit, and a Queens dude. He was a New Yorker. A true New York guy. His music and the impression you have of Phife and whatever you think he would be like, he was exactly that. There was nothing false about his persona as Phife and the person who is Malik. It was the same guy.
“One of my favorite lines that he said was that 'Height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck.' I don’t know how old he was, but that to me is the most funny shit for him to say. It’s sort of like Biggie saying how he’s as ugly as ever. Phife did it before him, and not there was any race to it, but you know, there’s a way to articulate that. You know he loved being Phife. He loved music. He loved his wife. He would tear up all the time—cry right on camera in front of you without any hesitation talking about the love of his wife and his mom. This was a sensitive guy, a very vulnerable guy. For his wife and his friends and obviously his Tribe Called Quest family, it’s devastating. And it’s devastating for hip-hop, and it’s devastating for someone so young, with so much heart. He’s a little big man. A little fucking big man.”