The Flow That Shaped The Game: In Memory of Phife Dawg
    • WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23, 2016

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    After two decades of health problems, A Tribe Called Quest emcee and hip-hop titan Phife Dawg (born Malik Taylor) has passed away at the age of 45.

    Like every lover of classic hip-hop, I eventually found my way to A Tribe Called Quest, but as a white kid from rural West Virginia in the pre-high speed internet age, my relationship with hip-hop was a bit of a winding road. Growing up, I had four black foster siblings that lived with my blood family for years. For all intents & purposes but legal definitions, they are family period. And one of my earliest memories of my brother Darryl was the first time he put in a Bone Thugz-n-Harmony CD.

    I'd heard hip-hop before. I knew MC Hammer by name and 80s crossover pop hip-hop acts like Young MC and Tone Loc, but "Tha Crossroads" was the first rap track that I fell in love with. The harmonies were gorgeous. Layzie Bone was rapping faster than anybody I'd ever heard in my entire life. The song had gospel and elegiac undertones (of course, I didn't know a word like elegiac when I was in the fourth grade but I understood the melancholic need for hope in the track). And through Bone-Thugz, my brother was able to give me an education in 90s hip-hop from Bone-Thugz to 2Pac to Jay-Z and beyond.

    But the 90s rap outfit that would have the biggest impact on my contemporary tastes in the genre wouldn't be introduced to me until years later when I was in college, and that act was A Tribe Called Quest. It's ironic looking back. I was a hardcore 90s hip-hop snob up until college and I got into Kanye and Stankonia, but I'd never heard A Tribe Called Quest. But I found The Low End Theory on some random blog's listing of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, and from the first minute of "Excursions," my life was never the same.

    If there was ever a more potent pairing in hip-hop than Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, I'm hard-pressed to name it. Two emcees with an endless flow and better rhymes than arguably any rapper before or since, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and the rest of A Tribe Called Quest were instrumental in the jazz rap renaissance of the 80s and early 90s. Without Tribe, there's no Fugees. De La Soul doesn't have the same name recognition that they do (considering both acts were integral to the Native Tongues Posse. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly doesn't exist without tracks like "Jazz (We've Got)" or "Vibes And Stuff."

    A Tribe Called Quest never quite had the commercial impact of some their contemporaries but they made it up in sheer influence on some of the most critically acclaimed rap acts of the last twenty years. An emphasis on social issues, humor, and a constant need to one-up each other on the mic, Tribe represented one of the peaks of lyrically and instrumentally driven hip-hop, and it's impossible to imagine that sound without Phife Dawg's baritone flow.

    If you have even the most remote interest in the history of hip-hop and you've somehow missed out on A Tribe Called Quest, throw on The Low End Theorytoday. Throw on Midnight Marauders or People's Instinctive Travels. You can't call yourself a hip-hop head until you have Tribe in your life and you know the enormous influence Phife and Tip would have on the medium you love.

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