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Top 5: The five best verses from Phife Dawg

It’s been six years to the day that we sadly heard of the premature passing of one of rap’s true pioneers. The beloved founder of A Tribe Called Quest, Malik Taylor, more widely known as Phife Dawg, was one of the earliest rap innovators who had a deep and burning passion for the spirit of hip-hop which shone through in his exploits both as a composer and a poetic wordsmith.

Throughout his fruitful career, Phife had irons in many a fire as a key member of the revered Native Tongues collective and, of course, as one of the founding members of A Tribe Called Quest along with his pals Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White. Over his thirty-year career, Phife’s bold, blunt and eloquent lyrics never failed to lift the chin of his audience and evoke the most powerful reaction from his devoted fans. 

After forming A Tribe Called Quest in 1985, he became a key player in the New York City rap movement. The group had hit their early peak in 1991 with the release of their second album, The Low End Theory. The album saw Phife at his best, and it was at around this time he had famously begun to jovially refer to himself as “the Five Foot Assassin” due to his short stature. His lyrics had reached a new level of erudite poignance as he looked to address contemporary social and political issues and set the group on the trajectory heading towards their follow-up masterpiece Midnight Marauders.

A Tribe Called Quest released two further albums throughout the ’90s in Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996) and The Love Movement (1998) before disbanding due to conflict both with their record label and between Phife and Q-Tip following a series of personal and creative differences. Following his time with A Tribe Called Quest, Phife pushed on with a solo career in which he regularly collaborated with his peers in the rap scene. In 2000, he released his debut solo album Ventilation: Da LP. The LP wasn’t a commercial success despite containing some of his greatest lyrical performances in the singles ‘Flawless’ and ‘Bend Ova’. 

In 2013, it was rumoured that Phife was working on a solo album titled MUTTYmorPHosis, after a relatively sparse patch for the rapper, but unfortunately, the album never surfaced. It is generally assumed that this material eventually made up the majority of Phife’s 2017 posthumous solo album, Forever.

In November 2015, shortly before his death, A Tribe Called Quest reunited for a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, commemorating the 25th anniversary of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. That night marked the end of Phife’s feud with Q-Tip, and the group agreed to begin working on a new Tribe Called Quest album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Phife spent four months working on the album prior to his death resulting from complications with diabetes. The rest of the group subsequently polished off the album and released it in November 2016.

Today we take a snapshot of Phife’s illustrious career by highlighting five of his greatest verses. 

‘Steve Biko (Stir It Up)’ – Midnight Marauders (1993)

“Linden Boulevard represent, represent / Tribe Called Quest represent, represent / When the mic is in my hand, I’m never hesitant / My favourite jam back in the day was Eric B. for President / Rudeboy composer, step to me you’re over / Brothers wanna flex, you’re not Mad Cobra / MC short and black, there ain’t no other / Trini-born black like Nia Long’s grandmother / Tip and Sha they all that, Phife Dawg ditto / Honey tell your man to chill, or else you’ll be a widow / Did not you know that my styles are top-dollar? / The Five-Foot Assassin knocking fleas off his collar / Hip hop scholar since being knee-high to a duck / The height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck / You better ask somebody on how we flip the script / Come to a Tribe show and watch the three kids rip”

‘Steve Biko (Stir It Up)’ comes as the opening track on A Tribe Called Quest’s critically acclaimed LP, Midnight Marauders. The introductory song introduces the members of the bandwidth style and sets the uplifting precedent as the listener moves into the album. The song is named after the revolutionary anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, notable in the anti-colonialism and anti-oppression community worldwide.

‘Can I Kick It?’ – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

“Can I kick it? To my Tribe that flows in layers / Right now, Phife is a poem sayer / At times, I’m a studio conveyor / Mr Dinkins, would you please be my mayor? / You’ll be doing us a really big favour / Boy this track really has a lot of flavour / When it comes to rhythms, Quest is your saviour / Follow us for the funky behaviour / Make a note on the rhythm we gave ya / Feel free, drop your pants, check your hair / Do you like the garments that we wear? / I instruct you to be the obeyer / A rhythm recipe that you’ll savour / Doesn’t matter if you’re minor or major / Yes, the Tribe of the game we’re a player / As you inhale like a breath of fresh air”

‘Can I Kick It?’ was released in 1990 as the first single on A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It is among the group’s most well known and loved tracks with its catchy sample of Lou Reed’s song ‘Walk On The Wild Side. The group received no monetary awards for their efforts on the single, however, because of the copyright infringement of the samples.

