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A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg Was a Hip-Hop Original

In his 2010 memoir, “Decoded,” Jay Z defined the central subject of hip-hop in three words: “why I’m dope.” A simplification, to be sure, but one that holds true from rap’s humblest origins, when MCs functioned as artful carnival barkers to promote their DJs, to the depths of its full commercial decadence, when displaying the size of one’s posse, bank account, gun or other phallic implement often seemed just as important as the strength of one’s rhyme book.

Of course, one scratch beneath the surface reveals a far more complicated equation: Dope is a slippery signifier. Idle boasting isn’t what made hip-hop one of the defining art forms of the last half century, and “why I’m dope” is more often than not the hard-won destination forged of failure, pain, sorrow and doubt. The possible avenues to dopeness are endless. The late producer J Dilla cemented his eternal dopeness while lying on his deathbed, looping the phrase “broken and blue” over and over. Scarface’s dopeness was built on paranoia, grief and regret. Biggie’s dopeness was both his cloak of invincibility and the self-loathing he built it to conceal. Kanye West is rarely doper than when he allows himself to look ugly and vulnerable. And for A Tribe Called Quest’s Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, who died on Wednesday at the age of 45, his dopeness existed not in spite of, but in perfect harmony with his 5’3” frame and three-decade battle against type 1 diabetes.

The Five-Foot Assassin. The Funky Diabetic. Dyna-Mutt. Malik the Five-Foot Freak. “A hip-hop scholar since bein’ knee-high to a duck / Height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck.” Phife was a master at pre-emptively highlighting his own shortcomings and turning them into lyrical gold. A gifted rapper who seemed well aware that he fell short of Rakim and Nas in the pantheon, Phife managed to continually thread a needle’s eye between cockiness and self-deprecation in just about every line, and few MCs have turned their limitations into virtues with more verve. “If I don’t say I’m the best, tell me who the hell will?”

For one, Phife always managed to live within, but never disappear into, the shadow of his bandmate Q-Tip, an obvious musical genius who initially cast the group in his own image. Tribe’s idiosyncratic 1990 debut, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” left little doubt who called the shots: Although Phife contributed a solid verse on “Can I Kick It?” and three other songs on the album, Q-Tip rapped on every single cut.

But by the time 1991’s “The Low End Theory” rolled around, Phife’s rhymes had improved dramatically, and his more-or-less equal billing provided the bedrock for the first of the group’s two masterpieces. On songs like “Buggin’ Out,” “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and especially breakout single “Check the Rhime,” the two rappers forged a tag-team alchemy rivaled only by predecessors Run-DMC and Southern heirs Outkast. (It’s not hard to trace the model for the yin-yang interplay between Andre 3000’s boho artiste and Big Boi’s streetwise sports nut straight back to Tip and Phife.) Q-Tip rapped in a nasal, singsong cadence; Phife’s delivery was plainspoken and conversational. Q-Tip reveled in absurdism and hippie mysticism; Phife was drawn to laugh-out-loud punchlines and dense pop culture references. (One former New York furniture seller never lived down a memorable appearance in a Phife lyric.) Q-Tip’s meter swung with measured, metronomic precision; Phife favored slant-rhymes and liked to cram whole mouthfuls of verbiage into the last beats of his bars. Put together, the effect was magical.

As Phife told Vulture last fall, “It just sounded like we were Siamese twins, we were so in tune. It sounded like Tip could finish off (my) sentence and vice versa, and that’s really what made Tribe Tribe.”

“The Low End Theory” went on to nab the coveted perfect “five mics” rating from hip-hop bible the Source, but Tribe’s influence extended far beyond that or any other magazine’s circulation. “Low End” and its equally impeccable follow-up, 1993’s “Midnight Marauders,” were those rare albums just as likely to be heard booming from an afterhours club as a college quad hacky-sack circle, and Tribe began to assemble a fanbase that stretched past hip-hop’s core audience, slotting in easily next to the Smashing Pumpkins and the Beastie Boys on the Lollapallooza tour in 1994.

Of course, hip-hop had already crossed over into the mainstream before Tribe hit, but the group’s ability to pick up the stragglers was hard to overstate. For anyone put off by the nihilism and confrontation of the likes of N.W.A, the group offered a gentler, sunnier antidote. For hip-hop true believers who had just watched in horror as MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice became the music’s pop chart representatives, the group presented a fully credible display of classicist values that could still fill a wedding reception dancefloor. (As a bold newsreader in Phife’s adopted hometown of Atlanta demonstrated this morning, the group’s rhymes can even function as traffic reports.) Anyone who heard Tribe and still doubted hip-hop’s power was probably beyond all hope.

None of that would have been possible without Phife, the group’s lifeline to aspiring street-corner rappers and bedroom fantasists alike. “Marauders” and “Low End” both went Platinum, but Tribe’s influence wasn’t measured in record-sales: After all, TLC’s “CrazySexyCool” likely sold more copies than Tribe’s entire discography, but Phife’s was the first voice heard on the record. It wasn’t until 1996’s “Beats, Rhymes and Life” that the group notched a No. 1 album, yet that was the point when diminishing artistic returns began to set in. Phife only managed one solo outing, and it suffered from the absence of his partner. Though more successful, Q-Tip’s solo ventures did as well.

The two men had known each other since childhood, and like any relationship of that length, it wasn’t without some ugly nadirs. Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” captured several of those in often uncomfortable detail — particularly a vicious backstage blow-up at 2008’s Rock the Bells in San Bernardino – and the docu was disavowed by Q-Tip prior to its Sundance debut. Phife was the only Tribe member to attend the premiere, and he openly wiped away tears during the Q&A that followed.

How many rappers could watch their own lowest moments in a crowded theater, cry in public, and still tell festival audiences that “no MC can serve me”? Phife Dawg could, and that’s exactly why he was dope.

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