Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Legend Called Phife

I really didn't want to write about another dead musical legend. So it goes...

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince got me into hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest kept me there.

The first rap song I knew by heart was I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson. The next was ScenarioScenario is widely considered to be the best hip hop posse cut ever and considered by me to be the best song ever.

People often say certain artists or songs or books "changed their lives" when they really mean "I liked this thing a lot." I can honestly say Scenario changed my life. I fell completely in love with hip hop because of that song and the album it was on and I never looked back. Hip hop has been a part of my identity ever since.

I loved every part of Scenario: the chorus, the beat, the call and response, everybody's energy. Although I was always partial to Busta's antics, even as a kid I knew that the song would not have been the phenomenon it was without the legendary opening verse from Phife the 5 footer. He set everything off, and after hearing his voice come in dropping those first few lines, you had to hear the whole song.

Ay yo Bo knows this, and Bo knows that
But Bo don't know Jack
Cuz Bo can't rap

So simple. So legendary. Bo Jackson was the man at the time and his classic ad series "Bo Knows" with Nike was just taking off; Phife's pop culture and sports references drew me in to rap as a little kid, and I always leaned towards artists with a sense of humor. At the same time, in the same line, he lifted rapping to a level of skill above that of the greatest athlete of my generation. Bo don't know jack cuz Bo can't rap. Rap was something to be taken seriously. A lot of critics, and most people into mainstream music at the time, thought rap was just talking over a beat. Phife proclaimed that it took more talent than any sport, he just made it look easy.

Despite how serious Tribe took their music, they had fun with it.

Q-Tip: Damn Phife you got fat! 
Phife: Yeah I know it looks pathetic, Ali Shaheed Muhammad got me doing calisthenics. 

That was the foundation: fun. Making quality music to enjoy. Some people take hip hop so serious. People forget how much fun golden era hip hop  (either one, late 80s or early-mid 90s) could be. From Biz Markie to Fresh Prince to Phife to Redman to Ol' Dirty to De La Soul, these artists were having fun. Not everyone is as serious as Nas or Mobb Deep or Rakim, and not everyone needs to be. It's a serious art, certainly, but when people stop enjoying it, the music suffers. Tribe eventually stopped having fun, which affected their music and led to their split.

But when they were on, like they were for their first three albums, they were one of the best groups to ever make music. And their last two albums are better than most group's entire discography. If not for comparisons to the first three albums, they would be considered classics themselves. I consider them classics regardless.

Now, if anyone says Phife was their favorite MC and that he had incredible lyrical ability, they are lying. He wasn't the best. He wasn't technically or lyrically amazing. But he did have skills. He had heart. He had a love for his craft. He was self-assured and cocky at times but could be self-deprecating. Height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck. Most of all, he had wit and an uncanny ability to complement his partners.

That was the beauty of Phife: he made the people around him better. He fit perfectly, and that is a rare skill to possess. He wasn't the most talented person in the group, but he was the most important spoke in the wheel. He was the ill sidekick, more Chewbacca than Robin the Boy Wonder. Being able to mesh with others, complementing another person's style, is a special skill of its own, to be commended just as much as a talented solo act. Not everyone can be (or even wants to be) the center of attention. I always admired him for his ability to create and maintain that chemistry. Helping other people shine is an art. He was able to master that art, while shining himself.

Now if my partners don't look good, Malik won't look good
If Malik don't look good, then Quest won't look good
If the Quest don't look good, then Queens won't look good

But since the sounds are universal, New York won't look good 

This verse from God Lives Through is another classic, and these four bars perfectly encapsulate him as a person and a member of a legendary group. He starts by acknowledging his partners. They come first, always. If they don't look good it's a reflection of him. He is defined by their success. He is always thinking as a part of the whole: his group, his borough, his city. I don't know of many people who so firmly and lovingly embraced their position in life and excelled at that position as Phife.

