“Now here's a funky introduction of how nice I am. / Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram.”
I talk about A Tribe Called Quest like they weren’t real — the way some of my friends talk about comic-book heroes, populating an imagined world that seems too good to be true. Tribe managed to be titans, even in rap’s second golden era. When I was a kid who snuck rap albums into a house where they were forbidden, everything sounded good, but A Tribe Called Quest sounded great. If the '90s were where I learned to love hip-hop, Tribe remained a consistent romancer, beckoning at the bottom of a cracked-open window in a lonely house, signaling a promise: There’s more for you out here.
I first loved Phife because he was short. I come from a family of short people and still find myself rooting for the shortest person in the room, even if that person is myself. Phife was not only short -- he owned it. He made it dangerous. He was branded the Five Foot Assassin, and he ran with it. Even on the early Tribe records, you could hear the formula: Q-Tip, the careful and deliberate MC, teaching as he rhymed. Phife, the wise-cracking antithesis, the shit-talking homie from the corner of every hood in America, finally making good on his punch lines. The short kid with a mouth big enough to make him larger than life. Rap bravado in the late '80s and early '90s was most frequently done best by men like LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim — men who were supremely skilled, attractive, and covered in gold. Phife’s brand of bravado met many of us where we were at. No person where I come from could come righteously into a gold rope chain. There were no sex symbols, leaning shirtless on expensive cars. There was, of course, a park. A few lackluster rhymes kicked in a circle before the session turned into who could crack the best jokes, who could deliver a punch line that would make a person collapse with laughter. Phife was the hero of this space. Busta Rhymes was there for the energy, Wu-Tang was there for the technical brilliance, Mobb Deep was there for the danger, and in the midst of it all, Phife was there: rapping to us, but also for us, in a way that seemed like it was so touchable. Something that we could also fit inside our mouths. The lines that pulled us to the edge of our seats at their opening and blew you backward at their closing. The lines that made us pause for a small moment before the grand payoff of understanding. Phife says “The mad man Malik makes MCs run for Milk of Magnesia” and there is a small silence, then a chorus of gasps.
Punch line rap is all too common now, and rarely done well. Phife didn’t invent it, but he did it in the way I believe it was meant to be done. Less like a witty pun, more like a matter-of-fact statement; something he truly believed, not something he was using to score points. The Love Movement is my favorite Tribe Called Quest album, even though I know it isn’t their best. I remember holding the issue of The Source that announced Tribe’s breakup in 1998 and listening to The Love Movement with new ears. It’s a flawed masterpiece, Tip and Phife looking for exits at the edge of every track, the sound of a group that hung on maybe one album too long but still had enough magic to make a few incredible moments. In a lot of ways, listening to it now feels like listening to Q-Tip’s first solo album. But on “His Name is Mutty Ranks,” there is only Phife, the lone MC for two minutes, doing what he always did best. “For God so loved the world, he said Phife, ask your preacher / Love to toot my own Horne, similar to Lena.”
Those two minutes are how I remember Phife Dawg, today and always. I wanted so much more for him after Tribe’s split. I wanted him to be adored, appreciated beyond belief. I wanted him to release iconic solo albums, sell out shows, and make it to the top of the mountain again. Alone, this time, so there could be no debate about his greatness. Of course, this is the part of the story that many of us know already: the split, Q-Tip’s critical success, Phife’s brilliant but ignored solo album (2000’s Ventilation: Da LP), the multiple Tribe reunions, ones that made it more and more obvious that Tip and Phife were two vastly different people on different paths. They were so different that I sometimes wonder if A Tribe Called Quest might have been a brilliant, nine-year dream.
Malik, I am sorry that we did not gather roses for you when you could still clutch the petals in your hands and feel the softness of them stick with you for ages, the way so many of your verses stuck to our tongues days after we first heard them. Malik, Phife Dawg, Five Foot Assassin, you towered over an era of incredible riches. You, creator of another narrative. Patron saint of the punch line. You, who got the party started and stuck around long enough to get the last laugh. Malik, we will remember you when a rapper tries to be clever and fails; when a crowd cheers at a halfhearted rhyme. We will suck our teeth at club DJs, and take the long way home. We will press play on anything that bears your name, and let you fill a room, or a car, or the space on an empty train. We will remember how you did it once, with so much ease. On point. All the time, on point.