I received the text late. I’m normally a night out owl, but this CPAP machine is making sleep lovely and attractive. I heard my phone buzz and clumsily pawed for it. I pulled it close to my face, my sleepiness and the plastic bar of the CPAP face mask made it nearly impossible to make out — the combination of text size and screen brightness was too much for me. I concentrated and the blurry screen came into focus. My heart sank. The text was from a friend: “Yo, Phife passed, B.”
I yanked the mask off and sat up. Fired of a half-dozen texts. All of them were replied to in a handful of minutes. It was true. It was confirmed. Malik Isaac Taylor aka Phife Dawg from the legendary Hip-Hop group A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) had died.
I met Phife through Debra Kofler, cousin of Michael Rapapport, the director of the ATCQ documentary: Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Debra invited me to the San Francisco premiere of the film — apparently the director and other crew members read the book I wrote on ATCQ’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
It is a crap book. After trying to reach out to Tribe members for quite a while, with zero return calls, I just plowed through the book and got it done in 23 days. There are some good parts, but it is mostly rushed crap.
I discussed this with Phife — we became friends after meeting at the screening — and he was thoughtful about the parts that he liked. Surprisingly he liked most of it. He felt that seeing his work through the eyes of a fan gave him a better sense of how his music touched and influenced people. “Your book would’ve been iller if you would’ve talked to me.” I told him I tried several times. “If I known you were this cool, we could’ve made it work.” That was the Phife I knew.
I won’t pretend that Phife and I were best friends. We were cool. Periodically checking in with each other, Every time we had any contact, I came away holding a bag of jewels. He had a lot to say, all of it valuable. He was a to-the-point dude. Not one to mince words, or use too many that were unnecessary. He spoke (to me, at least) liked he rhymed: witty and deceptively simple. There was a whole lot more lurking under the surface. Kind of like with ATCQ’s albums.
I can’t talk about Phife without talking about Tribe and the Cool DeeJay Red Alert dubbed Native Tongues. This loose confederation of artists that included De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, Black Sheep, and a host of others.
What Native Tongues did was give us (black kids who weren’t like the majority of black kids they were around) permission to be as different as we felt. We could wear clothing that spoke to our nascent imaginative relationship with Africa. We could be whimsical. In 1989, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising opened the door, but in 1990, Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm let us in, fixed us food, and then let us stay the night.
Most of us had just endured the height of, what has been affectionately called, “The Crack Era.” Even if you didn’t smoke or sell rock, you were touched by it. One week she was all smiles and college material. The next week she was in an alley, sucking off a city worker for five dollars. On Saturday, you saw Dante. On Monday morning, he was shot dead. Crack was a socio-cultural nuclear bomb that many of my generation are only now just recovering from the fallout. During this time, Public Enemy, BDP, Just-Ice, Schoolly D, Geto Boys, N.W.A — they all chronicled the heaviness and stress of that time. So many of us never thought that we’d make it eighteen, let alone slide into our 40s with partners and kids.
Tribe and the Tongues provided us with an alternative window. When we peered out of it, we didn’t have to see the destruction that crack wrought. We could see as far as El Segundo, no matter where we were. We could float like gravity, and never have cavities. We could try our best and go all out. We all could be poem sayers. Tribe wasn’t blind to the ills but they showed us a different way to engage with our culture and surroundings. We could do so with love and humor. Navigation tools that were sorely needed after crack had stripped them from us.
But all wonderful things eventually must fade away.
We all know about the dissolution of the Tongues and the implosion of Tribe. If not, watch the aforementioned documentary. That isn’t nearly as important as what Tribe did for so many people — what Phife did for so many people. What he did for me.
Those of you who know (or met) me, might never guess that I was kind of quiet growing up. I’d be loose with my friends, but played the back in unfamiliar company. In high school, I had a best friend, Tremaine. I was Phife to his Q-Tip (ATCQ’s other emcee). The first part of our relationship was like ATCQ’s first album: all Q-Tip, and very little Phife. Then something in me shifted. I became Phife on The Low End Theory. I came into my own and our friendship was one of equals. This lasted a little while until equality became too much for Tremaine and he went off to do his own things. Which was fine, because I was on my square. I was in the fullness of my powers and prowess, and there was no going back. Phife was the embodiment of the underdog, the discounted, the overlooked who roared to the forefront to establish themselves as their total selves. Watching Phife’s artistic trajectory was a case study in liberation and self improvement. Watching his health trajectory was nothing but pure sadness.
Author Ayize Jama-Everett said something this morning that struck me: “It’s not our elders, it’s our peers that are going.” We all knew that Phife had Type-1 Diabetes. We all knew that his wife gave him a kidney and that he needed another one about four years later. We all know peers who have passed away too soon. Some of them passed away from diseases that were preventable.
I want to issue a challenge to all of you Nerds of Color. Find a health-related cause and use your minds, bodies, (and if you can afford it) cash to support it. We are so many and we can accomplish so much. In the geek/nerd community, there is quite a bit of self-harm. Find a suicide-prevention concern and support it. Support an anti-bullying program. Participate in a walk for healthy hearts — in cosplay. We should do what we can to ensure that as many of us as possible, live healthy for as long as possible.
We lost an artistic pioneer and peer today. We lost someone who had more to say in a variety of areas, but his health wouldn’t allow him to express it at his optimum level. What more would he have said? How many more lives would have been changed for the better?
I’ll leave you with Phife’s loving tribute to J Dilla. It is haunting and painful to watch now, but appropriate.
Please take care of yourselves. Please take care of each other.
Malik Isaac Taylor 11/20/1970 – 3/22/2016
If you care about diabetes (my grandmother died from it), here is a wonderful charity to support: Camp Kudzu