Geoff Rickly (Thursday, UN, Ink & Dagger) Pays Tribute To His Hip-Hop Hero, Phife Dawg

The rocker always felt a kinship with Phife, even if he’s more like Q-Tip.

I was on the way to see Beach House with my infinitely better half, Liza, when I heard the news that Malik Taylor — a.k.a. Phife Dawg, the legendary “Five Foot Assassin” from A Tribe Called Quest — had passed away from diabetic complications. The news stopped me. I was in tears. Not just because Phife was tragically young at forty-five, but also because he was someone that I always felt close to.

Although I’ve always been a lead singer, like Q-Tip, and Phife was the trusty sideman, Phife seemed like the kind of person that I would gravitate toward in a creative environment. He’s the kind of guy that makes you better just by acknowledging you, the kind of guy that stands just left of center stage — but brings all the best hooks with him. He’s the guy that tries to save you from yourself and all the corny shit that you can’t help but say because you’re a lead singer. Phife was the heart and soul, and without him, no follow spot can warm up that stage.

While I was digesting the news that Phife was gone, Liza and I reluctantly drove to the show, blasting ATCQ the whole way through Queens, noting classic spots from the records: Linden Boulevard (“Linden Boulevard represent, represent/Tribe Called Quest represent, represent”), Nu-Clear Drive-In Cleaners, where the classic “Check the Rhime” video was filmed on the roof. At the show I shared a mourning nod with a man who was wearing the same The Low End Theory shirt that I had had as a kid.

I tried to explain to Liza what the group meant to me and what a hit this was to the music world. In 1991, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory as I entered seventh grade. It was my first exposure to real hip-hop, and when the song “Scenario” came out, it was everywhere — a true phenomenon. It sounded like absolutely NOTHING else that had come before it: the gained-up bass at the top of the track was both muscular and elegant, foreshadowing the massive boom-bap that ushered in the giant gang vocal: “Here we go, yo, here we go, yo/So what, so what, so what’s the scenario?”

I memorized the lyrics, front-to-back, starting with this Phife classic: “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.” This mini-master class in rhyming taught me so many things that I can barely begin to unpack them all these years later. But I’ll try below:

Phife helped popularize the idea of using athletic references in rap. However, instead of portraying himself as competitive, boastful, skilled and famous (which is how most rappers use sports references), Phife drew himself as sports fan: occasionally long-suffering for the Knicks, or celebrating with the Lakers. If Q-Tip is the natural, then Phife is the student of the game — despite the fact that he’s at least equally as skilled.

Phife knew that advertising was so pervasive through the ’80s and early ’90s that the average person could rattle off dozens of brand slogans like they were scripture. From repurposing language from ad campaigns, such as Nike’s “Bo knows,” to cribbing fine print, such as “batteries not included,” Phife tapped into the collective unconscious and reinforced his familiarity. This idea may sound like old hat now, but it was beyond revolutionary at the time and probably would’ve ended up on college syllabuses if a rich, old, white guy had pioneered it.

Malik told Rolling Stone he hated the sound of his own voice, but no one else did. Sounding like Gang Starr’s Guru sped up an octave, Phife possessed one of the most distinctive voices in all of hip-hop. He was the perfect foil for Q-Tip’s confidently smooth introspection: punchy and self-deprecating. When Tip was going abstract, Phife was grounding the Tribe in concrete details, sporting “New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path” and drinking so much soda that “they should call me Dr. Pepper” (“Buggin’ Out,” 1991). Where Tip broke free from cadence and consonance, Phife snapped the patois of his syllables tight to the drums. The former was free jazz, the latter in the pocket.

Over the course of completely devouring The Low End Theory and doing the same to Midnight Marauders when it came out in ’93, I started looking for my place in hip-hop. ATCQ was one of the first crews that appealed to suburban white America without pandering to it in any way. They broke into the mainstream, instead, in the time-honored tradition of just being better than everything else.

The cover of Midnight Marauders seemed to have a message of inclusion on it: the Beastie Boys were there, too, after all. The track “Award Tour” said it plainly: “You can be a black man and lose all your soul/You can be white and groove but don’t crap the role.” I mean, I still wasn’t going to start trying to rhyme. But you couldn’t grow up in America in the ’80s and ’90s without hip-hop leaving its mark on you. My own dense lyrical style has more in common with hip-hop than it does with modern rock & roll, and though I generally credit that to studying poetry under Miguel Algerin at Livingston College, it was the Tribe that first showed me how many extra syllables you can squeeze in a verse if you really need to.

From Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, I also learned the benefits of a deep and abiding creative partnership. In our best years, Tom Keeley from my band Thursday and I shared something like this: the friendship, the respect, that creative spark, the dovetailing ideas that let us finish each other’s sentences… But there was also the tension, the subtle attempts to influence each other, to assert our wills over each other. Together, we made some new sounds and helped Thursday shape a genre. Together, Q-Tip and Phife made A Tribe Called Quest the Olympic Tag Team of thoughtful rhymes. (Can anything bring two people together quicker than assuming the roles of Tip and Phife at karaoke?)

In 2005, when Thursday became a surprise success, we played a few last shows at CBGB in an attempt to save the cultural landmark. At this point, we were signed to Island/Def Jam, having released War All the Time in 2003, and one of our label guys brought the Tribe out to see us. After we played, I was on the side of the stage when said label guy approached and introduced me to Q-Tip. It was so hot at CBGBs that night that I wasn’t just drenched in sweat; it was steaming off my body in visible clouds. I told Q-Tip that he was a hero of mine, that I wanted to be a front man with energy and charisma like him — someone who made people think, someone with a non-traditional voice. He casually thanked me for the remark and I told him what an honor it was to have A Tribe Called Quest at the show. He looked around and asked, “You see Malik?” When I said no, he pursed his lips and excused himself.

