On the occasion of the recent death of Malik Izaak Taylor – known worldwide and for all time as Phife Dawg – I honored his passing the way one honors a musician’s death now: playing his music loud and on repeat for at least two days straight, crossing my fingers that no one would be able post about an unspeakable act from his past on social media, swimming through scores of recollections and interpretations online, and scanning his Wikipedia page to see what he’d been up to since it last occurred to me to care beyond his art what he’d done with his life. On this last point, I was able to discern at a glance that the page was missing at least five key moments in ATCQ’s history, moments which impacted my life profoundly, and which I share now in the interest of setting the record straight.
1) A Tribe Called Quest was collectively expelled from The Ohio State University upon release of their debut album.
After two academically rancid quarters at OSU I was asked to clean out my half of room 523 in Steeb Hall. I had to do this during the latter part of spring break, while students who were still enrolled by the august institution were away, packing my things under cover of absence. Education was not like it is now: bad grades used to be extremely contagious, and those who bore them in exposed patches like scarlet letters sewn to their breasts were lepers. Now miseducation is a disease pumped into the water, mental flouride. In any event, I didn’t know what my roommate would do for music – the stereo, in all its plastic glory, had been mine – but he somehow manage to survive a quarter longer than I did on structure and a dining hall pass. Those comforts had become foreign to me, and then forbidden.
I hadn’t fully settled back into my mother’s basement yet when Tribe came fully into existence in April of that year. I bought their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, after seeing the video for “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”. The video was in the mytho-biographical style of videos at the time, using a song’s lyrics as script and storyboard. That being the narrative decision of its creators, given that the song is radically different from other rap songs in content at the time – and many since – it stands to reason that the video would be captivating. And it was: opening with a faux-Mexican shout-out by then-unknown actor Peter Dinklage, the video proceeds to animate (literally and figuratively) the misadventures of our new favorite crew of hip hop heads. The album expanded on “El Segundo’s” experimentation and, coupled with the fact that it came out on the same day as Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and two weeks after Digital Underground’s subversive Sex Packets debut, it felt like black people were taking over the music industry (instead of merely founding its art, supporting its products, and otherwise filling its coffers).
And yet, these were not cookie cutter black folks. I related to all of them and none of them at the same time. It was a beautiful time to be black and different. When Tribe came out I was in the early stages of a fresh and burgeoning self-awareness, at the zenith of the Afrocentric movement no less; engaged on and off-campus in the blackest political moment since the end of the Civil Rights era. Tribe was an odd black boy’s beacon in a desert of shifting dunes of hyper-self-aware redefinition. If your interests were generally too black for MTV, while also not black enough for the ‘hood, Tribe was your archetype and your smooth authority.
People’s Instinctive Travels was an easy album to love if, like me, you had spent years cutting your teeth on breaking into your oldest brother’s bedroom, sneaking in listen sessions with his rows of jazz records, a heist accomplished by deftly shifting the hanging plastic beads as slowly as could be managed. I had not heard all of the sources Tribe had sampled for that first record, but I knew the eras. I recognized the production values, my head and neck knew their grooves well, bobbing immediately to “Luck of Lucien.” I peeped Stevie Wonder’s horns ushering in “Footprints” quick, and was sold. Tribe was a band I could get behind immediately, and for the long haul, all while looking for a job to get me out of my mother’s basement. ATCQ was a balm and a soundtrack, and I carried them proudly into every hooptie I owned, which was no small number of shitty cars. Yeah, I’d say, this car is garbage, but Tribe, man.
2) Q-Tip counseled two young black boys about safe sex well before the fact, while simultaneously setting them up to fail.
The warning signs were all there: the beat dropping out at the mere mention of “crazy prophylactics” in “Bonita Applebum,” amplifying their importance to a long and safe sexual life; “Pubic Enemy” driving home the tell-tale signs of ass one should avoid. And yet I in turn sat in a clinic waiting room a) teasing my boy about getting burned by the kind of girl Q-Tip had clearly warned us about, and b) pointing out to him that it was ironic that Q-Tip was the harbinger of his burning affections, considering what was about to happen to him in the back office.
Putting “Bonita Applebum” on a slow jam tape always seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the perfect tempo for gaming, Tip’s laconic drawl was baby lotion soft, and there is no instance of courting that cannot be made more romantic with RAMP’s “Daylight” playing in the background, even as a loop. At the same time, it is a scientific absolute that no woman has ever rendered unto her lover The Draws upon hearing the word “crazy prophylactics.” Why Tribe would sabotage such an effective method of seduction with a moment destined to stop all freakiness in its tracks I can only ascribe to the group’s passionate stance on public health.
