The Loss of Phife
Author and professor Ericka Blount and hip hop historian and journalist Davey D joined us for this special commemoration and reflection upon the life and work of A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg.
JARED BALL: What’s up world? Welcome to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
On Wednesday the 23rd the hip hop world woke up to the news where the 5 footer who drank so much soda you could call him Dr. Pepper but who never had a cavity and floated like gravity, had passed away due to complication stemming from a long battle with diabetes. Malik Isaac Taylor, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest is dead at just 45.
To try to make some sense of this and to offer some context are two leading journalists who cover hip hop, art, and politics. Ericka Blount is an award winning journalist, writer, editor, and professor who can be found at ErickaBlount.com. She’s also interviewed Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Maurice White, rest in peace, and Fidel Castro among others who are making news recently. Also joining us is DaveyD a foremost authority on hip hop media and longtime DJ, journalist, and cohost of Hard Knock Radio which originates in the Bay but can be heard all over the country and world via Pacifica Radio.
Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us on I Mix What I Like in the Real News Network.
DAVEY D: Thanks for having us.
ERICKA BLOUNT: Yes indeed, thank you.
BALL: So as I was saying to you off the air, I have to admit that the news of Phife’s passing hit me harder than I might’ve expected and I wanted to bring you on to sort of contextualize this a bit. Davey let’s start with you. Tell us a little bit about who Phife was, his legacy, his importance to the game, and maybe I hope we can talk to you a little bit about this condition we’re faced with where a lot of our generation is passing too early due to health complications inside and outside of hip hop.
DAVEY D: Well Phife Dawg is from Queens, St. Albans, Queens and he’s one of 4 members that made up the group A Tribe Called Quest. Many people forget that this group came out in 1989-1990 so they had a younger look and their music is timeless so many people mistakenly forget that these guys have been around for 20 plus years; 25 years or so. That’s a testament to how good they are and their ability to stay relevant. Phife Dawg as an artist, if you think of most groups there’s always kind of 1 lead rapper and then there’s a 2nd one. But there’s no Tribe Called Quest without Phife. Him and Q-Tip trade lyrics equally in my opinion. Phife has so many stand out rhymes that people will just say and reference and you know, his presence is felt in a very big way as an artist. Without Tribe it ain’t going to be a situation where you can go on without them.
DAVEYD: That’s the end. In terms of music I think their claim to fame is they opened up the genre of hip hop and let you know there’s a certain amount of musicality to it. In terms of they’re a part of an era we call the Afrocentric era. So they kind of came in with that whole vibe, a lot of jazz dominated their music. So you understood that hip hop wasn’t just limited to drum beats and just somebody rapping but you could actually make it a more complex composition. Personally Phife was someone I’ve known for 20 plus years. my fondest memories with him wasn’t so much about him rapping or the shows I’ve seen him and Q-Tip and everybody perform at but it had more to do with our conversations about sports. I mean Phife was a sports fanatic and his analysis and his understanding of the different sports and the players and the statistics especially football was unparalleled.
Just to show you how dope he was as a sports person, he lived out here in the Bay area where I’m at, in Oakland he lived down in Antioch which is outside of Oakland. He would frequently be on sports radio, he was somebody that would call up and there were several stations that were trying to get him to be a regular personality just on the sports tip, including us. We tried to get him to do sports for our show then we found out there was another show, they were trying to get him. Then we found there were other radio stations that were trying to get him. So Phife was definitely a sports guy and just the conversations we had about football and him telling me my Raiders every year wasn’t going to make it and I’m looking at him and he would give this breakdown as to why. You know you want to argue with him, you’d be like okay man you might be right. He was a diehard Jets fan, we could never convert him even though he lived out here, so you know that makes me smile that he was a genuinely good guy.
BALL: There’s no question about that Davey. In fact the one time that I had the pleasure of meeting with him it was clear that he was a genuine good dude. We sat and talked for a long time, a lot about sports like you just said and I know for the same thing out here in the D.C. area. The sports radio affiliate that I’m most familiar with was trying to bring him around and we heard him increasingly on the air as well and when we did meet he did the same thing, broke down all my sports teams, the Bullets at the time. Even the Baltimore Orioles and the football team that I love whose name shall not be mentioned on air. He knew everything about them and he was genuinely good dude. And everyone that I’ve ever heard talk about him who has met him has said the same thing. Ericka let me bring you into the conversation and basically get the same response. What are your thoughts in the aftermath of this news and maybe a little bit of the void that has been left since his passing.
BLOUNT: Yea I mean, Davey D broke it down as to their impact on the industry. I remember when they first came out in 89, I was a senior in high school and my sister of the time was an intern at Jive. So I was getting all the music before anybody in the area anyway. They resonated with me on several levels obviously. Just the music itself being my father’s a big jazz head so I knew a lot of the references in terms of samples and stuff. Also just them and the Jungle Brother and the whole Native Tongues crew they were just hot. Musically, lyrically in every way. So, you know, Phife I wrote something recently for the [Chatter League] about some of his clever lines that he had. He was just a word smith. Beyond that too as a person he sort of represented for Tribe, kind of every man [inaudible] resonated with the streets. He was an everyday dude. As compared to like Q-Tip who was a little more heady, little more intellectual, you know, Phife had an edge that everyday people; you know I grew up in my neighborhood with all the guys’ texting me in the past, you know just regular street dude. So he had that element.
