My music icons keep falling: A tribute to Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest

Phife Dawg

I need to say a few words about the fallen music icon du jour, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest (“Let me begin like Chuck D.“), who died yesterday at age 45 of complications from diabetes.

Tribe formed a huge part of the soundtrack of my college years during the early 90s, and the group is getting its proper due today as being at the forefront during what many consider the genre’s creative zenith. Like their Native Tongues counterparts De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers and Black Sheep, Tribe mixed clever, intelligent wordplay with deft rhymes and the kind of off-the-wall, deeply sourced samples most of their contemporaries could only marvel at.

“Can I Kick It,” an early hit, mined the bass line from Lou Reed’s classic “Walk on the Wild Side” to irresistible effect, while “Bonita Applebum” sampled its beat from Little Feat, of all places, and “Check the Rhime” owes its sax refrain to the Average White Band.

But it wasn’t until 1991’s “The Low End Theory” that the group really cemented its legacy.

Tribe wasn’t the first hip-hop act to use jazz samples, but no one did it more seamlessly, potently or with more reverence. When Tribe opened “Low End Theory” with a sample from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, they were nodding to the cultural roots of their very own sound. And they did it with a socially conscious, laid-back vibe that contrasted with the harsher gangster rap coming out of South Central L.A. or their native New York City, with Phife the high-pitched, gravelly foil to Q-Tip’s zen flow.

Phife, the Five Foot Assassin, always seemed like the friendliest guy in the group: “You see my aura’s positive I don’t promote no junk / I’m far from a bully and I ain’t a punk.” But in retrospect, it’s hard to hear him deliver a couplet like, “I never half step ‘cuz I’m not a half stepper / I drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper.”

He was candid about his health struggles. Per Rolling Stone:

Taylor had had health issues for years, undergoing a kidney transplant in 2008 to deal with a longtime battle with diabetes. “It’s really a sickness,” Taylor said in Beats, Rhymes & Life, Michael Rapaport’s candid 2011 documentary on the group. “Like straight-up drugs. I’m just addicted to sugar.”

Phife Dawg was reportedly preparing new solo material for release. He was only 45, the same age I am now. Diabetes is a hell of a disease, man.

Rest in peace, Phife Dawg. Here’s a funky introduction of how nice he was:

A Tribe Called Quest – Check The Rhyme – 1991 – Jive from DJ Upperkuts on Vimeo.

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