Why Phife Dawg Will Always Be One of New York's Most Influential Rappers

Why Phife Dawg Will Always Be One of New York's Most Influential Rappers

April 06, 2016 - 2:29pm EDT
by
Sean Malcolm

“I had to sneak and watch Soul Train. I had to sneak and watch Scooby-Doo or whatever cartoon was poppin’ off at the time. But, when it came to block parties and hip-hop, once I saw them grab the mics and getting busy, I risked my livelihood getting kicked out of the house and everything just to be a part of it.” — Malik Issac Taylor, 2011

No, I didn’t grow up in a Seventh-day Adventist household in Brooklyn, as Malik Taylor did during his upbringing in Queens. And no, the possibility of being excommunicated from my home if my mind wasn’t on “anything but God” was never, well, possible. But one thing was for certain in 1199 Ocean Avenue, Apartment #409 in the early 90’s — no hip-hop. Looking back, I can understand the mandate that was set by my mother. The burgeoning aggression that was gangsta rap was taking over the airwaves, giving the Heisman stiff arm to, for the most part, the happy-go-lucky tunes that was all about fun, flowers and the occasional dance step. The safe hip-hop. And with grittier acts like N.W.A., 2Pac, Onyx and Naughty by Nature, who painted gloomy pictures of life how they saw it, it made sense that my mother didn’t want their message to influence my impressionable mind. I was a sheltered kid.

Throughout the one-bedroom apartment myself, my two parents and a newborn sister crammed ourselves in, the only music that would blare from the kind of boom box that would make Radio Raheem crack an uncharacteristic grin — which sat atop a washing machine in the kitchen — was soulful R&B, Roots Reggae, gospel on Sundays (because what’s more soul cleansing than catching the spirit while you apply lemon Pledge to your living room table?) and the occasional back and forth banter from Mike & The Mad Dog on WFAN. The few times I did get a whiff of hip-hop aroma, it would be in the cherry-smelling 1989 Nissan Maxima on Friday nights to help my mom get the coming week’s supply of groceries at Waldbaum’s on Nostrand Avenue. That’s when the radio dial would happen to be on Kiss FM, and the reverberating sound of DJ Red Alert’s signature “yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah” would infect my ear drums.

I don’t remember much of the music that was played during those times. I do remember whatever was playing was quickly preempted by either an Anita Baker or Whitney Houston cassette. And while in elementary school, when the cool kids recited “It Takes Two” or “The Humpty Dance” at the lunch table, and I pretended to know what they were rhyming, faking the funk, I still was lost.

So, just like Taylor, a.k.a. Phife Dawg, would do as a yute to be a part of the hip-hop culture, I would do the same. I would sneak to watch Bobby Simmons act a damn fool and play hip-hop videos on public access. I would rush home after school, before my parents got home, so I could watch Video Music Box on channel 31 and Rap City on BET on “The Hot Box” — where you too can get illegal cable. Hell, once my mother saw me gravitate to this music that was geared toward me and my generation, letting me watch Yo! MTV Raps after returning from Waldbaum’s was a luxury, at times. But for the most part, I had to sneak to watch that, too. It was during these dubious actions that I saw many visuals. I would go as far as tape whatever clip I liked. It was no different than what I did later in my teens, taping songs off the radio. But one video stood out, that I would rewind over and over, “Award Tour” by A Tribe Called Quest.

Maybe it was because everything was in a gaudy gold detailed frame, which was different at that time and also the lyrics telling me that what I’m viewing is art… moving art. Maybe it was because of the sepia filter throughout the three-minute-plus track, well before Instagram made this the go-to filter for selfies. The location of the shoot, World’s Fair Globe in Queens, which was the 9th wonder of the world in my eyes when I would go there on class trips when I was younger. The way the sharp snare of the song would cut to a different shot. The xylophone-tinged single, itself, and its seamless concoction of samples from Weldon Irvine, Milt Jackson, Charles Earl and Sly and The Family Stone. Or simply all of the above. I would study the video like I was cramming for a Social Studies mid-term. But, most of all, I would study the lyrics — from Tribe front man Q-Tip’s nasal command for me to “give your ears so I be sublime, it’s enjoyable to know you and your concubines” to the end where Phife dared his comp to “make some def or take that garbage to St. Elsewhere.”

