Phife: Five Feet of Greatness

A pall of sadness has fallen over us and the world suddenly seems a darker place. Last week, hip-hop lost one of its brightest lights: Phife Dawg, the great Tribesman – a shining star of rap’s golden age – has passed away.

Born Malik Isaac Taylor, Phife, affectionately known to fans as the Five Foot Assassin, grew up in Queens, New York with fellow aspiring emcee, Q-Tip; the childhood friends eventually co-founding the legendary A Tribe Called Quest in 1985 with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White.

Groundbreaking and prolific, the group would go on to release three studio albums in three years, their debut coming out in 1990. These records – People’s Instinctive Travels…, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, respectively – are all regarded as classics, lauded by both critics and fans for their ingenious melding of jazz and boom bap rap, as well as their inventive use of sampling, fun, playful lyrics and endearing lightheartedness.

More laid-back and less self-conscious than most of their mainstream contemporaries, Tribe made disarmingly relatable records, the kind of music fans could ease into, inviting listeners to immerse themselves the smooth grooves and good vibes of their best songs to just relax and cool out; damn near every single one of their tracks as inviting as a warm pair of house slippers – music so good it makes you feel graceful and light on your feet.

Although the group’s last two albums – 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life and ’98’s The Love Movement – were released to less fanfare, Tribe still stood head and shoulders above most, if not all, of their peers, their finest efforts distinguishing them as true pioneers – the founding fathers (alongside the likes of De La Soul) of alternative hip-hop.

That Tribe is still seen by many as the greatest rap group of all-time owes a lot to the brilliance of Phife Dawg. A witty emcee who could tickle a microphone to hysterics with his humorous bars, he rhymed like a comedian reaching the high point of a stellar stand-up set. Blessed with a poet’s penmanship, Phife Diggy was a wordsmith like no other, and so, in light of last week’s tragic news, we’d like to go over five of his greatest verses; tipping our hats to the diminutive, but larger than life emcee – one of rap’s most beloved heroes. A microphone assassin. Five feet of greatness.

Check The Rhime
Check The Rhime, the lead single for Tribe’s sophomore record, The Low End Theory, is a timeless track replete with stunning production and equally enthralling rhymes courtesy of Q-Tip and Phife Did-awg.

Going back and forth over one of rap’s most gorgeous beats – a wondrous thing of beauty incorporating samples of Minnie Riperton’s Baby, This Love I Have, Grover Washington, Jr.’s Hydra, and Fly Like an Eagle by the Steve Miller Band – Phife and Tip trade bars like they’re going at it in a cypher, each showing off their mastery of the mic.

As usual, the Five Footer comes off strong, riding the beat with consummate poise and composure, greeting us with “a funky introduction” before throwing up a big middle finger to the world’s “punk emcees”.


Electric Relaxation
Declaring he likes “‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian”, Phife Dawg “from the Zulu Nation” laces us with a contender for the greatest – certainly, most memorable – opening lines ever rapped. Laying siege to yet another excellent beat, he promptly proceeds to tearing Q-Tip’s fine production work to shreds with clever punch lines and comical rhymes.


Buggin’ Out
Flipping Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Spinning Wheel, Tip hooks Phife up with a driving, head-bopping beat to wreck shop on. The B-side to The Low End Theory’s second single, Jazz (We’ve Got), Buggin’ Out finds the Five Foot Assassin in fine form. Taking his cue from the song’s title, Phife runs rampant on the record, conducting some serious “ruffneck business” on the mic and proving he’s “got more rhymes than the Winans got family.”


Lyrics to Go
Like People’s Instinctive Travels… and The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders is damn near flawless, teeming with quality tracks such as Award Tour, Steve Biko (Stir It Up) and Oh My God. Lyrics to Go is another one of the album’s standout cuts, brilliantly reworking Biz Markie’s Nobody Beats The Biz and Minnie Ripperton’s Inside My Love in typically inventive Tribe fashion.

Throwing down the gauntlet, The Abstract raises the stakes with an impressive opening verse that most emcees would buckle under the pressure of, finding difficult to match, let alone top. Unsurprisingly, Phife rises to the occasion, putting in another artful display of rhyming showmanship.


Vibes and Stuff
Slowing things down with Vibes and Stuff, Phife and his fellow Tribesmen kick it at a more measured pace, matching the chilled, laid-back blues of Grant Green’s Down Here on the Ground. On this smooth, jazzy number, Phife, the “short brother” with the “dark skin face” and “36 waist” flips like Mr. Furley, delivering one of his greatest performances – a verse deserving of “more props than the Arsenio Hall show.”


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