Graham: A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife — a hip-hop underdawg
Malik Taylor wasn’t a star, but he didn’t need to be. The rapper, who died this week at the age of 45, still managed to carve out his place in hip-hop history.
Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, was a founding member of the hip-hop troupe A Tribe Called Quest. He was the group’s second in command, backing up lead rapper Q-Tip, who was the charismatic frontman with the cool voice. Phife, by contrast, had a gruff, gritty flow, which was hard and rough like concrete. But it was that concrete that bonded Tribe together.
“When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” Phife asked on Tribe’s 1993 hit “Oh My God,” and it was complications from the disease that led to his death.
The short-in-stature MC — he stood 5’3” and referred to himself as “the five-foot assassin,” for his ability to slay rhymes — had been in declining health for years, undergoing a kidney transplant in 2008 and again in 2012. His struggle was chronicled in the 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life,” the warts-and-all portrait of Tribe that didn’t shy away from the contentious interpersonal relationships that led to the group’s split.
Families fight, and Tribe was a family. And as in any family, you didn’t have to be the center of attention to be invaluable.
Q-Tip was the marquee star of A Tribe Called Quest, and it’s his lithe delivery that is Tribe’s signature. He has one of hip-hop’s most distinctive voices, a slightly nasal rasp that sounds like melted butter dripped over Tribe’s jazzy tracks.
Tribe’s early run — especially the group’s first three albums, 1990’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” 1991’s “The Low End Theory” and 1993’s “Midnight Marauders” — seemed to set up Tip for a successful solo career.
But aside from a few key tracks, Tip never flourished as a solo performer. He needed his Tribe, and he needed Phife.
Phife was a utility player, and in life, we need those. They often go uncelebrated, but they elevate their teammates to otherwise unreachable heights. Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time, but Scottie Pippen was an all-star, too, and wears the same six championship rings. Andre 3000 is the bizarre genius who fuels OutKast, but without Big Boi to ground him, his spaceship would have never found its flight path.
Not everyone is born a lead actor, but there’s a reason why the Academy Awards hand out Oscars to supporting actors and actresses: it’s those supporting roles that allow the stars to shine. That was Phife, a sideman who propped up his lead. He was J.K. Simmons, he was Paul Giamatti. He made everything around him a little bit better without drawing too much attention to himself.
Only in rare cases do support players become stars; it would be as if Chris Kirkpatrick came out of *NSYNC with the biggest solo career. (Note: He didn’t.) The 2004 Detroit Pistons were an exception, a team of role players who went on to win the NBA championship, and as a huge sports nut, Phife would have appreciated the reference.
Tribe’s best songs, such as the 1993 bedroom come-on “Electric Relaxation,” relied on the nimble interplay between Tip and Phife. Together with DJ and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad — the third piece of Tribe’s holy trinity — A Tribe Called Quest authored an important chapter in hip-hop’s history book, expanding hip-hop’s headspace and paving the way for artists such as Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.
After the group disbanded in 1998, Phife released one solo album, 2000’s “Ventilation: Da LP,” but he never chased solo success; amid his declining health, his most public ventures were the Tribe reunion tours that were mounted, in part, to help pay his escalating medical bills.
The “Beats, Rhymes & Life” documentary captured one of those tours, which was fraught with backstage bickering between Phife and Tip. The two had grown up with one another in Queens, New York, and they fought like brothers. But they understood they needed one another, and were cognizant that together they helped change the face of hip-hop.
Like many supporting acts, Phife Dawg’s role in Tribe’s legacy was understated but essential. His bite was bigger than his bark.