Growing up first in Israel and then in New Haven, Connecticut, opened me up to much pop culture phenom. Music was an integral part of my life, and remains to this very day. That is why when I first heard of the sad news of Phife Dawg’s passing, I took a deep long breath. It was a bizarre feeling, but it hit me in such a fashion that I can only relate it to when my dear aunt passed away years ago. This is a loss, but it’s also the end of the not-so-innocent days of my youth. Me, along with many men and women in our 30’s and 40’s, lived our teen years in the 1990’s. That is why it is sad to hear that such a mainstay from my youth has passed away into a higher more spiritual plain of existence. However, the loss of Phife, from the legendary group A Tribe Called Quest, triggered a spark of nostalgia saying gone are the days of our youth. Gone are the days of popular culture of the 1990’s, presently seeing a resurgence of false nostalgia brought on by the millennials. They harken back to a time they fantasize about, but only we know its true essence.
Like my journey finding Tribe’s music, many of my peers probably feel the same way. I stumbled upon the wonderful world of Rap music thanks to my older brother. However, he had his distinct flavor of the genre. Hence, I was far more familiar with rappers and acts like Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, 2 Live Crew, Jeru the Damaja and Gangstarr, and of course I cannot fail to mention that my brother Anton introduced me to the Wu universe. The thing is that he was not deep into the more bizarre and off-the-wall acts. That is where my main man Paul comes into the picture. During my Freshman year of High School in New Haven’s hippy dippy High School in the Community (or HSC for short), Paul schooled me to the indie and underground like Del the Funky Homosapien and the Heiroglyphics crew, Company Flow, and the Hobo Junction just to name the very few. But, the first few times we hung out I clearly remember him giving me 4 CD’s of his personal favorites. He gave me Del’s second album, the amazing cosmic trip titled No Need for Alarm. He gave me one of the best and funniest Hip-Hop albums ever to be released, the Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride Through the Pharcyde. We were so anti-anything resembling a pop sound, that we shunned the mainstream darlings. In 1996 when our entire school was bumping The Fugees seminal album The Score, we said “fuck that” and bumped Pharcyde’s classic second LP, Labcabincalifornia. But I digress.
The remaining two CD’s were two classic albums by the Native Tongues group A Tribe Called Quest, and you know I’m talking about The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Before this I only heard Tribe’s singles and videos, but never listened to a full length album. Once I hit play I was hooked into a smooth Jazz side of Rap, which cooled my innards to the very core. The way the bass hits when you listen to the first track from Low End Theory is mesmerizing.
In the documentary film also titled after their fourth LP, the group members say that Phife wasn’t as present on the first album. However, by the second album he was present and on point. He reminisces that he wrote the line for “Buggin’ Out” on the train, and the burst of animated energy is abundantly clear.
It’s a perfect time capsule of the early 1990’s, as well as a gateway to the diverse universe of Hip-Hop. This was the time where the G-Funk era was screaming out of the West Coast. The rhymes, samples, and all around vibe was very different, and was further complemented by the other Native Tongue family releases, especially the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, the Leaders of the New School and Black Sheep. Within the jigsaw puzzle Tribe caught that youthful approach, but never lacking when it came to fun and substance.
Personally, I still think that the smooth Jazz cool of the second album was eclipsed by the beautifully crafted third album. I remember many a times hanging out with my buddies in the East Rock section of New Haven while passing around beers and blunts and arguing which album is better. I always felt it was the third, and from the first track I wasn’t only bobbing my head, but also asking questions.
After vibing to the music I looked at the track listing seeing that it was called “Steve Biko (Stir it Up).” I immediately began researching and finding that the track is somewhat of a juxtaposition of the fun and the serious. In the intro the group introduce themselves with fun and uplifting lyrics. However, Q-Tip somewhat gives us the semblance of seriousness when he says that he needs to be crying, because of people killing and people dying. That’s when the information about Steve Biko resonates. Steve Biko was an activist in South Africa during apartheid. Although he was never a member of the African National Congress (ANC), he was an anti-apartheid activist, who was killed. He was beaten to death by white police in 1977 after detaining him during a protest. His death prolonged apartheid, but at the cost where it would all collapse a decade later. This is also the first time seeing the video for “Award Tour” and my introduction to De La Soul.
It is a perfect album and unlike many album that falter towards their end, they ended it with a bang, and three of my most favorite songs of theirs in a row, “The Chase, Part II,” “Lyrics To Go,” and the best of the three, “God Lives Through.”
Oh my God indeed.
I also remember the disappointment I had once I heard their fourth album, Beats, Rhymes & Life. Funny thing is that when I was walking beside Paul telling him this, he simply smirked at me, and in his laconic response said, “It’s still dope.” This is the crux of the attempt of this post. Phife, as well as Tribe, solidified this somewhat innocent arrogance we had as young teens in the 1990’s. Being carefree high schoolers with pimples, uneven haircuts, and baggy cloths, the music defined us as well. I keep hearing the new debate about which era of rap was, or is, better; past or present? However, the question is irrelevant to me because as a product of the 1980’s and 1990’s I identify much more with these artists than the new. That is why it is always sad when you hear of a great artist’s passing at such a young age. Phife, along with other greats like Sean Price, Pumpkinhead, and more, the list reminds us that we ain’t kiddies anymore, so make room for the new kiddies in town.
Much love and Respect to Phife Dawg, A Tribe Called Quest and all of my compatriots who feel me.