NEIL RILEY ‘17
I will never forget the first time that I heard A Tribe Called Quest. I remember sitting in the car with my older brother, driving around my hometown with the windows down, trying to catch a little bit of breeze from the balmy summer day. He turned to me and said in his Homer Simpson-like voice “listen to this, I think you’ll like it.”
He turned up the dial as “Check the Rhime” blew through the speakers and into my life. The horns blared up and the drums kicked in, and my insatiable taste for hip hop was born thanks to the mellow, cool rhymes of Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed and the gruff and energetic flow of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor.
I will also never forget March 23, 2016, the day after my birthday, when my brother sent me a text simply saying, “Phife Dawg died. Sad day.”
It is a strange feeling losing someone you have never met, but who is so important to you. I could try to write about how he died from diabetes after a lifetime of advocacy, calling attention to the disease. I could try to write about his family, his friends and his relationship with his group members, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
But I don’t know much about any of those things. What I know is how the music Phife created with A Tribe Called Quest made me feel. I can turn on any of the trio’s albums and immediately relax, immediately be brought back to days as simple as the beats the group chose to rap to. Phife and Q-Tip gelled flawlessly and complemented each other’s styles perfectly. They busted into the rap scene in the early 1990s, right in the middle of the Golden Age. Together, their smooth, laid-back, but never lazy approach helped to shape the jazz-rap genre as an alternative to the hard-hitting aggression coming from acts like Public Enemy and N.W.A. Their socially conscious message allowed them to fit in with the Native Tongues collective alongside De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. At the same time, they strove for honesty and relatability, and always captured both rappers’ sharp wit.
In one of my favorite tracks off The Low End Theory (1991), “Butter,” Phife tells the story of a high school love interest named “Flo.” He raps about the lessons he learned after the relationship went bad, offers some philosophical advice about women and still finds space for humor with lines like, “Cause I am not the one, I got more game than Parker Brothers/
Phife Dog is on the mic and I’m smooth like butter.”
For me, A Tribe Called Quest is all about the dichotomy. It was Q-Tip’s chilled rhymes versus Phife Dawg’s high-pitched, high-energy delivery. It was jazz trumpet and bass samples versus hip hop drums. It was social consciousness versus sharp humor.
Between the trio, they found a synergy that produced some of the most important records in the history of hip hop.
The Tribe lost a member, but one thing’s for sure: I’ll never forget the five-foot assassin with the roughneck business.