Hooked was I… in the year of our Lord, one thousand nine-hundred and ninety-three.
Still, I never owned a hip-hop cassette. And with a new Walkman in my arsenal, I was chomping at the bit to own one. And I wanted the album “Award Tour” was on to be my first. Call this my first time getting in bed with hip-hop. You always remember your first.

“Yo, I got you,” said one of my best friends in Marine Park Junior High School, Alvin Drakes, who would dub albums for the student body for a profit. A day later, I was given a dub of the album that changed my life, Midnight Marauders. Drakes didn’t charge me a dime.

Remember when I made the analogy about how this was my first time getting in bed with hip-hop? It was figuratively and literally. Giving the Queens quartet (Jarobi, what’s up!) my ears, with flimsy headphones, I would listen to Marauders consistently until I feel asleep in my twin bed. When my parents weren’t home, I would pop the tape in the boom box and just sit on the edge of my bed that was across from the kitchen and listen and zone out. Yeah, Tip was the de-facto leader of this Tribe, but I immediately gravitated to his scrappy number two. There was something in Phife’s wordplay and the braggadocios way he would deliver such an attitude. Being the “5-Foot Assassin,” you can make the psychoanalysis that being short, Phife had a Napoleon complex. You wouldn’t be wrong with that hypothesis, but listening to him spit, if you never saw his physical stature, you’d think that he was 6’4”. One such line stuck with me…

“Favorite rap group in the world is EPMD Can’t forget the De La, due to originality And if I ever went solo my favorite MC would be me.” — “Clap Your Hands”

Of course, I would learn over time that the number one trait of any MC is to exude confidence and arrogance. But this was the first time I heard such a thing, let alone within a group, where if years watching Voltron, Muppet Babies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ever taught me anything is that no one person flies higher than the crew — it’s all for one. And as a shy 13-year-old who didn’t exude such a trait, and was easy target practice for jokesters trying to get attention by way of laughs, listening to this form of expression, appealed to me. Listening to Phife “kickin’ styles so [he] can reach that other level” helped me, slowly but surely, strengthen my backbone.

It was even so, whenever I was on a three-way convo with Drakes and my other best friend in Marine Park, Darius Hunt, or Husky, we’d always recite Tribe songs. Similar to the movie CB4, when Chris Rock and crew would drive around reciting Run D.M.C. songs and each member calling out who they wanted to be. I always was Phife. When I rapped, I was Phife. I had the confidence and swagger, even if I didn’t know all the words. Rap Genius wasn’t around then, obviously (later, when we caught wind of “Scenario,” Drakes was Busta Rhymes, Husky was Tip and Charlie Brown and I was Phife and Dinco D).
As the seeds began to be planted in my personality by way of Phife’s lyrics, and the more videos that the group cranked out in the following months, my sporty clothing style began to form, as well. I was a little jock as a pre-teen. When it came to two-hand touch, in my mind, I was Jerry Rice. Football was my sport, but I followed basketball and baseball, too. Never hockey, though. That sport wasn’t watched that much in my home. But once I saw the “Oh My God” video, with Phife Diggy sporting a customized PHIFE #5 New Jersey Devils sweater (hockey doesn’t have “jerseys,” damnit!), I started paying attention to the sport…and became a fan of the team. Moreover, that was a fly piece of clothing that I NEEDED to have. My addiction to rocking sports apparel, notably jerseys with a matching hat began right then and there. And anybody who knows me, knows this vice far predated the throwback craze of the early-2000s. When I finally started working around 16 or 17, I eventually bought a Devils joint and had it personalized…MALCOLM #1.

