In Music

My Admittedly Biased Tribute to Phife Dawg

I get my bad news the same way I imagine most people do. On my back with sleep still in my eyes, my eyelids yearning for one another as they’re forced further and further apart. The alarm on my iPhone sounds off. I reach for it, unconvinced that this isn’t the day I finally smash it or throw it across the room. I turn off the alarm, inhale my first deep breath of the day, and immediately begin thumbing through all the social media notifications that came in through the night. Then comes the aimless scrolling for however long it takes me to snap out of my iTrance and realize that in the 3 minutes since my dream was disrupted, I’ve somehow managed to ingest a street fight, a terrorist attack, a few sports scores and several shitty music videos. It’s a surefire way to get the day started off on the wrong foot for anyone whose moral compass serves as more than just a flat surface to chop lines on.

Two tweets. Two tweets is all it took for me to know what had happened. There were no RIP hashtags. I didn’t need any. I know the pattern by now, as we all should, and there are rarely coincidences in social media. My initial thought after seeing the first Phife Dawg quote was: How nice that there’s still room for Tribe on Twitter. After the second Phife Dawg quote, which was the very next tweet in my feed, my thought was: Fuck, Phife Dawg is dead. Google search, confirmation, more scrolling.

Something most self-respecting rap aficionados would never admit is that my first exposure to Phife Dawg was not via A Tribe Called Quest but was actually due to A Guy Called Shaq. After weeks of scraping up $18 in loose change – some of which I stole from my younger sister’s coin bank, all of which I’ve since repaid in one form or another (mostly in alcohol) – I strolled the aisles of Tower Records wide eyed and in good financial standing, only to be shut down by the cashier who said the parental advisory sticker on the Ice Cube CD I wanted to buy violated their store policy of protecting children from words like fuck and bitch and nigga and pussy. I couldn’t very well steal the CD now that I’d drawn so much attention to myself by being the only 8 year old in the store trying to purchase gangster rap, but I wasn’t about to leave empty handed. Living in a small town, just getting to the record store required great effort. Not only did I have to procure a 45 minute ride into the city, I had to spend the whole trip avoiding questions about how and where I got my money, and I never knew when my next chance would come to expand my rap collection one album, one zip lock bag of coins, one 45 minute car ride at a time.

I knew of Shaq because everyone knew of Shaq. This was 1994. Pre-Lakers and pre-Kazaam. His debut album, Shaq Diesel, had just been released on Jive records and, absent the little black and white rectangle of restriction in the corner of his CD, I was permitted to spend my hard-earned stolen money on it. This was back when we’d actually buy albums without having a chance to preview them – which was half the excitement – and I thought, meh, he’s Shaquile O’Neal, his rap album can’t be that bad. Well, not only was is not bad, it was goddamn amazing, and I will fucking fight you if you say otherwise.

“Where Ya At,” the fourth track on Shaq’s debut album, features a rapper who, even at 8 years old and with no prior knowledge of ATCQ, I immediately knew was a small person. He just sounded small, the way Shaq just sounded big. I’d later hear the same rapper on the intro track of TLC’s sophomore album, CrazySexyCool. As much as I’d like to say that my formative years were shaped by The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, it’s albums like Shaq Diesel and CrazySexyCool, along with Salt-N-Pepa’s Very Necessary, Heavy D’s Nuttin’ But Love and LL Cool J’s Mr. Smith, to name a very small few, that made me fall head-over-heels in love with rap music.

Throughout my years as a hip hop fan I’ve amassed a handsome collection of albums and have read more books written on the subject than on any other. In doing so, it was inevitable that I’d eventually come to appreciate ATCQ as much as any hip hop enthusiast appreciates ATCQ, and there’s really nothing I can say about them as a group or as individuals that hasn’t already been said better than I could ever hope to say it. What I will say, however, is that after the initial shock of Phife’s passing, I immediately wondered how I’d break the news to my son. If you believe yourself to be an avid Tribe fan but aren’t able to recite every single word to Scenario, it’s okay. I won’t clown you for it or hold you in any sort of contempt. But you should know that my son, Dre, has been doing that shit since he was 7, and yes, that includes Busta Rhymes’ verse. He’s the only kid (if not the only person) I know who cites Q-tip and Phife Dawg as his favorite rappers, joined only by Andre 3000 and Eminem, though he only knows a few Eminem songs, but let’s be real; a few is all it takes.

You might find this surprising, but I’m not the parent who lets his child listen to overly explicit music. I don’t judge parents who do, at least no more than I already judge them just by virtue of my being a judgmental person, and I’m willing to consider that my reasons for only playing the clean versions in the company of my son might all be based on little more than my own upbringing. Be that as it may, I can state with the utmost confidence that I’ve heard more goddamned ATCQ in the last year than I have over the entire lifespan of my hip hop fanaticism. Tribe is, more or less, child-friendly. Their music is safe without being watered down or empty. It’s relatively clean without being lame or boring. And on the rare occasion that it isn’t exactly clean, it at least makes me laugh when I hear my kid innocently threaten to bust a nut inside your eye to show you where he comes from.

I got to see Tribe perform live in 2010 and I’d very recently told my wife that nothing would stop me from taking my son to see them should another reunion show ever be announced, no matter the cost of tickets. It would be a once in a lifetime experience for him to look back on in his later years, one that he’d surely brag about to his friends at school the next day, unaware that exactly 0% of them even remotely give a shit. The reality of that no longer being a possibility is hard for me to swallow, as a dad, as a fan, and as a person who’s just generally bad at accepting things. As corny as it sounds, rap music is the only thing that’s remained consistent in my life and, for better or for worse, it’s gotten me further than I might’ve gotten without it. While saying goodbye to my wife the morning the internet was set ablaze with news that Phife was no longer with us, she looked at me and said, “I’m sorry about your friend dying.” I looked at her, puzzled, almost amused, as if she was confused about something or someone. “He wasn’t my friend,” I told her. “He was just a rapper I listened to a lot as a kid.” She responded in the clearheaded, matter-of-fact way she often does, “I know, but he did a lot for you, didn’t he?” It was a rhetorical question, and I just nodded and smiled.

For now, at least within my household, the funky diabetic will live on through not only his music that my son insists we listen to every morning on the way to school, but also through our regular bouts of rage-laden, shit-talk-heavy combat on the virtual blacktops of NBA 2K9, in which Phife was immortalized as a playable character – true to size, not capabilities.

Dear Phife, hip hop legend or not, I don’t care how many times my son selects you as point guard for his squad, or how disappointed he is with himself every time he poorly decides to switch to you – because he truly believes in you – before taking it to the rack, only to be humiliated. I don’t care. I will continue to block every jumper, layup or dunk he would dare have you attempt, grab the board with ease, dribble the full length of the court knowing damn well that no man of my limited grace and freakish skeletal structure has any business dribbling more than twice, blow past your defense, throw an off-the-backboard-alley-oop to myself, and dunk on you so savagely, so utterly distastefully, that when I ask, “Yo Phife, where ya at?” – you’ll not have the faintest idea. Because you’re the 5 foot assassin, and I’m Shaquile O-fucking-Neil.

Rest in immortality.

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