I didn’t see Phife at that show, but I did run into him on another day when we were both buying a soda at a pizza joint. I reminded him of the show and he said, “At CBGB? Yeah, crazy. People jumping off the stage and shit.” And he just laughed. I said to him, “A Tribe Called Quest is the reason I love hip-hop.” He said something to the effect of, “I’ve heard that from lot from rock guys.” Then we talked about how cool it was that A Tribe Called Quest was inclusive of all people while still promoting black pride.

At the time, it never occurred to me why I didn’t talk to both of them at the show. I didn’t know about the behind-the-scenes strife that tore the band apart. I knew that Phife was diabetic (“Funky Diabetic” is the name he gives himself on 1993’s “Oh My God”), but I had no idea that the condition was so severe or that it had contributed to so much strife in the group until, shortly after Phife died, I watched Michael Rapaport’s loving 2011 documentary about the group, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.

I broke down in tears at least five times over the course of the movie. Before seeing that film, it never occurred to me that the fun, love-filled, smart dudes in ATCQ could ever have issues with each other. That they could fight like my band fights. That they could decide that it’s better to just stop playing together than to resolve issues — like my band had done. They had all the same problems that we’ve had, issues that can arise when you spend too much time on the road together — when you have very different personalities and deep familial relations. When you have illness in the band that can’t be tamed. I thought about that fighting and a feeling of dread settled over me when I started to wonder if there was still strife between members — strife that stayed unresolved with Phife’s death. I thought about what I would do if one of my Thursday boys died while we still had angry shit in the air between us.

It’s especially easy to draw these dark parallels between our groups for this reason: I see a lot of myself in Q-Tip. I am very familiar with tangled-up ideas of leadership — the ones that seem in service to the glory of the group — and how it feels when they’re twisted or misunderstood.

I even see similarities between Thursday guitarist Steve Pedulla and Phife Dawg: both are grounded in family and find an almost working-class purity in the craft of music (both rock those New Balance). Both look at the showmanship of their “front men” with a smirk at our egos and big ideas. And I see how easy it is for these things to escalate. It’s not malice. It’s not a lack of empathy between band members. It’s all the miscommunication in the words that aren’t said.

During that critical scene, toward the end of the movie, in which Q-Tip tries to get Phife to give some more energy on stage at the 2008 Rock the Bells show, I thought, “Q-Tip just wants to have a good show, he wants Phife to shine. Tip isn’t trying to publicly shame him — he’s just being a coach, looking for more from a player.” Phife’s reaction, feeling shamed and persecuted, put a knot in my stomach.

I thought, “I definitely would have done the same thing. I definitely have done the same thing to all my band members at different times, even when they’ve been sick. I know I can be pretty intense about it, because Tom Keeley has a recurring nightmare that he’s died on stage before the end of the set. In the dream, I’m so disappointed with him for not finishing that I hire a “budget wizard” to resurrect him just long enough to get through the concert. At some point his hands fall off while he’s trying to play guitar (because he’s a rotten corpse and the wizard is subpar) and instead of stopping the show, I say to the crowd, “I’m sorry everyone, this is really shitty… Tom, you’re pathetic.”

I don’t hate my band or want to put them on blast. I just want to encourage them to do their best, in the moment, and I see that in Q-Tip. In the next scene, when Malik’s wife says that they (Q-Tip and Phife) could’ve used some counseling to help them hear each other, she’s absolutely right. Thursday has actually had the benefit of doing full band counseling together. We said so much crazy shit to each other; shit that we’ve bottled up for years on the road together. And it made a difference. Without those sessions, Thursday wouldn’t just remain broken up; we’d probably never talk to each other again. I don’t know if the group found some common ground before Malik Taylor’s death last week. I truly hope they did. Because there is love in that.

Let me just tell a quick story in conclusion: In 2012, I got tickets for Liza and me to see Kanye West at the Barclays Center on the Yeezus tour with A Tribe Called Quest in the support slot. It was announced that this would be their last show. Phife’s energy was low, but he seemed to be getting support from his band mates, leaning on Jarobi and even getting lyrical assists from Busta. He and Q-Tip even did their synchronized dance, laughing while the crowd went nuts.

At the end of the set they played “Award Tour” over and over again, running the record back to the classic intro every time they reached the line: “We on Award Tour with Muhammad, my man, going each and every place with a mic in the hand — BROOKLYN — can we do it again???? Yes, we can!!!!” That repetition, specifically at the end of the supposed last show, seemed to be a hint to most people that this wasn’t really the end, because Tribe could never really be over. They were just too important for that. They were more than a group, more than an idea, more than a family. They were A TRIBE CALLED QUEST.

Now that it turns out that the show at Barclays truly was their last, some part of me will always be standing on my seat as they run the record back and let that intro groove — over and over again. When I’m on stage with Thursday at our upcoming reunion show, I’ll be running my own record back and saying, “Can we do it again?? Yes. You can.”

Geoffrey William Rickly. Talkhouse Contributing Writer and former singer of Thursday and Ink & Dagger.  Current singer of UN and No Devotion, making occasional music of various shapes and sizes. You can follow him on Twitter here.