The news of the passing of A Tribe Called Quest rapper Phife Dawg shocked and saddened the music world this morning, with many expressing their gratitude for the tremendous impact he had on hip-hop.
Tribe fans will have paid tribute to the 45-year-old today by dipping into their record collections: with five albums emerging from a hugely-productive eight-year period in the 1990s, the three-piece – Phife, fellow MC and producer Q-Tip, and DJ/producer/”sound provider” Ali Shaheed Muhammad (final founding member Jarobi left shortly after the group’s gem of a debut, ‘People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm’) – left behind a treasure trove of jazz-inspired hip-hop for a whole generation of fans and budding artists of the genre to learn and be continually inspired from.
While Phife – real name Malik Isaac Taylor – had more of a supporting role on the group’s debut (featuring on just four of the 14 tracks – although one of those was the unmistakable classic ‘Can You Kick It?’), it was on their follow-up album, ‘The Low End Theory’, that the Queens rapper first properly demonstrated the importance of his lyrical dexterity to the ATCQ sound.
Even listening today, from the moment that Phife delivers his attention-demanding opening bar on ‘Buggin’ Out’ – “YO: microphone check, 1,2, what is this?” – you feel utterly compelled to listen up and engage with everything that the “Five-Foot Assassin” has to say. Phife’s eminence here was just one of the many success stories of ‘The Low End Theory’, but it was his successful grasping of the opportunity to match (and at times outdo) The Abstract Rapper’s (Q-Tip) turn on the mic that makes this record still such an exciting and important listen 25 years later.
There’s his lovestruck grappling with “the one called Flo” on ‘Butter’ (“Is this really love? Then again, how would I know / After all of this time, trying to be a super ho”), the calling out of his detractors on ‘Check The Rhime’ (“And a middle finger goes for all you punk MCs / Cause I love it when you wack MCs despise me / They get vexed, I roll next, can’t none contest me / I’m just a fly MC who’s five foot three and very brave”), and his agenda-setting turn on the iconic rap cypher ‘Scenario,’ where, rather appropriately, he opened up proceedings: “Well what do you know, the Di-Dawg, is first up to bat”.
The below is how NME writer Iestyn George saw the album upon its release back in September 1991.
1991 has seen the doubters vindicated. Despite excellent debuts by Massive, Definition of Sound and PM Dawn as well as the presence of a rejuvenated Ice-T, there’s no denying the fact that rap acts generally falter when tackling that ‘tricky’ second album.
A Tribe Called Quest emerged last year from the shadow cast by their more illustrious brothers, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. ‘People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths of Rhythm’ introduced them as leaders of New York’s Afrocentric Native Tongues movement, yarn spinners extraordinaire with an immaculately fluent rhyming style.
‘The Low End Theory’, however, is a quantum leap away. Gone are the quirky samples that gave them their lighter edge, replaced by stark, hard-hitting beats. Backed with a set of heavy-duty double bass lines (superbly executed on ‘Buggin’ Out’) courtesy of eminent jazzman Ron Carter, this departure towards a live instrumental sound escapes the pitfalls of ‘De La Soul is dead’. What do you do when the sample cupboard is empty? Make your own music, of course.
The remaining constant is the unique rapping partnership of Q-Tip and Phife. Trading lines like psychic sparring partners, they pause, interject, charm and challenge with understated aplomb. Seemingly sharper and more worldly than before, they challenge the music business (“Industry rule number 4,080/Record company people are shady” claims Tip in ‘Check The Rhime’), drop social commentary (‘Everything is Fair’) and join forces with future rap stars Charlie Brown and Busta Rhymes from Leaders Of The New School for a spot of riotous assembly (‘Scenario’).
Weaknesses are few (‘Show Business’ and ‘What?’ polish things off with something of a whimper), and some controversy will no doubt surround the uncharacteristic machismo of ‘The Infamous Date Rape’, with its “she was gagging for it” rhetoric. Nevertheless, just like their debut encapsulated some of the finest moments of the Daisy Age, ‘The Low End Theory’ is the final word in jazz-fused rap. What next?
What came next was arguably the group’s creative peak: ‘Midnight Marauders’, released in 1993, upped the stakes by permitting Q-Tip and Phife to essentially engage in an attempt to one-up one another across its 14 tracks – check out the likes of ‘Award Tour’, ‘Oh My God’, and ‘Electric Relaxation’ (where, set up by Q-Tip, he had “something to say”: “I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian” – a slogan you can now get on a t-shirt, should you so desire).
The trio would put out two more albums – 1996’s ‘Beats, Rhymes And Life’, and the unfortunately underwhelming ‘The Love Movement’ in 1999 – before going their separate ways after the release of the latter, citing disgruntlement with the music industry and inter-band tension that would linger on for some years, particularly between Phife and Q-Tip. This chapter of Tribe’s fascinating story is captured in the excellent 2011 documentary ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest’, which breaks down the group’s innovative streak like no other piece before it.
Despite these troubles, the trio reunited a number of times after the turn of the century, with a largely sold-out tour of the US in 2006 and a final set of European dates in the summer of 2013 being among the highlights. Their final appearance together came late last year, uniting once more to mark the 25th anniversary (and subsequent reissue) of ‘People’s Instinctive Travels…’ with a performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Footage shows that the chemistry between Tip and Phife was still burning strong half a century since they’d first broken onto the scene together, giving Tribe fans a glimmer of hope that there could be a future for the group.
But while today marks a sad day for both A Tribe Called Quest and hip-hop, Phife’s legacy will live on for many years to come – no doubt inspiring the kind of joy that Phife himself reflected on during a recent Reddit AMA session. Asked what it felt like when they cut their first record, the Five-Foot Assassin reflected:
Rest in peace, Phife.