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Phife: What he meant to me and hip-hop

Normally, celebrity deaths are something that I pretend to act like it affects me emotionally. I will be the first one to admit that is hard for me to feel increasingly emotional about someone who I have never even been in the same room as. That does not mean I do not understand why people become emotional over these things, I guess I just never have had that connection.

Well, Tuesday night, I experienced my first example of this when rapper Phife passed away from complications with Diabetes.

The first time I ever heard Malik Isaac Taylor’s voice was during my junior year of high school. My scope of the hip-hop universe was about the size of this laptop that I am typing on currently. Of course I knew the popular rappers of my generation, people like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar (who had just released Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City) and Lil Wayne, but I had never expanded my knowledge outside of those. As 90s rappers go, Biggie Smalls was always my favorite and the only one I really listened to.

I was riding in my friend’s (let’s call him Sam) 90-something, black Cadillac Deville on the way to do something rambunctious of sorts, I assume. Normally, Sam let me control the music, because he knew how much I enjoyed showing him new music and artists. I knew music, and Sam knew important things like history, how to change a tire, and how to actually look like a fit human being.

This time, Sam had the auxiliary cord plugged into his phone and played a song that many of you may know, Can I Kick It? The first time I heard that stand up bass, with the light acoustic guitar in the background, my eyes lit up. Of course, Q-Tip raps first on this song, with his usual smooth lyricism. Phife follows right behind him with a more in-your-face tone and flow. The combination of these two on this perfect beat immediately made me fall in love and become obsessed.

“Boy this track really has a lot of flavor,” rang through through my ears and boy, did I agree. The contrast of Q and Phife on that song really makes it great. Q is smooth and Phife is aggressive. It was like Stockton and Malone.

One of my favorite Phife lines will always be “Microphone check 1-2 was is this?” from Buggin’ Out. It is one of the more flawless opening lines of a song.

Now, I was only born in 1996, so to say I understand Phife’s total impact on his time would be asinine, but what I do understand is that he changed things. Him, along with Q and Ali Shaheed Muhammed (and for a time Jabori White) challenged the norm in hip-hop at the time, which was to be macho and arrogant. To speak on toughness and gang banging was what sold.

Phife used his short-comings (no pun intended) to form a sort of flawed arrogance about him. He constantly rapped about his height, especially on The Low End Theory where he refenced himself as the “five-foot assassin” or the “five-foot freak.” He rapped about social issues and gave hip-hop a conscious. Him and Q showed that rap was a lot more than just violence and wealth. They rapped about anything from the inter-workings of the record industry to love.

As Genius pointed out, the line “I like ’em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian” has become a popular and repeated line in hip-hop throughout the years.

There is no denying that Phife had flaws, but what was so great about him was his ability to embrace those flaws. He laid down verses that worked so well with the group’s use of tight drums, quiet bass and jazz horns.

A Tribe Called Quest will always be my favorite rap group and will always have a lasting impact on me, because they revealed a part of hip hop that I had not discovered. From there, I started to notice their influence on the rappers from my generation such as Kanye West. His death affects me, because I would not love hip-hop as much as a I do if it was not for a lot of his verses and one liners. Him and Q opened my eyes.

If you have never heard ATCQ or Phife at all, below are two tracks that will help change you as a person. Spoiler alert, Phife is always on point.



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