I’ve had a lot of best friends over the years, and I’ve rarely felt like the alpha in those relationships. I never had the outsized personality and was always better at feeding off others’ energy. I’d rather be the right hand man: the one slightly out of view, the surprising one, the more complicated one.
Which is why I deeply identified with Phife Dawg, the legendary A Tribe Called Quest rapper who died yesterday at 45 after a long fight with diabetes. If Tribe was a quintessential New York underdog story, Phife was the underdog in that story itself. No one expected anything from him. He sat in Q-Tip’s shadow, embracing his role as sidekick. Until he emerged into the spotlight in an enormous, monstrous way, and on his own terms.
Some rappers come out of the gate fully formed, like Nas (“Illmatic”) or Biggie Smalls (“Ready to Die”). Almost all arrive pretty good. But not Phife. He stumbled onto the national stage, with Tribe’s 1990 debut album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” spitting straight garbage.
“I’m gobbling, like a dog on turkey
Beef jerky, Slim Jims, I eat sometimes
I like lemons and limes”
Sheesh. In fact, his badness on that first album was kind of the point. He was the goofy, amiable foil to Q-Tip’s introspection; he brought out the Abstract’s playful side. Q-Tip by himself was a loner oddball artiste. Add Phife, and Tribe became a crew you wanted to hang with; they welcomed their audience with open arms and low stakes.
There have been plenty of essential hypemen in hip-hop’s history, from Flava Flav to Jasper Dolphin. It’s a fine role to have: there’s no pressure or fallout. Just jump in the backseat, accept your beta-ness, light up a joint and chill.
Instead, Phife grabbed the wheel. His first verse on the group’s next album, “The Low End Theory,” on the second track “Buggin’ Out,” is a sucker punch that reportedly made everyone in the studio flip out when it was delivered for the first time. Phife makes a legendary entrance, subverting the rules of pre-song adlibbing, spilling out his words slightly ahead of the beat, with raspy conviction. Never had Tribe sounded so urgent or swaggering.
The verse displays Phife working hard technically, but perhaps more importantly, shows him starting to take himself seriously as an emcee and developing an ego: “I never walk the street thinking it’s all about me / Even though deep in my heart, it really could be.” Throughout “The Low End Theory,” you can hear Phife struggling with self-doubt, hearing his haters, questioning whether he belongs. And while Q-Tip is up in the clouds, Phife addresses his issues head on, whether with getting women (“Butter”), his stature and conventionally underwhelming appearance (“Vibes and Stuff”), or criticisms from his peers (“Check the Rhime”). He laid bare his constraints and insecurities while going through the process of becoming a better, more confident rapper, making him suddenly both relatable and formidable.
The peak of Phife’s prowess came on the third Tribe album, “Midnight Marauders.” While Q-Tip had been the whole show on album one and the main character on album two, he faces Phife on album three as an equal. Imagine if at Simon and Garfunkel’s zenith, Art turned to Paul and was like, “I’m writing half the songs on this album.” Imagine if Jordan let Pippen take half the game winning shots after their second title. Power shifts are messy and difficult, so give credit to Tip for being a team player. But mostly, give credit to Phife, who’s hilarious, insightful, smooth and rugged throughout, earning his primacy.
“Some brothers try to diss but Malik, you see ’em bitching
Me no care about them dibby MC, my shit is hitting
Trini gladiator, anti-hesitater
Shaheed, push the fader from here to Grenada.”
Look: Q-Tip is still the better rapper on “Midnight Marauders.” This isn’t really disputed. But Phife’s genius was to make himself essential to an equation he hadn’t really been a part of. He added a unique brand of enthusiasm, humor and unpredictability: the crest to Tip’s wave, the oreos in Tip’s ice cream. And considering where Phife started, the fact that he gets so close to matching the Abstract is a miracle.
In American society, Phife Dawg should have been nothing. For a while, he was. “Just a short brother, dark skin face / Weigh a buck-fifty, 36 waist,” he described himself. But at the turn of the 90s, the nation watched Phife’s transformation from a blip to dynamo in real time. And that difference between “People’s Instinctive Travels” and “Midnight Marauders” is a reminder to me that over 3 years, huge transformation—personal, artistic, financial, aspirational—is possible.