Styles Upon Styles Upon Styles: A Tribute to Phife
In 1999, I fell in love with A Tribe Called Quest.
"Find My Way" was ubiquitous and my twelve-year-old sensibilities had me feeling like I was late to the party. It was important for me to be up on whatever "this" was, and I knew that I was listening to something special whenever that song came on. This was not just one of many videos playing during my post-school music binge. I was in the presence of hip-hop royalty.
My middle school friends and I would grow to love Tribe desperately. It felt like they had music for any and every mood possible. Tribe could be, and was the soundtrack of our lives. By 7th grade I considered myself an emcee and A Tribe Called Quest fed my fountain of inspiration. My group members (Tri-State’s Finest back then) would be on a verbal fastbreak, three man weaving while committing every verse in "Scenario" to memory. It would be years until I fully appreciated Phife’s verse on that song and how gem filled it is. From the clever play on the Bo Jackson Nike campaign, (“Bo knows this, and Bo knows that, but Bo don’t know Jack, cause Bo can’t rap...”) I love that line and its subversive nature. We go from Bo Jackson, the superman who seemingly can do everything, to the five footer, funky diabetic crossing his arms and saying, ‘Nah.’
As mellow as ATCQ could be, Phife was an engine, asserting their place among the greats. Phife was not about to be anybody’s sidekick either. (“I’m vexed, fuming, I’ve had it up to here! My days of paying dues are over, acknowledge me as in there!”) Every verse brought the same tenacity as his verse on Scenario, speaking for emcees and anybody craving the acknowledgment they rightfully deserve.
Phife had dexterity on the same song sometimes! Consider "Electric Relaxation" (and shouts to the Wayans Brothers for making that the theme for their show), simultaneously a contender for one of the smoothest songs in hip-hop history, and features a laugh out loud moment when Phife mentions Seaman’s furniture. Phife made the crass line a seamless classic.
As an English teacher, I will do my part to ensure new generations continue to fall in love with this master and the colossal work of A Tribe Called Quest. I want my students to feel how I felt when they heard “Bonita Applebum” (by high school, my new group toyed with the idea of covering that song for a mutual crush). I want aspiring emcees to hear “Can I Kick It” and need to write something, desperately.
In a genre that is not yet a half century old, my heart breaks for the amount of legends who were unable to make it to 50. As we mourn Phife, I hope we are further committed to health, rest, and nutrition. Hip-Hop needs our legends to be around to pass it on. This is a culture of life, intergenerational discourse, Sankofa through sampling, you know?
Phife, thank you for everything you did for the culture. Filling your rhymes with hat tips and allusions to the Caribbean and the New York Knicks, I’m hard pressed to think of an emcee whose rhymes were more relatable to me. You too now belong to the ages.
Chris Burton lives in Brooklyn with his wife Brianna and their son, Coltrane. You can read more from Chris at www.lupusawhadat.com and hear his shows at www.soundboothradio1.com. He's also on Twitter (@Chrisb06) and Instagram (@dibaddestchaplain).