I could never get into Shakespeare when I was in high school, or classical poetry. The reading seemed too arcane, or I wasn’t trying hard enough. But I could get into A Tribe Called Quest.
Like Shakespeare, I had no idea what some of the words meant, and in a small town in the Midwest, pre-Internet and certainly pre-RapGenius.com, it took a lot of studying to decipher the meaning of lyrics sometimes—listening, re-listening, reading CD liner notes if they had printed lyrics, occasionally picking up a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia to see if there was a listing for someone like Marcus Garvey or Eldridge Cleaver.
But hip hop was so much cooler than Shakespeare. No offense to the bard, but you could bob your head to hip hop, no matter where you were from or what you looked like. Hamlet, not as much. Hip hop was accessible poetry from a far-away place (Queens!) that might as well have been a different country to someone in a town of 3,000 people in the middle of a cluster of flyover states. You could listen to it in your friend’s car, almost every album had curse words in the lyrics, and pretty much every teenager’s dad hated it (“that’s not music—they’re not even singing!”). I collected as much as I could obtain with my lawnmowing money, opening accounts with both mail-order CD services, Columbia House and BMG, and occasionally driving an hour to the nearest record store.
As much as I hate to admit it, all that was two decades ago, and only a handful of albums have made it through all my musical transitions, from cassettes to CDs to iTunes to Spotify. Two of them have never left heavy rotation: The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. I could always find a spot in my week for Tribe’s jazzy beats and two MCs who were masters of delivery and always sounded like they were having fun.
It was dumping snow outside the windows of my apartment in Denver yesterday when I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw the headline “Phife Dawg From A Tribe Called Quest Passes Away At Age 45.” And I thought, well, shit. Phife, aka Malik Taylor, had dealt with diabetes his entire life, admitting in the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life that he was “addicted to sugar.” When the group performed in the last few years, Phife had a hard time standing for the whole set. So maybe it wasn’t such a surprise, but it’s still sad.
I didn’t know Malik Taylor, and I didn’t fall on the floor weeping when I found out he died. I tried to just have a moment of happiness for what he shared with everyone: a few years of lyrics on a handful of albums, a guy who stepped up to the mic because his friend Q-Tip wanted to make music. Then I listened to Tribe playlists and albums pretty much nonstop for the next few hours.
No matter who you are or whatever your musical taste, you probably walk around with song lyrics in your head. Maybe you sing choruses from Elton John songs when you’re out planting your garden, or you repeat Taylor Swift hits in your mind when you run laps around your local park after work. When I have stillness, walking to the store, running, hiking, bicycling, or anywhere else, I hear hip hop lyrics. Lots of them are Phife’s. For no reason at all, they pop into my head, tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram, microphone check, 1, 2, what is this.
I bought a Tribe t-shirt with “Midnight Marauders” art on it a couple years ago, and it seemed like every time I wore it, someone ten years younger than me would compliment me on it. I always laughed to myself that I could play the cranky old guy and mutter something about how I “used to listen to these guys on CASSETTES!” But I was always just excited to find out that younger people were listening to Tribe, and that the music was still relevant—or maybe even more relevant than when it was released in the early 90s.
A friend said in conversation a while back that “obviously Phife was the best MC in Tribe,” and I paused, because I had never once in all these years thought of the group that way—I had just considered everyone essential parts of the group. Like you wouldn’t say a BMW’s engine was “better” than the transmission—they both just make the car go, and without either, the car wouldn’t work.
When Phife died, the people who called him “Malik” lost a father, brother, husband, and a friend, and I can’t say I was one of those people. But he did something that was very important to me, and I never thanked him for it while he was alive. So thanks, Phife.
[Complex has collected a pretty wonderful collection of tributes to Phife from hip hop luminaries here.]