By all accounts the hardest thing about growing old is that all your friends die. Every time you lose someone who touched you, you’re a little better equipped – no less sad, but more prepared to process the grief. But this one really hurts. A Tribe Called Quest meant everything to us when we were growing up, really informing our tastes and personalities. I never met Phife Dawg – weirdly he’s the only person from A Tribe Called Quest who I never met, I guess because he lived in Atlanta – but he always struck me as a real sincere, sweet man. Michael Rappaport’s excellent documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life” confirmed this impression and shined a light on Phife’s line “when was the last time you heard a funky diabetic.” That wasn’t just a punchline, it was a twenty-five year struggle that killed him in the end.
Phife was the consummate punchline rapper, bringing a playfulness that perfectly complimented Q-Tip’s more serious leanings. But they weren’t Flavor Flav and Chuck D – Phife wasn’t a hype man, he was a brilliant wordsmith and a beast of a rapper. Somehow he was able to be hilarious and at the same time bring his full personality through, cutting through the boasting and battling with the unique perspective of a guy from Queens with roots in Trinidad who loved his grandparents, obsessed over sports, sometimes struck out with girls – a truly relatable everyman in a genre of self-proclaimed superheros.
Let’s all celebrate his life and listen to A Tribe Called Quest records. If you want more, dig into these mixes, which all feature Phife Dawg: