Phife Dawg’s Passing Marks The End of an Era

The hip hop world just lost one of the greats yesterday, Malik Isaac Taylor aka emcee Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest lost his battle with his health. Demone Carter, the 2016 Silicon Valley Artist Laureate writes on what his life meant to him, from emcee to emcee.

Phife reuniting with ATCQ taken at Rock The Bells 2008 (Jean Melesaine)

The first tape I ever bought (yes I’m dating myself) was A Tribe Called Quest’s "People’s Instinctive Travels." After seeing the black bohemian styled video, "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," I was instantly hooked. At the time, Tribe was a left field breath of fresh air when the macho gold chain rap of the 80’s had just started to feel cliche. On A Tribe Called Quest’s inaugural album, most of the rapping duties were left to the gloriously abstract group leader Q Tip. Malik Taylor aka Phife Dawg made appearances on just a couple of songs, most notably the classic "Can I Kick It." From the look and sound of it, Phife was doing his best just to fit into the jazzy futuristic vision Q Tip had laid out with mixed results.

It wasn’t until Tribe’s second album, the 1991 "Low End Theory" that the group and Phife Dawg’s potential were fully realized. Short, cocky, and colorful, Phife was more than a hype man. On "Low End Theory" Phife Diggy shined as the perfect hyperactive foil to Tip’s abstract cool. On songs like "Buggin' Out" and his first solo song, "Butter," Phife Dawg began his multi-decade run as being the reliable spitter of simple, yet punchy bars delivered with a raspy streetwise sensibility. He was also hip hop’s #1 sports fan who always had a football or hoops metaphor at the ready. Before Big Boi served as the grounding mechanism for the mercurial Andre 3000, Phife was the magic that made A Tribe Called Quest as accessible as they were artsy.

Tribe’s impressive run of classic albums came to an end in 1998 with the swan song "Love Movement." We learned in Michael Rappaport's excellent 2011 documentary "Beats, Rhymes, and Life" the personal relationship between Q-Tip and Phife had deteriorated by that point. Like many Tribe fans, I cringed as Tip and Phife took verbal jabs at each other on screen as only estranged friends can do. The documentary also gave us a window into Phife’s long battle with diabetes. The self described ‘funky diabetic’ was sicker than we ever knew, and it was painful to watch.

Phife’s recent passing has instantly become a watershed moment for hip hop fans of a certain age. For those of us who came along during rap’s second golden era, A Tribe Called Quest was beyond iconic. With many of my contemporaries struggling to deal with the mortality of the 90’s sound, we are also now forced to confront the fact that our rap immortals are actually mortal. As rap fans, I think we are better prepared to process our heroes dying in a hail of gunfire than we are when they succumb to the same human frailties which will claim most of us sooner or later. My friend, DJ Hen Boogie summed it up succinctly on twitter this morning: “When you wake up and realize there really won’t be another Tribe album.”

Today, in hearts and in on our timelines we mourn the passing a hip hop legend. May Phife Dawg's styles upon styles live forever.

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About Demone Carter

Demone Carter is the 2016 Silicon Valley Artist Laureate, Hip Hop Emcee, Community Organizer, and Social Entrepreneur from San Jose, California. Follow him on twitter: @lifeafterhiphop.

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