Perfect Sound Forever


All photos from Tribe's MSG show, November 24, 2013

Respect For The Five Foot Freak
Story, photos & video by Jason Gross
(April 2016)

One of the worst things about the death of Malik Taylor aka Phife Dawg of rap legends A Tribe Called Quest was that he was only 45. True, he had a history of diabetes and a transplant to deal with it but thatís way too young to go. For hip hop fans, it also meant the passing of an era, just as surely as Lemmyís and Bowieís recent deaths meant the same for rock fans. It was also a realization that when the Tribe said that their late 2013 show at Madison Square Garden was their last concert, now it really was true.

When Tribe came along with the Native Tongues movement (along with De La Soul, Jungle Brothers) in the mid/late '80's, Public Enemy and N.W.A. were blowing up- the later got more of the attention of white suburban kids, drawn to its outrage and danger (more than to PE's different version/vision of the same), in the way their parents were once drawn to rock for the same reason. But Tribe also proved influential in other ways- backpacker/indie rap would be unthinkable with them, not to mention the outre impulses of everyone from Kanye to Outkast to Milo. Even among the Tongues, Tribe stood out, being more jazz influenced (bop era specifically, cultivating the cool, low-key vibe) and flowing more (also related to the jazz connection).

Phife, Tip, Jarobi

Q-Tip's often seen as the leader and guiding force of Tribe- on a number of early songs ("Bonita Applebaum," "Verses from the Abstract," "Description of a Fool" and "What?"), it was basically just Q's verses that were heard. But Tribe was much more than just his show. Phife's own style was more forward and in your face than Tip, the mostly laid-back hipster.

I got to see the Tribe live on at early date when they opened for 3rd Bass (along with the Jungle Brothers) in New York in March 1990, just before their first album came out. In an interview just before the show, Tip admitted that at that time, rap acts had trouble trying to make an impression live so he and Phife came out in hooded costumes to start the show, tearing out of them soon, and later climaxing with their then-recent single "Fool."

Phife, Tip

Phife recalled the group first starting up and coming together in this Reddit AMA in Nov 2015 the incredible feeling of it all:

Joy, it was like, we're really doing this. Dreams are really coming true. Everything is coming together. We were happy to be doing something to keep ourselves out of trouble. Eventually we were able to take care of our families. We were happy.
You hear that joy and happiness in the way that he starts "Buggin' Out" with these two classic lines...
Yo, microphone check one, two, what is this?
The five foot assassin with the roughneck business

Phife, Jarobi

... But what I really love is his 2nd verse, which serves as a statement of purpose, along with some tight rhyme combos and solid observations (especially about public transit):

Yo when you bug out, you usually have a reason for the action
Sometimes you do it just for mere satisfaction
People be hounding, always surrounding
Pulsing, just like a migraine pounding
You don't really fret, you stay in your sense
Camouflage your feeling, of absolute tense
You soar off to another world, deep in your mind
But people seem to take that, as being unkind
"Oh yo he's acting stank," really on a regal?
A man of the fame not a man of the people
Believe that if you wanna but I tell you this much
Riding on the train with no dough, sucks
Once again a case of your feet in my Nike's
If a crowd is in my realm I'm saying -- mic please
Hip-hop is living, can't yank the plug
If you do the result, will end up kind of bugged

Phife, Tip, Jarobi welcome 'Bonita'

And though "Scenario" is known for its guest shots, Phife has plenty to say on his own: not just declaring "I'm all that and then some, short, dark, and handsome" but also later, "My days of paying dues are over, acknowledge me as in there." And the guy didnít exactly have a modesty issue, claiming on "Clap Your Hands," "And if I ever went solo/my favorite MC would be me."

He also had a sense of loyalty in his rhymes but also was ready to draw a line in the sand to make a statement. On "Check the Rhyme," he alternates between the two mindsets:

A special shout of peace goes out to all my pals, you see
And a middle finger goes for all you punk MC's
And later, he sets up the same contrast:
See, I'm far from a bully and I ain't a punk
Elsewhere in the Tribe catalog, he brings up his short stature and wears it like a badge of pride. On "Rhyme," he also declares:
I'm just a fly MC who's five foot three and very brave
On "Electronic Relaxation," heís "The Five-Foot Freak" and on "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)," he's the "Five Foot Assassin." Itís like he spent most of his time with Tribe answering Randy Newmanís "Short People."