3) The Low End Theory breaks the Profound Sound Barrier in 1991, a record previously held by Public Enemy since 1988.
INT – RAY’S BEDROOM, 1991- DAY
RAY and SCOTT sit in Ray’s bedroom. RAY unwraps recently purchased ATCQ cassette, The Low End Theory, pops tape into deck, sits back on his bed. SCOTT sits backwards in a chair in front of a desk, looking at the covers of other albums.
[SOUND: Bass line for “Excursions” comes on.]
Scott: Huh. This some 70s shit.
[SOUND: Q-Tip’s verse starts over bass.]
[SOUND: Drums drop in at 29 seconds.]
Scott and Ray look at each other.
Scott: Oh my god.* That shit is dope!
Scott: Rewind that right now. RIGHT. NOW.
Ray: That’s the game right there. Done.
(*Director’s note: Foreshadowing “Scenario” in the third act.)
4) A Tribe Called Quest once taught an elective course in African diasporia political history in 1993.
Course 9500: “Steve Biko and the Black is Black/Beautiful South Africa”
This is an introductory survey of boom baposity as it relates to post-colonial hip hop and potential Afrofuturism as conveyed via the Daisy Age. The purpose of this course is to introduce students to not only musical theory as a compelling self-definition platform, but the often subtle correlations between American borough rap and international police abuse. An interdisciplinary and pan-regional approach will be used to examine the four pillars of hip hop culture and how they relate to existing power structures in politics, fashion and more in the 21st century.
9000 – Public Enemy: Holding Up a Nation of Millions
9100 – Boogie Down Productions’s Many Necessary Means
9200 – Uprooting Sissy: X-Clan Black-Asswards
9300 – NWA and the Myth of the Impervious Jheri Curl
Credits: 5 street cr.
5) Phife held a clinic on grief and acceptance in 2014 to notable acclaim.
When you hear that a favorite band of yours isn’t getting back together it’s easy to not believe the hype. Every band eventually gets back together, we think, once we get past The Beatles Exception. The Temptations broke up and turned into two bands with the same name. Many bands in which a member has died have still found ways to soldier on, usually at the behest of a sound engineer hired by a state fair to make sure the backing track doesn’t jam in the player.
But Tribe already told you this was going to be it. Anything else you had to say about it was dream shit. Anything you heard they were going to do was barbershop game. And yet, when Tribe said it I didn’t believe them either, especially them. They were my age, and I am always young to myself. Even being comprised of at least fifty percent stupid matter, I knew enough about life to assume that I had plenty of time to circle back around to the parts I’d left behind in any number of previous incarnations of myself, to make something better of the raw material I’d previously unearthed. Given a second go-round I’d right the necessary wrongs, tighten up the half-assed parts, and eventually find peace, maybe even pay my mother back for the thousands of dollars she wasted on my too-brief college career. Unless I got hit by a car or something. But you always leave room in the back of your heart in case one of your favorite bands decides the money’s worth it, or an artist finds they’ve something left to say or prove. Phife started out as the king of rap underdogs, rising out of his own underrated ashes after two albums to become genuinely legendary with three fistfuls of classic tracks filled with all the play, craft, and middle fingers life had to give. Still, whenever you heard him show up on someone else’s track, he stayed swinging for the bleachers. None of those cameos sounded like Phife was making peace with his lot or himself, and he clearly had more to give.
Much has been made this year of the prescient nature of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, how it is the admission of a man coming to terms with his soon-to-come end. It reminds me of how, a couple of years ago, Phife made a killer ode to J Dilla, another hip hop icon who left us clamoring for the right expressions of grief for a time. In the video for “Dear Dilla”, Phife posed himself in an adjoining hospital bed, showed his own struggle with diabetes in concrete terms, wore his boy’s colors, featured his boy’s fam, and dropped some truly incredible rhymes on top of a smoking beat. Don’t tell me what Phife didn’t know. In “Dear Dilla” he showed us how to honor and how he should be honored: always with your best effort, taking in the full measure of a person on their terms instead of your own, all the way to the finish line.
Making peace with someone or something can be a finish line. Somewhere Tip, Ali and Jarobi are making that peace – not just the peace of having lost someone they love, but with the realization that there truly will be no going back to being ATCQ. As sad as that truth is, there is a peace that comes with being able to enjoy the full fruit and arc of a creative life performed well. I believe they know that, and that Phife held it close to his heart well before March 22, 2016, like recovering a lost wallet in El Segundo just before you need it most.
There is a peace in knowing exactly where you left your wallet.