Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, New York was the epicenter of hip-hop, with groups like Main Source, 3rd Bass, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers all adding their own individual styles, cutting-edge production and dynamic lyricism to the genre’s melting pot. But A Tribe Called Quest — Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White — stood as the upper echelon of the scene, melding jazz/funk instrumentals with witty storytelling and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wordplay to craft some of hip-hop’s most iconic albums.
Sadly, on Tuesday night, Phife Dawg died at age 45 from complications due to diabetes, leaving a legendary group without its stalwart No. 2. But throughout his short-yet-monumentally influential life, the Five Foot Assassin left a mark on many inside and outside the industry (including this writer), with his enthusiasm and laid-back nature shining through even as he struggled through his various ailments.
One of the people who worked with Phife toward the nascent part of his career is legendary rapper/producer and Main Source member Large Professor, who appeared on Tribe’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders (“Keep It Rollin'”) and considered Phife a friend for more than 25 years. As the music world mourns a one-of-a-kind MC, Large Professor recalls some of his favorite memories of the Tribe Called Quest legend.
When did you first meet Phife Dawg?
I met Phife, it had to be 1989. It was around the time of the Soul Kitchen days; everybody would go to the Village to hang out. It was around the SOB’s days. I met him and [Q-]Tip at the same time, and everyone was hanging out at SOB’s at the Soul Kitchen.
What was that night like?
The two crews — Main Source and the Tribe — we both had this mutual respect for one another, so to actually meet one another, it was like we already knew each other. But then it was like, “Ah man, you’re actually here in my face just to say what’s up,” and things like that. Like, that was what was cool — the dudes, they were just cool. Especially Phife, man, Phife was just a real cool dude.
What stuck out to you most about him?
Witty. Very witty, very clever. Very clever. And it showed in his music, in his lyrics; the stuff that he would connect, he was a witty dude, really, really sharp with the punch lines.
Are there any particular memories or anecdotes from that time period that stick out for you?
What’s special in my heart with Phife is just the inviting feeling that you always got when you went to his home, when we went to his grandmother’s home and even in his room, in his quarters, man — he always had an inviting thing to him, man. When we were working on Nas’ stuff [that would become Illmatic], a lot of that work was done in Phife’s basement. Tip had his equipment and records in Phife’s basement. So Phife was there for a lot of that, like the song “One Love,” we put that together there. And a lot of the Midnight Marauders album was kind of planned in Phife’s basement, and he would just be there chilling, watching a basketball game or something, playing a video game and just listening to the beats, like, “Yeah, yeah, I like that right there.” It was just so casual and cool; he was just a good guy, man, just always inviting. He had a stillness about him that was dope, too. He was really still; you could tell he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He would get the work done. I watched him in the process of getting the work done. Like, we’d bug out a little bit, but he’d also get that work done, too.
What was it like making Midnight Marauders with them?
Oh, wow. That was beautiful, because that was all natural. It was just a matter of me going to Jamaica, going to chill at Phife’s grandmother’s house. You know, Linden Boulevard, right around the corner from where they were talking about [on “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)”] and just kind of sitting there and chillin’ out, going to get something to eat, going through sounds and picking the sounds out. Telling a few jokes, watching some television like that; it was really nice. It wasn’t forced in any way. It was just what hip-hop dudes do. But just the stuff that came out of it was just so fire that it was like, “Ah, man, we’re not wasting any time, we’re not playing no games with the music — this is coming out nice, and it’s all happening all naturally.” Yeah, that was… Wow.
What would you consider his legacy to be in hip-hop?
He definitely was a strong holder of the baton. That guy took all of what hip-hop lyricism is known to be and improved with it. Like Phife had the punch lines, he had the cleverness, and then he had the simplicity, which you always need in hip-hop; a little dash of ignorance, a little simplicity with it, and he had all of that. Ah, wow, those beats — he was able to come through and lace some of those nice platters they were hooking up, those tracks, man. I mean for that time and just what it was, at that time he was perfect. Perfect.
What did he mean to you personally — as a friend, as a fellow artist, as a collaborator?
Just a cool dude, that whenever you see him you’d just smile. Even in the industry setting — that’s the thing that you always kind of look at and look for, is whether or not there’s an industry side and a street side [to someone]. He was just always the same. I could see him at Jack the Rapper, I could see him at another convention, I could see him when they did Rock the Bells and it would always be the same. It would always be like, “Yo, I was just out there, man, I’m going to come by.”
There was a real, natural thing about him that was just really cool. Real smooth, man, real smooth. Organic — that’s the word I was thinking of the whole time. Organic ‘hood. Just natural, man. He didn’t force anything, he just rolled with it, especially with his aliments. That was a strong dude, that was a strong guy.