He always put the group ahead of him. Tip and Sha they all that, Phife Dawg ditto. Q-Tip was the obvious leading man, but Phife was the MVP. Take the first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It's a certified classic, but it drags a little at the end. In fact, it drags a little throughout and I think it's because Phife appears on this album less than any other. I love Q-Tip, but the songs benefit from the balance Phife provides; from his vastly different voice to his flow and his punchlines. He added the Everyman element to the group. He kept the songs more grounded; a lot of the songs on the first album were long and meandering, and though that fit with the theme of "travels and paths of rhythm," it made for some less focused, less interesting songs. Phife always added an element of levity and just plain old fun.

There are many classic Phife Dawg verses, but I consider his verse from Keep it Rollin off of Midnight Marauders a quintessential Phife verse. If I had to choose one verse to represent all that is Phife Dawg, this would be it (although, if you were to say it is his verse from Scenario or God Lives Through, I wouldn't argue):

Aiyyo swing swing swing, to chop chop chop
Yo that's the sound when MC's get mopped
(Phife was the master of opening verses. See Scenario, Steve Biko, Oh My God, La Schmoove with the Fu-Schnickens, etc. etc. Something funny, something that sticks, something that makes you want to hear what else he will say.)

Don't come around town without the hip in your hop
(Just funny ass lines everywhere. Funny because of the content and because of how it sounded. It was fun to say and to hear him say it.)

Cause when the shit hits the fan, that ass'll get dropped
MC's wanna attack me but them punks can't cope
I'll have you left without a job, like Isaac from The Love Boat
(Another punch line. Another pop culture reference.)

So money watch your mouth, or I might have to bust ya
Battlin MC's, from JFK to Russia
Back down to London, Sweden and Brazil
Do a U.S. tour for three months and then I chill
(Did Phife create the humblebrag? One of the first rap groups to do world tours. No big deal.)

Styles be fat like Jackie Gleason, the rest be Art Carney
(Pronouncing Carney like Corney. Pop culture, double entendres, twisting pronunciations to create homophones. All of it was like mental ice cream for me as a kid. I couldn't stop eating it up.)

People love the Dawg like the kids love Barney
"I love you, you love me"
The shorty Phife Dawg is your favorite MC
(Phife is for the babies! Probably his silliest line, but he made it work in the verse. Everyone eventually had Barney jokes, Phife was one of the first.)

So move back yaself dread, you know the element
(A little patois, showing his Trinidadian roots, something he often did.)

The Tribe is good for your health like a can of Nutriment
MC's don't have no wins, MC's don't have no wins
I flips it crazier than a busload full of Jerry's Kids
(That's just straight up hilarious. Rap always pushed the limits of good taste.)

Your crew don't want it, man your crew don't want it
But if you feel you can swing it, then money please bring it
(Cocky without being overly aggressive.)

Large Professor in the house 
(Shouting out another rapper on the track and a fellow rap legend. Phife always made space to give props to the greats, and as always, compliment/complement the other artists on the song.)

You know how we do
I stay on your crew
like Mario Lemieux
(Shouted out my favorite hockey payer ever. Bonus points.)

Peace to Ike Love
and the rest of the crew
(Shouting out his people. Always giving love.)

I meet you guys in front the cleaners
Bring the blunts and the brew so
(Phife was a man who appreciated the simple things in life.)

At the end of the verse, Q-Tip chimes in with ad-libs in between bars (whassup...whassup...whassup). He starts to laugh at the end and it feels natural, like they are just having fun together. The love for each other and for the music is deep but it can be seen right on the surface. Tip is enjoying the hell out of this verse and his simple ad-libs and laughter lift Phife's words to a whole other level, which is exactly what Phife does for Q-Tip and anyone else he got on the track with.

There have been many tributes from music websites, like this one; many artists have expressed their sympathies, such as Homeboy Sandman; and others have shared their personal experiences with Phife, like Scott Van Pelt. Then of course there's Busta Rhymes' tribute. I felt the need to add my voice to the chorus of voices singing Phife's praise because of the many hours of joy the man's music gave me, and continues to give me. He truly helped shape my identity. I am forever grateful.

Rest in Power to Phife, the funky diabetic.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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