On Tuesday afternoon (April 5), the same fans that stood in the rain 24 hours prior at St. Albans Park in Queens, New York to honor A Tribe Called Quest‘s Phife Dawg sported their “Phife Diggy” shirts for the “Celebration of Phife Dawg” at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Hundreds of supporters, as well as Phife’s family and friends and several hip-hop VIPs, made the trek to W. 125th Street to salute their hip-hop hero.
Hosted by Quest Green, the four-hour memorial service was packed with artists paying tribute to the “Five Foot Assassin,” special performances, and sentimental dedications from the remaining members of A Tribe Called Quest: Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. Phife Dawg, born Malik Izaak Boyce-Taylor, was honored by a Who’s Who of hip-hop, past and present as Chuck D, Busta Rhymes, Consequence, Kanye West, Andre 3000, KRS-One, Grandmaster Flash, Kid Capri and many more paid their respects to the 45-year-old rhymer, who passed away on March 22 due to complications from diabetes. The audience included the likes of Barry Weiss, L.A. Reid, Lyor Cohen, LL Cool J, DJ Kool Herc, DJ Red Alert and Dave Chappelle — a mix of music industry veterans and celebrities with a special connection to the self-proclaimed “funky diabetic.”
The service also served as a tribute concert as Kelly Price sang “Because He Lives,” Angela Winbush and The Roots performed “Angel” and D’Angelo belted a gospel/soul rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” The Roots’ Black Thought rapped a freestyle incorporating Phife Dawg’s most iconic lines; KRS-One played Boogie Down Productions’ “I’m Still #1” and followed up with some free-associative rhymes backed by Kid Capri on drums.
Chuck D and Busta Rhymes offered some of the first opening remarks on Phife. “His rhymes were honest. He had to be honest. He was honest since 1992,” Chuck D said. “We all rode with Phife and his struggle — all his fans, 100 times over — because he let everybody know, ‘This is what I am going through.’ He kept it real, and he kept it in rhyme.”
Rhymes was brought to tears when he spoke about spending his teenage years with Tribe, sitting in nearly every studio session with the pioneering rap group, even when he wasn’t supposed to. “That’s why I ended up on so many Tribe songs,” he said. A frontman for Leaders of the New School, Rhymes explained why appearing on “Scenario” off ATCQ’s 1991 The Low End Theory elevated his career. “That song changed my money. That song changed my ability to provide for my family. It allowed me to be a good father, a great son — taking on the responsibility of securing the well-being of my house. Many others directly and indirectly. I’m forever in debt to Tribe.”
Phife was a well-known sports fanatic, too. Michael Rapaport, the director of the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, played a montage of Phife’s career moments and showed him waxing poetic about sports. Another video featured prominent basketball players in the NBA—Jamal Crawford, Damien Lillard, Draymond Green and Chris Webber—talking about what Phife and his music meant to them. Hot 97 radio host Peter Rosenberg (who introduced a touching video from ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt) said it best about Tribe: “A Tribe Called Quest is Led Zeppelin, and by that, I mean they are timeless music.”
Kanye West also made an appearance, delivering an impromptu speech where he discussed Phife’s legacy and how Tribe influenced his own personality and worldview. A common theme in each Phife-centric sermon was a love note to hip-hop. Out of respect, ‘Ye pointed out that he didn’t want Zeppelin to be mentioned at Phife’s funeral, which made the crowd laugh. West continued to be unapologetic about his outspoken behavior because “Tribe made Kanye West. Made the kid with the pink Polo. Made it so I could dress funny. I’m not sorry if I said something wrong.”
Andre 3000, another longtime Tribe fan, revealed there was once a joint project with OutKast and A Tribe Called Quest in the works that never materialized. His speech, like many others, touched on not letting time passing you by (a nod to Tribe’s “Excursion” lyrics) and asked every hip-hop OG to pay it forward to the new MCs instead of hating on them. To put it simply, OutKast would not be OutKast without Tribe.
The final hour was reserved for ATCQ members to say their piece on Phife Dawg and thank everyone who came to show love to their friend. Jarobi, Ali and Q-Tip all shared heartfelt memories about Phife, but spent a good amount of time acknowledging Phife’s wife Deisha Head Taylor, who received a kidney transplant to help extend the life of her beloved husband. While they did not speak on Tribe’s future, the group was inspired by everyone’s words.
“When we look around and we hear [these speeches], whether it be Andre or Kanye or Consequence. Grand Puba is here. KRS. All of our hip-hop family is here and a lot of that has extended into beautiful friendships and brotherhoods,” Q-Tip said. “We need to continue that. When we think about Tribe, Tribe is not just the three of us standing [here] or the four of us. We are all the Tribe.”