I'd like to say I appreciated Phife Dawg's music while he was alive, I memorized literally every word the self-proclaimed funky diabetic said on every Tribe album, but when I heard the news of his untimely passing at the age of 45, I still immediately felt a sharp, painful sense of regret. Phife had been plagued by serious health problems for years, I had every opportunity to interview him, write odes to his brilliance, thank him for playing such an instrumental part in making me fall in love with hip-hop, but I didn't. And now it's too late.
Other sites will undoubtedly write about his resume and discography in-depth, give you all the biographical details, and all of that is good and necessary, but you don't need me to do that here. A timeline doesn't explain the man's affect on my life. The closest I can come is this story of first hearing Tribe, which I originally wrote for my tribute to their classic Midnight Marauders album.
It must have been 1998, I'm a sophomore at the same high school the worst Karate Kid movie was filmed in and it's lunch time. The actual sequence of events are hazy, odds are I was debating whether I should ask Adriana out (I did, I shouldn't have), but my memory's picture snaps into focus when Andy Bonfilio and Kevin Smiley launch into a completely unprompted and flawless a capella rap routine.
Andy: "You on point Phife?"
Kevin: "All the time, Tip"
Andy: "Well then grab the microphone and let your words rip"
I had no idea what they were singing, but now I had to know. I...had...to...know. What if Andy had turned to me, asked if I was on point, and I was most definitely not on point? What if someone checked my rhime and my rhime was not checked? I wouldn't let that happen, couldn't let that happen. So I went to the record store, bought The Low End Theory, fought through the seven layers of plastic packaging and instantly fell in love. For the next month straight Tip and Phife Dawg were the only voices in my ears, I played Low End until I had memorized literally every word. (I dare you to run up on me and challenge me to recite "Scenario," including Busta's verse. I'll nail it.)
Q-Tip was Tribe's forward-thinking genius, but Phife was the everyman, the anchor, the guy who loved sports but was too short to play seriously, the kind of emcee you were both in awe of and felt like you could eat a hot dog and fries with. He was, without exaggeration, one of the major reasons I fell in love with hip-hop in the first place, and his death doesn't change that. Death can never take that away. This post doesn't even come close to honoring him the way he deserves to be honored, but for now, it's all I have. And if anyone wants to come do the "Check the Rhime" routine with me today, I'm all in. I promise Phife, I'll be on point.