Ali (front), Jarobi (back), Phife, Tip

When Tribe first came apart in '98, almost a decade after they started, it seemed like its individual parts lost something without the group. Not to take away from the amazing, pioneering writing/production skills of Tip but you look at his post-Tribe career and see how he needed Phife/DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad 's creative force alongside him- aside from three three LPís in the last 17 years, heís mostly done guest shots, albeit high profile ones, and production jobs. Phife himself was even more scant in his solo discography, with only one album to his name, 2000's Ventilation: Da LP and a long-promised but still-not-released Songs in the Key of Phife Volume 1: Cherylís Big Son, which he claimed was almost done as far back as 2010. Otherwise, Phife had to battle with health issues and took time to coach basketball. Even after over a decade after their first break-up, in an interview with Hip Hop DX, Phife was ambivalent about the possibility of a new Tribe record but also grateful for and proud of the work they did.

When the Tribe returned in the mid 00's for a bunch of festival appearances, the long-standing tension between Tip and Phife returned with it unfortunately, as seen and heard in the revealing documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life (2011). Some wondered who came off worse there, Phife or Tip (who actually thought that he did)? Phife got sympathy points for his medical problems but one thing was obvious- two strong personalities meant that the center could not hold, be it control issues or business issues. Director Michael Rapaport lamented that it was almost impossible to get them in the same room for filming off-stage scenes.

In Beats, it was also revealing that Phife's health problem (diagnosed circa 1990) wasn't known to Tip until he heard Dawg's famous line on "On My God" about being a "funky diabetic," which was recorded about two years later.

After the group was coming apart and together this decade for occasional shows and tours, Tip announced that their two Thanskgiving 2013 shows opening for Kanye West would be it for them. Luckily, I was there to see the 2nd/last one.

The set was a greatest hits review, with "Biko," "Oh My God," "Bonita," and the group seemed in good spirits, with even the Jarobi returning (who left after the debut) as they seemed to easily trade off verses back and forth, albeit in a shortened form to get a dozen-plus songs out in an opening set. Afterwards, they did extended hugs and bows at the end. Maybe it was just relief?

Afterwards, Phife could express frustration that the group was over, biting his tongue in a November 2015 Rolling Stone interview about why the Tribe wouldn't return for real. But there was one more appearance for them to make.

Almost two years after the MSG show, they would appear on The Tonight Show to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, to perform "Can I Kick It?" There, Phife would even repeat his line about wishing that David Dinkins would be his mayor, which he did just before the album originally came out in 1990.

Fast forward to a few days ago when I saw Rihanna do a dazzling show in Brooklyn. The DJ was playing a bit of "World Tour" to remember Phife (to a cheering crowd) and we all got to hear the first half of his amazing verse, which melded pop culture, sports references (the man WAS a sports fan) and personal/musical history:

Back in '89 I simply slid in the place
Buddy, buddy, buddy all up in your face
A lot of kids was busting rhymes but they had no taste
Some said Quest was wack, but now is that the case?
I have a quest to have a mic in my hand
Without that, it's like Kryptonite and Superman
So Shaheed come in with the sugar cuts
Phife Dawg's my name, but on stage, call me Dynomutt
When was the last time you heard the Phife sloppy
Lyrics anonymous, you'll never hear me copy
Top notch baby, never coming less
Sky's the limit, you gots to believe up in Quest
As for now, maybe the best way to remember Phife isn't just the petition to name a street in Queens after the Tribe, but also an induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Flash, PE, Run-DMC, the Beasties and N.W.A.. Not to mention gathering together what he left behind of his Songs album for a belated release.

There is another way we might be able to honor Phife. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) reports that almost 10 percent of Americans are diabetic, with another 29 million who aren't even diagnosed yet and over a million new cases reported each year. Maybe a nice donation to ADA in Phife's name would be a good way to remember him. I just did and hope you will too.

Jarobi, Ali, Tip, Phife say goodbye and thanks


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