Phife Dawg brought humor and humanity to A Tribe Called Quest

March 25, 2016

Despite all of the chest-puffy braggadocio, the great American rap songbook still contains a surprising amount of bad-luck songs — and none more endearing than “8 Million Stories,” a 1993 gem from A Tribe Called Quest.

Across two jouncing verses, Phife Dawg explains why his “blood pressure’s blowin’ up” in priceless detail. Smash-and-grabbers lift the stereo out of his car. A flakey girl stands him up for a date. His kid brother throws a hissy-fit in the aisles of a KB toy store. And then, adding insult to injury, some referee tosses his favorite shooting guard out of the Knicks game: “To top if off, Starks got ejected.”

Amazing that all of this high-spirited self-deprecation could still spark smiles on Tuesday as news spread across the Internet that Phife — born Malik Taylor — had died earlier in the morning. He was 45 years old, and while the cause of death wasn’t immediately announced, it’s widely known that Phife underwent a kidney transplant in 2008 after being diagnosed with diabetes in 1990.

The rapper’s health problems became a significant plot-point in “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” a 2011 documentary about the pioneering New York hip-hop group that Phife formed alongside Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. The film centered itself around whether or not the foursome might reunite, zooming in on the creative tensions between Phife and Q-Tip in a way that resembled unseemly reality television.

And so much of Tribe’s story is etched into its music, anyway — something that feels most evident the verses Phife contributed to the group’s 1993 masterstroke, “Midnight Marauders,” an album where the syllables bounced out of his mouth to mesmerizing effect. Tempering his boasts with confessional minutiae, Phife rapped about his earliest influences (“My favorite jam back in the day was ‘Eric B. for President””), his secret infatuations (“Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue”), and his physical insecurities (“Height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck”), all with brio to spare.

Over and over, he went for big laughs by spilling his guts at the top of his lungs. There was so much generosity in that. Hearing about his bad days made ours better. “To top it off, Starks got ejected.”

Rough day. Not as rough as this one.

© 2016, The Washington Post

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