The comic book character Shazam (Captain Marvel) was based on the premise of what would happen if a child took on the powers of a superhero. Young Billy Batson would scream the magic word and be transformed into the adult Captain Marvel and children would experience the story through the eyes of a child. Captain Marvel became so popular that he actually outsold Superman in the 1940s which led to DC Comics, Superman’s owner suing Fawcett comics to put an end to Marvel’s run.
I always thought that Phife was overrated by many. What I didn’t get back then, was that Phife Dawg was Captain Marvel. When people rhymed his words, they were able to see Hip-Hop from their perspective. You will never be Rakim. Or Nas. Or Jay. But with his everyman delivery and sublime simplicity, you could imagine yourself being Phife.
He had clever lines that made you laugh (Bust a nut inside your eye to show you where I come from) that you would hear and think to yourself, “Yo, I could be a rapper.” You would rhyme over instrumentals and practice your bars. You probably still sucked, but because of Phife, you could always imagine Hip-Hop was still within reach. Run DMC thankfully rescued us from leather costumes and gogo boots, but Phife was like a walking barber shop, complete with jerseys (way before throwbacks blew up), current events references and allusions that you instantly recognized (Jordan with the mic, wanna gamble) and of course, sports (And to top it off, Starks got ejected).
He was unashamedly short, but not in a self-deprecating way like Skee-lo. Nah, Phife was the 5-Foot assassin. He was unashamedly Trini, and would occasionally infuse his rhymes with an island twang. And he was unashamedly Queens, for a boro that got Bridge is Overed for a few years. Phife was the around the way persona that grounded A Tribe Called Quest.
A few years ago, Lupe Fiasco in one of his unfortunate ramblings, insinuated that Tribe’s music had not reached the streets of Chicago, after Lupe flubbed a Tribe song during a tribute. His statement may or may not have been true. But Phife was the reason that this sentiment was not pervasive. Not everyone was into the Bohemian aesthetic that colored Tribe’s first release and while People’s Instinctive Travels… was granted the coveted Source 5 mics, it was Phife’s emergence on The Low End Theory that really brought the group into the public conscious, particularly Phife’s infectious “float like gravity” rhyme on the Jazz/Buggin Out video.
Phife Dawg was real. Not gat to your back, glock cock rap real. But “Damn Phife you got fat, yeah I know it looks pathetic” real. We knew he was battling Diabetes from the early 90s, a struggle which we will probably find out, ultimately claimed him. The Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary brought many of us to tears just watching the group dynamic unfold and having its disruption chronicled in front of our eyes, knowing that it happened JUST as they had created the perfect sound. And we knew Phife’s battles became a thorn in the side of group harmony.
As I later realized, Phife’s greatness didn’t come from extraordinary skill, but an ability to take what he was given and relate it to those who didn’t really have the talent to rhyme, who loved Hip-Hop and lived it vicariously through his path of rhythm, walking in his New Balances. I keep a CD (yes I’m that old) of Midnight Marauders in my car and I had been listening all week. While Q-Tip may have been the better emcee, you realize all the flavor came from Phife. The group would never have achieved immortality without his contribution. For that, I tip my hat and my glass to a man who made the ordinary…extraordinary. As a diabetic, I’ll keep the drinking to a minimum. R.I.P. Phife. Keep kicking it, wherever you are.