A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg: 10 Lyrics That Prove His Prowess (2023)

Being part of one of the all-time greatest hip-hop groups usually means that an MC’s individual skills might be overlooked in the bigger picture. But with A Tribe Called Quest, the rapport between Phife Dawg andQ-Tipwas always key. With Phife (aka Malik Isaac Taylor), who died early this morning, it's hard to think of an MC who benefited more from sharing the spotlight while simultaneously finding new ways to stand out on his own. Tribe's internal struggles have been well-documented — the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life beingthe most heartbreaking example — but it's worth remembering that they came from decades of friendship and mutual influence; Tip's on the record as saying that Phife got him into rhyming in the first place.

Even in Phife’s most intricate moments, he sounded like an artist who put personality before skills. That attribute wasn't widely appreciated on Tribe's first album, 1990's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, where he mostly stuck to the background. But his something-to-prove breakout on The Low End Theory the following year revealed that he didn't so much coast on charisma as he ran full speed with it. That gave him a flow that sounded conversational even when it lived practically inside the beat, inviting even when it was intensely personal.

Across social media today, manywho eulogized Phifedid so with a quote, proof enough that he was his own distinct entity who rarely wrote a verse you couldn't immediately picture delivered in his particular voice. Subtly inflected with hints of his parents' Trinidadian patois and punctuated with the kind of timing that was more expressive than most people's actual faces, Phife's flow is the source of some of hip-hop's greatest punchlines and most striking deliveries. Here are ten of his most memorable.

"Jazz (We've Got)," from The Low End Theory

"Make sure you have a system with some phat house speakers / So the new shit can rock, from Bronx to Massapequa"

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These kinds of stunt rhymes may not have been the most common component of Phife's lyrical arsenal, but they were usually the most "oh shit" moments in any given verse, since they sounded so unexpected without really feeling forced. Among other things, it really works as sharp regionalism, a shout-out to a slice of Long Island that hadn't yet been made infamous by Joey Buttafuoco.

"Buggin' Out," from The Low End Theory

"Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have / You wanna dis the Phifer but you still don't know the half"

"Buggin' Out" was the moment when Phife went from background player to major component in the ATCQ timeline, and if that have/half line looks like a shrug on paper, it's absolutely electric on record. Maybe that's because he rolls off so much momentum, starting with that door-kick of an opening line ("Microphone check, 1-2, what is this/The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business"). He really lets loose with that "stylesuponstylesuponstyles" riff of a delivery, the sort of line that's bound embed itself in your brain.

"Scenario," from The Low End Theory

"Brothers front, they say the Tribe can't flow / But we've been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe"

Never forget that the track notoriously dominated by Busta Rhymes' name-making verse started with one of Phife's hottest verses ever, and maybe one of the hardest to single out for just one line. As for this one? This is how you do a point-counterpoint in the most efficient manner, the punchline to his setup being an immaculately rattled-off delivery that sounds staccato and fluid at the same time. The curt "so" that links it to his next line is the spike after the touchdown.

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"Award Tour," from Midnight Marauders

"I never let a statue tell me how nice I am"

Almost an aside in the middle of one of his typically cocky streams of consciousness — and a strong sign of his mindstate reacting to success — this line's got a sly double-meaning. Phife doesn't get gassed off outside validation from industry institutions, but what reads as humility also comes off like defiance: statue or not, he already knows.

"8 Million Stories," from Midnight Marauders

"With all these trials and tribulations, yo, I've been affected / And to top it off, Starks got ejected"

Phife could tell a story with the best of them when he was inclined, and this Midnight Marauders cut — not quite a "deep cut," since they all feel like first-tier hits — is his magnum opus. Capping off the first verse of his inversion of "It Was a Good Day" with a lament of the long-suffering Knicks fan threads his own personal travails into a bigger snapshot of New York stress: It's a problem that wasn't aimed directly at him, but compounds all the bullshit anyway.

"Electric Relaxation,” from Midnight Marauders

"Let me hit it from the back, girl, I won't catch a hernia / Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman's Furniture"

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Tribe could be simultaneously filthy and hilarious about sex in a way that felt more fun than crass, and it helped when they could be a little esoteric with it. So here's some more NYC-area punchlines — the now-liquidated Seaman's furniture chain was omnipresent in regional commercial blocks throughout the '80s and '90s — that likely went over the heads of an audience that had expanded far out of the five boroughs.

"Artical,” Whitey Don 12"

"You better haul ass when you see the size 8 Adidas / Watch them punks bawl out, 'Oh god' and 'Baby Jesus'"

A guest spot recorded during the extended downtime between 1993'sMidnight Marauders and 1996'sBeats, Rhymes and Life, Phife is great throughout guesting for briefly-famous reggae singer Whitey Don. No knock on the headliner, but Phife steals this track by weaving some seamless patois into his familiar flow and issuing one of the funnier variations of his omnipresent shoe-based trauma warnings. The way he depicts his rivals whining is some top-tier levity in the middle of a dose of rawness.

"Phony Rappers," from Beats, Rhymes and Life

"Talkin' 'bout I need a Phillie right before I get loose / Poor excuse, money please, I get loose off of orange juice"

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If Q-Tip was the philosopher of the crew, Phife was the shit-talker. Their roles weren't actually as defined as all that, but when they took to them, they shone. Phife's take on being accosted by a wannabe battler is pure scrapper in contrast to Q-Tip's effortless-seeming cool spontaneity. Not only does Phife dismantle the challenger, he destroys his opponent's half-assed alibi for not being at the top of his game. Kid has to get high first? Fuck that, Phife's been ready since breakfast.

"Baby Phife's Return," from Beats, Rhymes and Life

"Keep shit hotter than a sauna / Or better yet, the hormones on your Christian daughter / Hey, I tried to warn her"

Another punchline barrage from a solo showcase (more or less, save Consequence's hook appearance), Phife pinballs from thought to thought, diverting mid-verse to eulogize underrated R&B singer Phyllis Hyman. Even his asides have idiosyncratic character, half-hidden backstory, and left-field twists where simple metaphors get this weird lore snuck inside. Never one to either let a metaphor just sit there for a single rhyme's sake, or overextend it to the point where it loses its punch, Phife drops this line with a mysterious aside and then it's on to the next one.

"His Name Is Mutty Ranks," from The Love Movement

"Me gettin' burnt, that's like a white girl named Shareema"

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Tribe's fatigue was starting to show by 1998'sThe Love Movement, and Phife's 2000 solo record Ventilation: Da LP —and any further efforts at a solo career — never entirely clicked. But there were still moments, and Phife sounds as fired up as he ever was on this brief, reverbed-to-hell solo verse on Tribe's embattled final album. Even if you can sense the tension underlying the full record, getting to hear Phife go off and get kind of ridiculous for a minute feels liberating.


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