“Microphone check, 1-2. What is this?/The five foot assassin with the roughneck business/I I float like gravity, never had a cavity/Got more rhymes than the Winans got family”
Those words boomed out of a PA system in Seattle on a mild Saturday in April 2016. I was attending PopCon, an annual gathering of music journalists and academics, and a portion of the day was devoted to eulogising the length list of musicians who’d passed in the previous 12 months (little did we know that Prince’s death would come five days later). Phife Dawg of a Tribe Called Quest-the group’s heart and soul-died nearly a month before this tribute took place, so his demise was still fresh. Hearing those words-the first uttered on ATCQ’s “Buggin’ Out”-gave me a strange feeling, a mix of chills, warmth, appreciation and sadness.
I thought about being a teenager when The Low End Theory came out. I was a fairly broke 15 year old and couldn’t afford the album, so I had a friend dub it for me on a 120 minute cassette backed with Nice & Smooth’s Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed. I felt connected to Phife in a lot of ways-I’m fairly short, I come from a West Indian background, I’m diabetic, I’m a basketball nut. I also probably have perennial underdog syndrome, and thus possess a fair amount of the scrappiness (and bitterness) generally associated with feeling like you’re not given a fair shake. Hell, it made me think about my own mortality, having been stricken with the same malady and only registering five less years on the calendar than Phife.
Look, Q-Tip is dope. His was the first Tribe voice I became familiar with (and as much as I love “Can I Kick It”, Phife’s verse is pretty rudimentary). Low End turned Phife from second banana/hypeman to Tip’s lyrical equal, and I’d even offer the argument that Phife was a better (more engaging? Funnier? More relatable?) MC than The Abstract.
“Buggin’ Out” is kinda silly, but the jam knocks. Phife’s voice is so full of life on this song, it’s easy to forget that he’s not here anymore.