Remembering Phife Dawg’s Forgotten Masterpieces
When the Internet learned of the death of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor—cofounder and member of the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest—it quickly and appropriately flooded social media with the diminutive MC’s best verses. Here he was, wearing weird goggle-things in the video for Buggin’ Out. Here he was, sitting in the back of a cab and wooing females brown, yellow, Puerto Rican and Haitian. Here he was, declaring that Bo don’t know jack, because Bo can’t rap. As his self-descriptions made clear—“the 5-foot assassin,” “funky diabetic”—Phife was one of the first MCs to make a rallying cry out of what would otherwise be considered physical shortcomings, and it was tragic that his diabetes would eventually silence him. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity to marvel anew at Phife’s joyous energy, and he will always be remembered as the punchy yang to Q-Tip’s smoothed-out yin.
Now that some time has passed, though, it’s time to look at some of Phife’s less-appreciated work, by which I mean his guest appearances. Phife was no Busta Rhymes—while his track record was longer than a DC-20 aircraft, he only occasionally graced others’ songs—but when he did, he always stood out.
Chi-Ali, “Let the Horns Blow”
The Black Sheep affiliate’s one-and-done debut album may not have had much to recommend it, but this track is an overlooked classic. The posse cut includes performances from Black Sheep’s Dres and De La Soul’s Dave (back when he was Trugoy), but Phife murders it with his trademark sports references (sorry, Bills fans) and a conclusive shout-out to Prego pasta sauce.
Fu-Schnickens, “La Schmoove”
The Looney Tunes-obsessed manic-rap pioneers may have been better known for their association with Shaquille O’Neal (AKA Shaq-Fu), but Phife showed them how to stand and deliver in this guest verse. “Name one rapper you know that has this high-strung voice,” he challenges. Only you, Phife. (Well, and B-Real.)
De La Soul, “Ghost Weed”
Phife was a proponent of spell-rapping (if not as explicitly as K-Solo), and this high-concept skit from De La Soul’s Art Official Intelligence, in which magical doobage grants rappers the ability to impersonate their favorite MCs, kicks off with a prime example (“l, y, r to the i, c, s”). Clocking in at a minute, it definitely counts as minor Malik, but it’s still enough to make us all wish we could get a hit.
We love Lin-Manuel Miranda as much as anyone, but the hosannas that met his delightful White House freestyle suggested that too many people remain woefully unfamiliar with improvisatory rap. This epic off-the-dome performance on J Smooth’s “Underground Railroad” program is a great place to start. Eight minutes of rhyming, with nary a stammer.
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