‘Dear Dilla’ (2014)

“Hold tight, this ain’t the last time I see you / Due time, that’s my word imma see you / Frontin ass rappers now here stealin’ intros / Posin like they hard when we know they all see through / Imma tell you Dilla why they lackin’ skills now / No stage presence, cadence, style / They livin’ off of hooks, skinny jean crooks / Pre-K lyrics, Why would I need a book? / I Reminisce reminisce, when Mobb dropped shook / Shan was down by law, such a good look / Nas God’s Son his return was Stillmatic / Distortion To Static, You and Slum Fantastic / Thought I’d chop you out son see how you’re doin’ / Come back to earth homie, hip hop is in ruins / I’m a third of the Tribe but Imma speak for the click / What up though, we miss you kid / Motor city say”

One of the highlights of Phife Dawg’s posthumous solo album, Forever, was ‘Dear Dilla’. The considered lyrics serve as an open letter to his longtime friend and producer, the legendary J. Dilla. J. Dilla sadly passed away in 2006 amid complications from a rare blood disorder. ‘Dear Dilla’ came as a touching tribute to his late friend. As Phife once explained, “before J Dilla passed, he and I were playing phone tag, I didn’t even know he was that sick until it was too late,” he said. “We didn’t realize we were both going through a lot with our health and never got to sit and talk about it together.”

‘Scenario’ – The Low End Theory (1991)

“Heyo, Bo knows this, (What?) and Bo knows that (What?) / But Bo don’t know jack, cause Bo can’t rap / Well what do you know, the Di-Dawg, is first up to bat / No batteries included, and no strings attached / No holds barred, no time for move fakin’ / Gots to get the loot so I can bring home the bacon / Brothers front, they say the Tribe can’t flow / But we’ve been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe, so / Sleep if you want, NyQuil will help you get your Z’s, troop / But here’s the real scoop / I’m all that and then some, short, dark, and handsome / Bust a nut inside your eye to show you where I come from / I’m vexed, fuming, I’ve had it up to here / My days of paying dues are over, acknowledge me as in there (Yeah!) / Head for the border, go get a taco / Watch me wreck it from the jump street, meaning from the get-go / Sit back relax and let yourself go / Don’t sweat what you heard, but act like you know”

‘Scenario’ is undoubtedly one of A Tribe Called Quest’s greatest lyrical compositions. The song was recorded in collaboration with Leaders of the New School and has often been praised as the breakout performance for Leaders of the New School member Busta Rhymes for his impressive contributions. The song samples the percussion tracks in Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Miss Lover’, and the bassline was sampled from Jack McDuff’s 1970 hit ‘Oblighetto’.

‘Lyrics to Go’ – Midnight Marauders (1993)

“I know it’s been two years but see the Tribe was never fallin’ / Would have tried for singin’ but that stuff was not my callin’ / The mic is in effect so you know I’m never stallin’ / Walkin’ through the door and all them suckers started haulin’ / Talk a lot of trash but no one can seem to beat it / Pull out your microphone and watch the Phifer make you eat it / The MC’s they get jealy when the girly’s on my belly / Kick a slow dance like my brother R. Kelly (bust a rhyme) / Today’s a hip-hop draft will I be top-seeded? (uhh) / Worked too frickin hard while all the rest were gettin’ weeded / Steady kickin’ styles so I can reach that other level (uh) / Don’t worry about gettin’ gassed I push the pedal to the metal / Always wanted this cause it surely beats a scramble (right) / I’m Jordan with the mic, huh, wanna gamble? (mmm) / This I dedicate to all the honiest that be bogle-in / Cause at the end of the night y’know Malik will have his Trojans / But when it comes to nights like this I got lyrics to go”

‘Lyrics To Go’ came as the B-Side to “Oh My God,” the third single from Midnight Marauders. Despite being a B-side, the track is a favourite among fans, and Phife even described it as one of his favourites “First of all, Minnie Riperton probably had the greatest voice that ever lived,” Phife asserted. “Two, the way Q-Tip sampled this song [Riperton’s ‘Inside My Love’] and was able to incorporate it with the drums, that was crazy. I wish I had been able to think of that. There’s a sustained note that carries on throughout the song, and it’s a crazy idea that I’m surprised no one else had been able to think of. Tip thought of it, and he’s the man for that, most definitely.”