But I knew that Midnight Marauders, the album I popped my hip-hop cherry with, wasn’t ATCQ’s first album. So, along with the funds I was gaining either handing out flyers in the melanin-deprived Bay Ridge or being a summer camp junior counselor for the Flatbush YMCA, I began going back in the Tribe well, copping their first two LPs, People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory, respectively, at the 34th street HMV, which is now a Victoria Secret Megastore.

“In making the Low End Theory, there’s definitely, you know, what I think is evident to everyone, and that’s the emergence of Phife Diggy Dawg.” — Ali Shaheed Muhammad, 2011

I don’t know why I listened to Tribe’s second album before listening to their debut. Can’t put my finger on it, nor will I try now. But after listening to Low End, it took me over a month to finally crack open their first album to digest. Now, you have to understand, my musical experience up to that point was the paint by numbers bullet points that many kids in the New York City public school system went through. Choir? Check. Band? Double check. Familiar with what the hell a recorder is? You’re damned skippy. But my ears were never privy to the smooth sounds of jazz. The Low End Theory opened my ears, my mind and gave me a crash course. And once I sifted through all the diggin’ in the crate samples that I would soon seek out to pad my iTunes, there was Phife and all his infinite brashness…

“1988 Senior Year, Garvey High Where all the guys were corny but the girls were mad fly…” — “Butter”

I would remix this in my head every time I would walk through the halls of Midwood High School. “1998, Senior Year, Midwood High. Where all the guys were corny but the girls were mad fly…”

But, though my promiscuity was mainly an embryo when I was a hormone-raging 17-year-old, a quick listen to “Butter,” and I had on rose-colored glasses of being a stone-cold lover with a slow-mo walk that would have wallflowers peel themselves off and trail behind. Considering what my future would dictate, this was a prime example of foreshadowing…I think.

“Settling down with one girl, wasn’t trying to hear that
I had Tonya, Tamika, Sharon, Karen, Tina, Stacy, Julie, Tracy
Used to love ’em, leave ’em, skeeze ’em, tease ‘em
Find ’em, lose ’em, also abuse ‘em.
My whole attitude was new day, next hon
And believe it or not, they all got done…

Though backward in discography, if Phife in Midnight Marauders planted the seeds of a disposition I would carry into my adulthood, his breakout in The Low End Theory provided the H20 and the sunshine.

Even in the Tribe’s three-year hiatus between Midnight Marauders and Beats, Rhymes & Life, I would put a serious burn on the group’s first three albums. Even though I upgraded from a second rate Walkman to a Sony Discman, I still continued to play that first hip-hop tape that Drakes blessed me with in Junior High School.

“Actually, I thought Tribe Called Quest was done after Midnight Marauders…. Now, by the time we got to Beats, Rhymes & Life, now this ’96, so it’s like a three-year wait for that album. Chemistry was dead…shot.” — Malik Issac Taylor 2011

I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth LP. As Phife admitted in the documentary that bears the same name of that album, the break between Marauders and Beats affected the musical chemistry. And it showed. From a fan’s perspective, there didn’t seem to be much Phife, which was akin to his barely-there appearances on the group’s first joint. Seemed like Tip’s cousin, Consequence, took his shine. For the love of all that’s holy, Phife wasn’t even on the biggest hit off that album, “Stressed Out.” Eventually, somebody at Jive must’ve smartened up and cranked out a remix with him on it. But even THAT wasn’t on the album. And whenever Phife would kick a 16, it fell flat. It didn’t resonate. Something was off. Had my ears outgrown the “Funky Diabetic”?

“Ego…I’m on my own jock still. Cause if I don’t say I’m the best, tell me who the hell will?” — “Word Play”

Ah…there it is. That’s what I was looking for. That fleeting moment of bravado, once again stored in my memory bank, that would lead to an arrogance that gave me my edge. Yet and still, Beats was a huge letdown after the group’s two previous stalwarts.

