Last week, Phife Dawg, the influential Queens-born rapper, died at the age of 45, setting in motion an outpouring of condolences and tributes. He was known for his work as a member of A Tribe Called Quest, a group whose music has remained hugely popular since it was made in the ’90s, when three of their albums went platinum. Phife’s death gives us a chance both to celebrate his life and poetry and to reframe the critical discourse surrounding his music. “Socially conscious” is one of the first terms applied to Tribe, but this phrase obscures the vision and complexity of the group, and of Phife Dawg in particular. Phife Dawg wove social critique together with wry humor, self-deprecation, and off-kilter, honest storytelling. His music was not the product of a righteously enlightened consciousness, but rather of an observant, bold artistic vision and an agile wit.
Writing about a 1968 exhibition of collages by Romare Bearden, Ralph Ellison articulated the artist’s unique fusion of social critique and creative vision: “by striving to depict the times, by reducing scene, character and atmosphere to a style, he caught both the universality of Harlem life and the ‘harlemness’ of the national predicament.” If you replace Harlem with Queens, you could say the same for Phife Dawg. Like Romare Bearden, Phife and A Tribe Called Quest made art that was at once local and universal. They painted a realistic and specific picture of life in Queens while also revealing the “Queensness” of America as a whole.
Phife Dawg enacts this duality through his storytelling, which is evident in “8 Million Stories,” his solo track on Midnight Marauders. The song’s title gestures at a universality in Phife’s story while also placing him in the tradition of rappers criticizing “trials and tribulations” of urban life – Kurtis Blow made a song called “8 Million Stories” about the “mean streets and ghetto culture” of New York in 1984. Phife uses a mixture of New York references, repetition, and humor to convey the stress of his life as an up-and-coming rapper. His little brother wants a Barney toy, but K&B isn’t selling it. His little brother starts crying, and Phife’s blood pressure starts blowing up. But just as he gets the situation under control, he walks outside to find his car window smashed and the radio stolen. Phife is the victim of two other robberies in the space of the song’s three minutes—by the end he only has a dollar fifty and his shorts left. And he also gets harassed by the cops. He tells a compelling story that both critically examines his reality and reveals a black, urban truth that is hidden to or ignored by white America.
This honesty is a function of Phife Dawg’s voice; his social critique emerged from his own experience and vision, which he conveyed through a rapping style that is at once new and traditional. “Phife is very much just New York hip-hop,” Isaiah Genece ’17 CC, a fellow hip-hop enthusiast, told me. Phife engages in typical battle-rap boasting in a new way, embracing his small stature (Phife called himself the Five-Foot Assassin), and attacking tropes of size and hyper-masculinity. He’s critiquing the posturing of “gangsta rap,” while also calling himself the best rapper out there.
Lyrical skill was just a part of Phife’s superiority, though. He also prided himself on his thoughtful vision of the world: “we rap by what we see/meaning reality/from people busting caps to like Mandela being free/not every MC be with the negativity/we have a slew of rappers pushing positivity,” Phife says on “We Can Get Down.” His approach was optimistic but grounded. Compared to the “direct social commentary” of Q-Tip (the other rapper in A Tribe Called Quest), “Phife kind of brings it back down,” Isaiah said. This was perhaps a breath of fresh air to some, but it also reflected rap as a tradition that gave voice to otherwise silenced black men, many of whom were making equally hopeful and realistic critiques of society. Phife recognized that he was only one of many “rappers pushing positivity.”
When Phife Dawg died last week, there was a huge reaction on social media. “People I didn’t even know would have known of them are out here posting ‘Rest In Peace Phife,’” Isaiah said. This points to a popularity that the group always aimed for: “we do this music thing for everybody/Black, White, Latino and Asian” rapped Q-Tip on “The Pressure.” A large part of Tribe’s success was that they were relatable, thoughtful, and really good at making music—people can get behind a good message as easily as they can get behind a good beat. Many critics tend to focus on these things, the ways in which A Tribe Called Quest was new, pointing out their infectious, signature sound (layered jazz samples over boom-bap drums) and their social consciousness.
But Tribe was not the first political rap group, nor was their politics the only aspect of their music. Hip-hop has always been political, as well as strange, and local, and competitive. Tribe re-invigorated this tradition, balancing innovation with fundamental hip-hop. So, even as the characterization of Tribe as “socially conscious” guaranteed its popularity, it also feels like an implicit criticism of the rest of hip-hop, as if social consciousness were the only thing that could redeem a rap group from the fact that it was made by black men. Phife did not shy away from his black masculinity, but embraced it: “straight from the heart I represent hip-hop,” he raps on “We Can Get Down,” and this is what I will remember him for.