Ode To The Funky Diabetic: Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest

Malik Taylor aka Phife Dawg transitioned on March 22, 2016, from complications resulting from diabetes. His was 45 years-old. He was a husband, father, brother, and a member A Tribe Called Quest.

llustration by John Felix Arnold III

Phife Dawg’s passing is a closing portal to my childhood. It was 1991 and I was a Orlando suburban kid, pimping my Afrocentric Cross Colours gear and big purple suede Karl Kani shorts. If it weren’t for my baggy clothes, I was so skinny that I could turn sideways and disappear. My voice was cracking and I was getting strong enough to keep my oldest brother from putting my head underneath his foot. I traded my skateboard for a basketball. Michael Jordan was a cape-less Superman, and DJ Magic Mike and MC Madness were homegrown heroes. Shorties were developing breasts at different stages. Kids were “French kissing” in the halls and I was a salivating dog, looking at girls like high-kicking hot turkeys parading out of an oven.

Tribe’s “Butter” was warning me about stuntin’ chicks like “Flo”. Phife safeguarded me from the girls whose looks were a lie, “You get an ‘E’ for effort and ‘T’ for nice try”. As a bucktoothed black sheep who had negative macking skills, listening to “Butter” hyped me up to step to Eva with the fat ass. When she played me, it was whatever “cause I got the crazy game and I’m smooth like butter.”

The first time I heard “Scenario” was on 102 Jamz. I was in bed on a school night, but I left my boom box on to hear their late night hip-hop show. When that ominous Brother Jack McDuff sample came on, it sounded like a talking spaceship from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. My forehead crinkled and my eyes busted open from those crunching drums. I looked at my radio like, what is this? The speakers just stared back at me. My mind clouded into a mushroom at the sonic wave of Phife’s voice.

Heyo, Bo knows this, (What?) and Bo knows that (What?)
But Bo don’t know jack, cause Bo can’t rap

Bo Jackson was breaking baseball bats over his knee and running touchdowns like Forrest Gump. Those “Bo Knows” Nike commercials made him an athletic marvel. On Saturday mornings he was on one of my favorite cartoons, Pro Stars, with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzki, fighting crime, loving the kids and protecting the environment. Bo was the man until the Five-Foot Assassin flipped all that on its head.

“Scenario” became an impromptu dance session, a 2.0 successor to Rob Bass and E.Z. Rock (R.I.P.)’s “It Takes Two”. When it came on the radio, I dropped my pencil on my homework, hopped up and practiced my MC Hammer impression. I’d heard of A Tribe Called Quest through listening to the Jungle Brothers reference them on a mixtape that my brother’s girlfriend made me, but Tribe’s music eluded me. If you had an older brother that listened to hip-hop, then you were ahead of everybody. I had two actually, but they were listening to AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix, and Morrissey. Getting my full New York City fix started happening that summer after the sixth grade. On school breaks I was staying with my brother in Brooklyn. But before that, my avenues to the new dope were my homies, The Source, and recording videos off of Yo! MTV Raps. When artists like EPMD, Public Enemy, and Gang Starr dropped albums, they would get featured on Yo! And that was my introduction to their catalogue. Tribe was different.

At the basketball courts, trying to cross cats over, three girls were sitting on a sideline bench watching the game. They lived in my neighborhood and we all sat in the back of the bus together on our way to school, but seeing them at the park was new. They were watching us play ball and the pressure was on to channel Tim Hardaway’s handles. One of them was Eliana. A gold rollie chain dangled from her neck, spelling her name in cursive letters. She was thick and had on some daisy dukes and a white t-shirt that was ripped down the middle. She knew what the hell she was doing. Damn she had some big ‘ol titties.

We were playing five-on-five full court. Eliana and her girls were snapping on each other, and doing the Butterfly. When Eliana leaned over, the ball would get ripped from someone, it’d bounce off a player’s knee and into outer bounds, or somebody would pass it to the other team on a fast break. Off a half-court press I stole the ball. All on my lonesome I dribbled to the unguarded basket for a wide-open layup. The whole thing got slowed down while an orchestra underscored my highlight. My feet left the ground and I was sky bound. While floating up there a UFO bobbled in my peripheral, making me turn my head to catch Eliana’s fun bags pop out like E.T. flying high on a bike right pass my widening eyes that glowed like twin moons. Just as the rock was rolling off my fingertips, a giant hand from what seemed like an extension of God swung down and smashed the ball in my face. While seeing mini E.T.’s soaring in circles I could hear Eliana rapping, “I’m all that and then some, short, dark, and handsome, bust a nut inside your eye to show you where I come from…”. I was like, damn, I gotta get that album.

