Hip-hop lost one of its most well respected icons March 22.
Born Malik Taylor, Phife Dawg was an emcee who was part of the prominent rap trio known as A Tribe Called Quest. Taylor was primarily known for his witty wordplay and ability to flow with some of the top tier rappers in the game. Along with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife managed to create some of the most timeless music well recognized among many rap fans.
My first experience with listening to Phife came from the ATCQ song “Buggin’ Out.” The intro featured a wicked bassline, and then Phife comes on the track following boom-bap drums with the lines, “Yo, microphone check, one, two. What is this? The 5-foot assassin with the roughneck business. I float like gravity, never had a cavity. Got more rhymes than the Winans got family.”
I was addicted to the sounds of the tribe from then on. I studied every word, every beat, and I just became immersed in their whole discography. I have Phife to thank for that. I’d like to dedicate this edition of Tunesday to pay homage to some of my favorite Phife verses and to show how thankful I am to have the opportunity to listen to him while he was still with us.
Rest in peace, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor.
1. Phife Dawg – Dear Dilla
Phife penned a beautiful tribute to the late, great Detroit-based producer James “J Dilla” Yancey in the song “Dear Dilla.” I included this song in particular because Dilla influenced a generation of producers with his soulful production, and Phife influenced a generation of emcees with his unique approach to rap. Two grand mentors having such a connection with one another is an amazing thing to see, and this track is a truly heartfelt representation of what Yancey meant to Phife. It’s terrible to know they were both taken from us when they’ve contributed so much to rap, but you best believe their presence will live on through their music.
2. A Tribe Called Quest – Electric Relaxation
Easily the most recognizable Tribe song, “Electric Relaxation” has Q-Tip (fellow emcee of ACTQ) and Phife going back and forth talking about their excursions with women.
I feel like there are five songs that embody what ’90s hip-hop represent, and this is one of them. Phife boasts onto the track; “I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian. Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation,” and, along with Q-Tip, just floats over the smooth, jazzy instrumentation.
3. A Tribe Called Quest – Check the Rhime
“You on point, Phife?”
“All the time, Tip.”
You can’t help but just agree. Along with “Buggin’ Out,” my favorite Phife verse comes from this song. He doesn’t waste a single beat trying to get in what he needs to say, yet it doesn’t sound rushed or forced at all.
Phife is a perfect example of the technical skill that comes with being able to rap.
Rapping isn’t just saying words over a beat in rhythm. Your vocal inflection, the way you string syllables together, your ability to not overpower the instrumental but also to not let the instrumental overpower you, and also saying stuff with some sort of significance all play a part into this art, and Phife had the art down with near perfection. This song is a prime example.
4. A Tribe Called Quest – Scenario
A great posse cut is hard to pull off, yet ACTQ and Leaders of the New School managed to pull it off with “Scenario.”
The emcees from both groups rhyme with charisma and chemistry that’s off the charts. You can tell these just aren’t some random big names thrown together on a track for the sales, there’s a genuine friendship between these artists. With a snapping boom-bap beat and a vibrant, chanting chorus, this song is one that will get everybody up out of their seats to get rowdy.
Out of the five rappers, Phife was the one who shined the brightest to me. It’s more than likely he laid his verse down first and everyone who followed him had an opportunity to hear it before writing theirs. However, even with that preparation, none of them came close to touching Phife, and that’s what makes this verse outstanding.
5. A Tribe Called Quest – Buggin’ Out
I mentioned this song earlier, but I need to give it more shine simply because of the significance it had on Phife Dawg’s career.
On ACTQ’s first album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” believe it or not, people didn’t rate Phife too highly. It’s not that he was necessarily lackluster, but it didn’t seem as if he was capable of being a superstar emcee.
However, all that changed when people heard “Buggin’ Out” from ACTQ’s second album, “The Low End Theory.” It was from this moment on that Phife was a force to be reckoned with as Tribe’s popularity grew, and he became embedded into the hearts of hip-hop fans everywhere.