When I pressed play on my cassette deck on that Saturday afternoon I had no idea that my life was about to change. It was October of 1991. Me and my best friend Jimmy had spent the day biking around the city, hitting comic shops and record stores, making “investments” with our allowance. I remember I’d come up on some Jim Lee penciled issues of Uncanny, and then, on Jimmy’s emphatic recommendation, dropped the remainder of my dough at Sam Goody on a cassette copy of The Low End Theory. He cautioned that it was nothing like the abrasive sound-bombs of Public Enemy or the meathead aggression of LL Cool J—my two favorites at the time. But he said it was like De La Soul Is Dead, “but way less funny but still dope as fuck.” We were 12; Robert Christgau we were not. Anyhow, I went home alone and hit my drafting table to work on the comic I was drawing at the time, and popped in the cassette.
The nimble bassline and Q-Tip’s driven stream of consciousness on “Excursions” piqued my interest immediately—I had that, “Oh yes, this is it!” moment—but as the song went on I nodded to the rhythm section and my attention turned back to my pages. Then:
DUUUUUUUUUM, DUUUUUUUUUM, DUM, DUUUM, DUMMMMM…. “MICROPHONE CHECK, ONE-TWO WHAT IS THIS!”
I mean, for real, WHAT IS THIS?
Phife’s urgent, high-strung vocals jumped right off the track’s acoustic bassline, out of my boombox speakers, and grabbed me by the teeth. For the next 45 seconds everything else went away. I played the album over and over that evening, and late into the night, wrapped up in the perfect chemistry of Tip’s smooth cadence and obtuse lyrics, and Phife’s excitable timbre and blunt point of view. Where Tip flowed atop the beats with ease, Phife strangled the track and bounded around it with his own counter rhythms. And his hilarious, grumpy Napoleon Complex-ridden raps were endlessly entertaining.
In the weeks that followed, Jimmy and I would rap the songs on the album to each other over the phone. He was always Q-Tip. I was always Phife Dawg. I was, of course, aware that this was Jimmy’s way of asserting his alpha since Tip was the leader, but I was totally cool with it, because at the end of the day, Phife had the one-liners.
“I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path.”
“I never half step, ‘cause I’m not a half stepper/Drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper.”
“All I do is write rhymes, eat, drink, shit, and bone.” (!!!!)
“Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am/Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram.”
And of course the eternally epic:
“Bust a nut in your eye to show you where I come from.”
Those lines are etched in my brain forever. That whole album is indelible. My passion for music, and hip-hop in particular, was elevated from casual to obsessive, and though I didn’t know it, the course of my life changed forever.
So it would've been hard for that adolescent me to imagine 25 years later waking up to a text from Q-Tip informing him of Phife’s passing. But that happened this morning. And it was horrible.
Last night Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor succumbed to complications from his lifelong affliction, type-1 diabetes, at the far-too-young age of 45. He had been battling the effects of the disease publicly for years—quite obviously physically encumbered—but, quite frankly, no one saw this coming. His loss is one that will be felt by his wife, family, bandmates, but also by all of us.
Phife was a great rapper, and he made incredible, genre-shifting music with A Tribe Called Quest. Their sound was the connective tissue not only in hip-hop—universally hailed by everyone from Dr. Dre to Mobb Deep to Pusha T to Cypress Hill to The Roots—but to an entire generation of young people. Find me someone who will tell you, “Nah, I’m not into Tribe.” It’s not possible.
We have lost Phife Dawg in the physical, but his music, his legacy, and his spirit live eternal in his brothers—in A Tribe Called Quest—and every life their music changed.
But when I calculate the impact of his life on this planet, I think not about the music, but about the friendships. Try and wrap your mind around the number of relationships forged upon a shared love of A Tribe Called Quest. I can easily rattle off a dozen vitally important people in my life, for whom Phife, Tip, Ali, and Jarobi provided the kernel of our kinship. And I know I’m not alone.
Of course the deepest friendships inspired by ATCQ were those that exist between the members of the group itself. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi are best friends; they’re family. Though as a unit they infamously frayed and grew apart for time—as many childhood friends do—ultimately their bond is unbreakable.
I had the rare opportunity to meet Phife in the last few months of his life. Though the specifics of that meeting are a story for another day, it’s worth noting that in those moments Phife was not a man dying, but a man finding new life. I can’t explain the joy of seeing him, Tip, Jarobi and Busta cracking up, doing play-by-play on a Jets game in Jamaican patois—his sense of humor and voice remained strong despite his ailments.
So save all the sad songs and the tearjerkers. We have lost Phife Dawg in the physical, but his music, his legacy, and his spirit live eternal in his brothers—in A Tribe Called Quest—and every life their music changed.
God lives through.