'Hamilton' Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on Phife Dawg: He Was 'So Unapologetically Himself'

Broadway Hamilton 2015 Lin-Manuel Miranda
Eric Ogden

Lin-Manuel Miranda photographed on July 20, 2015 at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York City.

More than perhaps any other art form, music is intertwined with memory. Over time, the songs that soundtrack your formative years come to represent specific, long-gone places, times and feelings. This phenomenon was visible all over social media on Wednesday, as A Tribe Called Quest rapper Phife Dawg -- who died Tuesday at age 45 due to complications from diabetes -- was mourned by hip-hop legends and fans alike on deeply personal terms. For every tweet citing a classic Phife couplet, there was another recalling that school dance where you and your first girlfriend East Coast-stomped to "Scenario." Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star and creator of the hip-hop-infused Broadway musical Hamilton, tweeted several Phife lyrics, and even toasted the Queens rapper at Wednesday's (March 23) matinee show, incorporating a bit of Tribe's "Can I Kick It?" into one number. But in an interview with Billboard, he spoke about how Phife and Tribe's music has been an integral part of his life, from school fights and yearbook covers to friends' weddings.

The only fistfight I've ever been in in my life was with my friend Michael over the last cassette single of [A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 hit "Scenario"] at Nobody Beats the Wiz on 96th and Broadway. I was in middle school, and on half-days, we'd take the crosstown bus over there. There was one left in the store, and Michael was like, "I knew them first!" And I was like, "But I like the song more!"

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At the nerdy public school we went to, our yearbook cover was based on [1993 Tribe Called Quest album] Midnight Marauders. Our brilliant yearbook staff my senior year said, "We need a small shot of your head facing forward. Don't ask why, we just need it." Then the reveal was that the cover of our yearbook was the Midnight Marauders cover, with the heads of all the seniors just the way Tribe have all their favorite MCs. But they actually punked me because it's everyone's current headshots, and then there's one headshot that's a picture of me from seventh grade -- they have a baby picture of me next to everyone's grown-up heads! It was really the most thrilling hip-hop thing to ever happen to our school. That was about four years after the album came out, but it shows you what a formative album that was in all our lives.

I was at my friend's wedding last Saturday. I DJ-ed the afterparty, and the guaranteed way to get everyone on the floor is to play "Scenario." It's the guaranteed way to get everyone on the dance floor, rapping every word.

Tribe opened the door in terms of subject matter. They were just authentically themselves, and they rapped about their friendships and New York stories. It just felt like these were your friends and they got on and they were telling you what life was like on their side of things. And that's why we responded -- because they were real with us every time.

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Phife was so unapologetically himself. He rapped about being diabetic, he rapped about being 5 feet tall. He took the things that you think would discount someone from being able to have a career as an MC and made them superpowers. One of my favorite lines: "I get loose off of orange juice" [from "Phony Rappers"]. That's Phife.

My Twitter feed today has just been Phife quotes. I could spend the day doing that and everyone will know what I'm talking about -- it’s just a cornerstone of hip-hop. I mourn the loss of Phife’s voice that interplay between him and Q-Tip. But I'm also grateful for it. Phife was 45 years old, and that is too, too young. He struggled with his health his entire life, but the things that he made are going to stay with us forever. You can't help but be grateful for that.

--As told to Alex Gale