Remembering Phife Dawg, Rap's Favorite Underdog

Phife Dawg at the 2014 D.C. For Dilla concert and fundraiser
Phife Dawg at the 2014 D.C. For Dilla concert and fundraiser

Rap’s favorite underdog died this week, and that is a very sad thing.

To play catch-up, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest passed away late Tuesday after a lifelong battle with Type 1 diabetes. Even at the young age of 45, Phife left a mark on many areas of life. He was an avid sports fan, name-checking sports teams, wearing exclusive apparel and even guesting on ESPN’s SportsCenter. He had some of the dirtiest yet sincere one-liners about life in general, and was a proud lyricist who was more self-deprecating about being black, not necessarily suave and attractive but confident enough to get any girl he wanted. Phife Dawg played off of Q-Tip’s idea of cool, the laid-back, esoteric style that ended up turning him into Kamaal the Abstract. The more Tribe shifted upwards into critical acclaim, the less happy they got. But Phife yearned for a grander appreciation of the group, both as a member and a fan, even before his death.

People love A Tribe Called Quest, mainly because of how they managed to escape the hardcore gangsterism and posturing of rap in the early 1990s between N.W.A. out west and the massive political snark and grunt of Public Enemy back east; Tribe simply told listeners to embrace themselves and not pretend to be anything else. “Weirdos” in rap existed for quite some time. If you couldn’t get down with the flowery and quizzical nature of De La Soul, there was Tribe. With Tribe came Phife Dawg, easily one of the more relatable rappers who ever existed.

Phife Dawg, a 5’3” assassin who rapped like he was 6’5” and navigated a high-pitch Napoleon complex to stardom, is gone from us. The way Phife rapped in terms of his personality captivated The Notorious B.I.G to carry that same sort of irrational confidence. In 1990, Phife Dawg barely had a role on People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and basically dared to step his bars up for Tribe's second album. In 1991, Phife Dawg announced himself with sound and fury signifying something to prove with the opening lines of “Buggin’ Out” from The Low End Theory. Two years later, he was arguably the most consistent piece of Midnight Marauders.  He flipped his diabetes diagnosis into a badge of pride, nicknaming himself "The Funky Diabetic" and owning up to all of his faults. Even if he rooted for the Jets and the Knicks, his underdog tenacity rode deep into some Houston rappers who felt the same damn way.

Paying tribute to Phife is taking a look at all the underdogs. Not just the typical rap underdog, a trope we’re all familiar with. We’re talking the underdog, a rapper who made you appreciate being an atypical star.

Point blank as a rapper, Z-Ro is a perpetual underdog type. Life has weighed on Joseph McVey, to a point where he can be both hard and sober about every single word he says and can also be darkly funny. If Z-Ro is rapping about a woman, he’s either going to be dismissive or will turn a lovey-dovey moment into something joking. Z-Ro refuses to admit to a weakness; he’s done far too much losing to go back to such methods.

If Tribe ever had a Texas rap analog, Devin the Dude embodies it, especially in an underdog sense. Quixotic like Q-Tip, clever and relatable like Phife, The Dude is a genre all his own. He’s not a sex symbol in the slightest, but he’s easily the one rapper in the 610 Loop you’d want to have a conversation with. No rapper is more likely to discuss the highs and lows of life than Devin. That’s as honest as you can say.

The strength of the Screwed Up Click was its sheer volume of talent. Pokey, a hard-edge rapper, managed to sneak under Big Moe’s glistening vocals to be just a gruff rapper with one hell of a voice. Rapping about threesomes (“Menage Tois” from 2000’s D Game 2000) and burrowing himself deep into being a self-created sex symbol was nothing new for Poyo. As the rest of the SUC morphed into national mainstays, Pokey remained a regional giant, ballin’ parlay into being one of the SUC’s more underappreciated acts.

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