BALL: We only have a couple of minutes left and I wanted to touch on something were talking a little bit about off air. Davey you were talking about this issue of people now paying tribute to Tribe Called Quest who don’t, Radio personalities in particular who don’t often incorporate their music into their sets on a regular basis. I wondered if there was a way to, one of the biggest critiques I had of that Michael Rapaport documentary that came out about them a couple of years ago was that it didn’t touch on enough of that era that you mention Davey coming out of the Afrocentric era. That golden age of hip hop as it is often referred to. What I’m reminded of is that the same thing that I saw that didn’t happen in that documentary that Rapport did is something that I hear you making a point about in terms of contemporary radio. It doesn’t incorporate groups from that era often enough and it doesn’t talk about the moment that produced those groups. The era that the kind of politics and political and cultural era that we were in at that time that produced Tribe and the Native Tongues and so many others as well and the structure that doesn’t allow for that moment to reoccur. Could you maybe say another word about that?
DAVEYD: There were a lot of things going on but I think that most dominant thing was the fight to end apartheid. We can do a whole show on the movements around that and the way hip hop was involved with that. You also had a height as the crack era and one of the things about Tribe and the whole Native Tongue movement is that in many ways they were in a opposition to that. If you were bombarded with imagery of what the crack era and the damages around it then Tribe and all those groups were a refreshment to that.
Being out in the Bay area they would play it on our station all the time. They stayed in rotation, they were probably among our first Summer Jam acts. We were the first ones to do that. We played, you know a lot of their songs were always in rotation and as a DJ their stuff played, I played them all the time at that clubs. So just to hear all these big stations suddenly come up and they were like doing these tributes and they were like oh, you know Tribe they made my life. They were talking about how they grew up on Tribe and how they were the soundtrack to them when they were young adults but they never play them and they don’t play them now. They did the tribute on Wednesday and then we’re back to business as usual. For me that’s kind of wack, it’s exploitative and they don’t really do justices.
I’ll close by saying this, when you contrast that with other genres of music and I was just on a station out here, it was a rock station that was doing a tribute to Tribe. They were talking about Metallica and all those groups that have been around for ages are always in rotation with the new groups that are here but when it comes to urban and black stations we discard them.
So we did a tribute for Tribe, you heard the Tribe, but you didn’t hear the tributes for Earth Wind and Fire when we lost Maurice White you know just a month and a half ago. There’s actually shows you where the state of some of these people that have access to the masses and speak to the community all across the country are. This is not about them and their legacy this is about ratings. For me Tribe was a foundation for a lot of what we know about hip hop in this sense. That if you ask people what are their top 10 albums, you’re going to have either Midnight Marauders or Low End Theory somewhere in that top 10.
BALL: Or both.
DAVEYD: Or both. Very few people will not mention Tribe as being a top 10 group and to me, to not have them be put forth and the whole movement that was around them I think short changes us and leaves us with a cultural void, that’s just my opinion. I’ll just say this, as a professor I have students in my hip hop class who first heard of Tribe when they come to our class. You know like, I’ve never heard this group and so you have 19 and 20-year-olds and so I would just caution people not to sleep on the fact that what we take for granted may be something very foreign for the people that we’re supposed to be setting examples for.
BALL: No doubt. I had my 2 daughters perform in the Check the Rhyme back and forth yesterday. You on point Tip? All the time Phife. Back and forth to try to introduce them as soon as soon as possible because I realize I had kind of been a little bit delinquent myself. Ericka let me give you a chance to offer some concluding thoughts as you reflect on the loss of Phife and someone else someone you also knew, Maurice White as well.
BLOUNT: Yea, I think both of the groups Tribe and Earth Wind and Fire like Davey was saying, just presented an alternate narrative to what we were getting on [inaudible]. I read somebody posted a status update about his quote, I like em brown, yellow, what is it?
BALL: I like em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, and Haitian. My name’s Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation.
BLOUNT: See like that, I’m Haitian and that meant everything to me because people at that time, you know, making fun of Haitians or whatever and the narratives in the news was that Haiti was this place where, it was not a positive narrative. They did things like that or you know Phife talked about.
DAVEYD: Dinkins be my mayor, remember?
BALL: When he wanted Dinkins to be a mayor. Even the line about being a funky diabetic, I mean bringing up like people, I mean.
BALL; Well look, we’ve got to cut it short. I appreciate you both taking the time to pay a little tribute and commemorations of Phife. Thank you both very much, Davey D, Ericka Blount, for joining us here at the Real News at I Mix What I Like, thank you again.
BLOUNT: Thank you.
DAVEYD: Thank you.
BALL: And thank you all for joining us wherever you are. Again I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore, saying as Fred Hampton used to say to you. We say peace if you’re willing to fight for it, so peace everybody, we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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