Watch the late great Phife Dawg freestyle with The Roots in 1995

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Phife Dawg with The Roots | still from video
Phife Dawg with The Roots | still from video

The hip-hop world was stunned when news broke that Malik Isaac Taylor, AKA Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, passed away this morning from complications related to diabetes. He was 45 years old.

For those unfamiliar with Phife, Tribe and their significance, this heartfelt obit over at Okayplayer will get you up to speed. In short: Phife and his mates (MCs Q-Tip and Jarobi, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad)  sprung up from roots in the New York scene before breaking beyond the hip-hop world to reach the mainstream “alternative rock,” Lollapalooza-era crowd. But they were arguably one of the first artists to do this without going totally pop, or crossover.

The aesthetic of their earliest releases was loudly and proudly Afrocentric, the music was rooted in b-boy culture’s fierce beats, sharp cuts, pointed rhymes, and crate-digging samples of jazz (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on “Excursions”) and rock (Lou Reed on “Can I Kick It”). Their sound evolved on subsequent releases, but on their own terms, adopting a soulful groove and an occasionally electronic sheen. But it never sounded like anything but Tribe; the trio retired for the first time in 1998 without having released a bad album.

I was thinking just the other day about hip-hop records that have carried the vast significance – both musically, socially and culturally – as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and I’d say Tribe’s definitive 1993 album Midnight Marauders is high up there. (UPDATE: Upon hearing the news, Kendrick got an arena full of 18,000 fans in Australia to chant “Phife Dawg” – see it via Okayplayer.) For many listeners (like myself), that record was their gateway to hip-hop, and lyrically it waxed poetic on issues of race and society as much as it brought the party. And the jams – oh my god (yes oh my god) the jams.

Phife Dawg wasn’t just a Yankees fan | photo via The Source

If Tip was Tribe’s philosopher who liked to cut loose, Phife was the crew’s hype man who had a lot to say. They were two sides of the same coin in that way, and Phife made his mark with a flow that brimmed with joy. You could hear him smiling as you listened to him rap, and his turns of phrase were as clever as much as they were substantive.

One of his most famous lyrics, “I like ’em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian / my name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation,” is a great example – heard on the song “Electric Relaxation,” it speaks to macking with the ladies as much as it speaks to the importance of looking beyond race and just seeing people as people, while still being unabashedly proud of your heritage and identity – a lot of information to pack into, what, two bars?

He was also the biggest sports fan of the crew, and most photographs of him feature a ballcap of some sort. Usually it was the Yankees, or some New York team, but as we see in the photo above, that’s not entirely the case. Phife also spit some fire on “Where Ya At,” a track on the 1993 debut LP from NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, who was then center with the Orlando Magic. Despite the conventional wisdom about professional athletes making music, it’s actually a really good song.

Phife and Tribe led the charge in a defiantly non-commercial style of hip-hop that eventually, over time, saw some degree of commercial success. It’s what gets described a lot in writerly circles as “conscious hip-hop,” a term I’m not super fond of – so, like, what the heck is “unconscious hip-hop,” then? – but I get it, it’s shorthand for “socially conscious,” and in a way this put them in the same court as their Philadelphia peers The Roots, who were on the ascent at around the same time as them.

Which brings us to this video that’s been floating around YouTube for the past few years. (Big ups Dom Angelella from Lithuania and DRGN King for reminding me of its existence.) It’s The Roots, Tribe, and some friends freestyling on Lorna’s Corner – a public access cable show that aired in Hartford, CT. The great Razhel beatboxes, and at around 2:26, Black Thought passes the mic to Phife who raps about the NY / Philly connection and shouts out Questlove (standing next to him with a huge grin) and the Corestates Spectrum (rhymed, for better or worse, and undeniably hysterically, with “all up in your rectum”).

It’s just under a minute long, but sort of encapsulates everything that was great about Phife Dawg, closing on the line “Solo LPs for all three of us / and Ailicia E’s the one that’s controlling the bus / leaving MCs in the dust, cause like Syracuse, we always crush.”

Damn. RIP Phife Diggy. Watch the freestyle below, and check out Tribe’s 1997 performance at The Annenberg Center here, via Philebrity.

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