"Yo—microphone check, one-two, what is this..."
Not many rap verses have ever started better. What else is there to say: RIP to Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor from A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe was a lot of people's first rap group and a lot of people's Greatest Rap Group of All Time, and Phife was every bit as essential to their immeasurable impact on hiphop—I don't have the words to calculate Tribe's cultural footprint, and it's huge enough that I don't need to—as the rest of their Holy Trinity (Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, duh, but no dis intended to Jarobi, the four-man crew's "sometimes Y"). Maybe since Phife was rap's premier sports superfan, it would be better to invoke the legendary "triangle offense"—except everybody knows what a lifelong Knicks fan he was.
And everybody remembers Busta Rhymes on "Scenario"—actually, most people born before 1988 probably know at least 75 percent of that song—and generally acknowledge that Bus is not just one of the greatest cleanup men ever in the game, but invented it as a thing. However, the role of "first up to bat," the seal-breaker, the mood-setter, is equally important, and the Trini Gladiator was one of the best—on "Butter," on "Scenario." He knew stakes was high on what was to be hiphop's greatest posse cut of all time, and he had to bring it hard, hard as those Mitch Mitchell drums, hard as two-day-old shit. Bo has known ever since. His most iconic intro is, of course, on "Buggin' Out," the quote that starts this column. That verse got him Hip-Hop Quotable in the Source, back when that really meant something to cats.
Phife, and this always stuck out to me, was a study in determined improvement. He went from hardly-there sidekick (most of the songs on Tribe's debut just featured Q-Tip) to equal partner (Phife Diggy held down half of their follow-up). He went from "I'm gobblin' like a doggone turkey" on People's Instinctive Travels to "I never walk the street thinking it's all about me / even though deep in my heart, it really could be" on Low End, quite possibly the first instance of the humblebrag. He didn't gradually become a better rapper, he did so fairly quickly, and it was explicitly because he had something to prove.
This is just one of Phife's subtle lessons: because even though self-improvement is preached to death in rap, it's usually only through the narrowest of paths—cha- ching—and too rarely demonstrated by an objectively refined artistic approach. That is to say, most of y'all wack and uninteresting motherfuckers tend to stay as wack and uninteresting as you ever were. That's not the attributes of an MC.
Malik the Five-Foot Freak was cheerily crass ("Seaman's Furniture," etc.) and self-deprecating in a way that spoke to me: When Tip said, "Damn, Phife, you got fat"—Phife replied, "Yeah, I know it looks pathetic." I related to this on a cellular, glandular level. Always striving to better himself, though, he admitted (in syllable-perfect style) that Ali Shaheed Muhammad had him doing calisthenics. As of this writing, I haven't heard exactly why Phife passed at 45 years of age, but the health issues of the "funky diabetic" were well covered in Michael Rappaport's Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary, which we're all going to be rewatching now. Every rap head of a certain age I know is hurt, posting their favorite Tribe songs and Phife lyrics.
His days of payin' dues been over. Rest in Power.