The Love Movement wasn’t that big of a disappointment as Beats, Rhymes & Life was to me. By the time the album dropped in 1998, rumblings about tensions between Phife and Tip began to surface. Again, it was pretty evident in the music, albeit a good album in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t make that much of an impact on me. Also, my ears weren’t just tuned to Tribe. Jay-Z and Biggie were in my CD wheelhouse, so were Dr. Dre, Nas, Black Moon, Nirvana, Camp Lo, Duke Ellington, Foo Fighters, Scarface, Outkast, Green Day, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Green Day, Janet Jackson, The Roots, Stevie Wonder, anything from Rawkus Records…My ears grew up. I grew up. I graduated into pre-adulthood. But I never outgrew Tribe.

But it didn’t stop me from waiting on a long line, wrapped around the corner of the Virgin Megastore on forty-deuce (what is it now, a Forever 21, right? Ugh…) to have my copy of what would be Tribe’s last studio album signed by the group. I was excited to, even for a brief moment, show my gratitude to the men who helped me whenever I was down about school, problems at home, social standing, girls, myself. As I crept closer to the table the trio was sitting at, I noticed how small in stature Phife was. “Damn, he really is short,” I thought to myself. But it didn’t matter. With the podium the table was on, once I passed him my CD, we were the same height, eye to eye. Symbolic. I have no clue what I said to him. I guess it was my first true fanboy moment where I blacked out and babbled. But whatever I said, after he signed the inside cover of the all white packaging, and with his fitted low and curved just like mine was, he replied with an attentive head nod, a strong dap and that was it. I met my Yoda. I was pleased.

In the years after that encounter, I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve experienced different cultures and countries. I’ve met and broke bread with an amazing array of people, armed with a resume to envy. None of this would’ve been possible if it weren’t for the confidence instilled in me. A fire that burned within, a hunger that needed to fed. A cocksure attitude that reminded me that my talents will take me further that my wildest imaginations. That whatever I would do would be unquestionably top-notch quality. An ego that would tell the world that I’m on my own jock, still. Because if I don’t say I’m the best, then who the hell will? That all came to fruition in ’93 after hearing the first line in my first hip-hop tape that was blessed to me for free, from an artist with a high-pitched voice he never liked…

“Linden Boulevard represent, represent…”

Growing up, everybody has their influencers, those who would shape and mold them into the adult they will become. A short rapper from Queens was mine.

As fate would have it, years later, in 2006, our paths would cross again, by way of a simple interview about Phife’s involvement in NBA2K7, as a hidden playable character. Even though it was a fluff piece, where my word count was around 300–400 words — which usually meant my actual conversations would only be no more than 15 minutes (I hate transcribing) — we spoke for over an hour talking about all things sports and hip-hop. A lot of laughs and jokes were had on top of the insights and feelings Phife expressed, at the time. Of course I had to snap on his lifelong passion for the New York Knicks and how they absolutely sucked. We vibed like we were chilling at a park in St. Albans, Queens. Just Sean and Malik. I want to say that I finally told him how much Tribe meant to me as a teenager. I want to say that I finally told him that he was my favorite member of the crew. I want to say that I finally told him that his words and lyricism birthed traits in me that would prove very beneficial in my career and adulthood. I also want to say that I finally remembered what I said to him, because once again, like our first brief encounter in ’98, I babbled on. Fanboy moment. But I do remember Phife Diggy, giving me an attentive reply of, “Much love. Respect.”

And that is what myself and millions of Tribe Heads had and will continue to have for Malik Issac Taylor, long after his light dimmed out on March 22, 2016. When news of his passing broke, I was stuck. I thought to myself, “gone too soon,” and the ever popular sentiment, “my childhood is officially dead.” Debatably, that can viewed as being peppered with hints of selfishness. We’ve all made a comment of that nature when we hear of those that connected with us through their talent passing on. But it doesn’t come from a place of malice. A personal and emotional connection that was formed was affected. I almost didn’t write this. But after a few minutes of reflection, I cracked a grin, dusted off a multi colored CD, popped it in my computer. Opened up Microsoft Word. Opened up iTunes and pressed play…

“Linden Boulevard represent, represent…”

And in the annals of hip-hop, and to this scribe, he certainly did just that.

Rest in Power, Phife. Much love. Respect.