I didn’t understand The Low End Theory at first. It wasn’t like anything else at the time and I couldn’t stop listening to it. Why the Jazz samples and what’s a sky pager? I didn’t know that hip-hop could be anything. The production was like a Jackson Pollack painting that Doze Green traced and drew over. Jazz was black music. Rock N’ Roll was white music. Pops was listening to the Top 40’s oldies station in the car and that was the extent of my music education. Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer went out like lit matches in the wind. Bel Biv Devoe, Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation were R&B over break beats.

Maybe it was the Malcolm X book report that I did that semester that gave me a way into The Low End, or watching The Fly Girls dance to “Check The Rhyme” on In Living Color. Maybe it was my introduction to middle school clicks, or tribes. At school, my skin determined my group. At home, my interests determined my friends. Soon as my black and Latino friends ganged up on me, my dozens game couldn’t rattle off rapid return shots if my tongue was on fire. Dominating my white friends in sports got me respect and getting picked first for teams was taken for granted. Like the vocal and rhetorical contrasts between Q-Tip and The Five Foot Assassin, to be black in white suburban America was a schizophrenic balance. Tribe was weird. By blood or by circumstance, they represented displacement and reclamation. Their music was emblematic of my code switching and my pursuit to define the first half of my hyphenated race.

Tip was the eclectic Afrocentric romantic. His signature nasal pitched voice was unmistakable. His flow was a floating hover board surfing psychedelic waves of funk. He was art rap bucking at convention, reality rap before the term existed. The track “What?” was a scrambling and questioning of common assertions and double entendres. With a beat that sounded like it was made in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, “What?” taught me the possibilities of word arrangement were infinite. Who writes things like “Excuse me if I’m chillin, hey what, say what/What’s a fat man without food in his gut?” Phife was in some ways counter to Tip, but their collective voice was one of intuitive interplay.

Phife was the battle rapper, a short, dark complected kid whose clever and funny punch lines made him a lot taller. He didn’t rhyme about money, cars, and clothes. He maintained an innocence that reached back to when witty raps was a way of saying that we have a multi-dimensional way of seeing things too. Competitive lyrical prowess and boosting was a way of uplifting our self-esteem, discarding our ugly complex that would never measure up to the white standard of beauty.

L-R, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White (not pictured)

It was telling white America that the boundaries of our abilities reach far past the fixed perceptual frame that they see us through. It was about having fun like freestyling in cyphers with your boys before the school bell rung. Phife’s unabashed confidence and wordplay altered my reality, where Eva with the fat ass is begging to go out with me, “kick rocks biaatch”, I tell her, and after ripping the ball at half-court I do a 360 tomahawk dunk. Eliana be like “Ooo!” E.T. got his hoodie on, standing courtside. His whole fist lights up to give me a pound as I victory lap past him.

Over the years I realized that, even though The Poetic Abstract spoke to my aesthetics, I have found myself reciting Phife’s rhymes more often than Tip’s. The tone of Phife’s voice felt like one of my friends holding the wall at school talking shit. His cadence and rhythm made me remember his rhymes the way musicians recall standards. I imagine there are few Tribe fans who don’t know at least one of Phife’s verses. He was contagious.

When Michael Jackson died I was surprised, but I wasn’t worked up about it. I didn’t know the man. He was probably the most famous person in human history. It was bizarre, watching people on TV crying over his passing. My roommate at the time, an old German lady, whose father was a captured Nazi during WWII, was beside herself. She was sitting on her bed with her arms crossed and her door open when I came home from work, “Did you hear? Michael Jackson is dead,” she said, taking a puff from her cigarette watching the news. “Yeah,” I said. She shook her head and stopped, “Michael Jackson is dead.” She stretched her arms. reaching for the ceiling, “I can’t believe this.” I kept thinking yeah, ah nigga dead, that’s crazy. I don’t know.  

Playing Tribe’s “Jazz (We Got) Buggin’ Out” video with my daughter sitting on my lap, I started to rap “Microphone check one two what is this…”. Looking at Phife and the colors change around him, I was falling through a time warp to that sixth grade version of myself. It felt like the strings of responsibility were cutting me loose. Light began to envelope me. My daughter collapses her head into my chest. She sits up and starts bouncing to the beat. She looks at me and at the screen, pulling me 25 years back into the future. I tried to keep singing, frowning to halt tears. I didn’t know Phife. Never met him. I saw Tribe numerous times through out the years and followed them all the way through The Love Movement.

Phife, from a fan that grew up listening to your music, you were one of my first heroes that felt like you were talking to me. I love you and wish you a safe journey to the other side. Through your music, you taught me that Life is a quest and its significance foregoes its ultimate conclusion.

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