That’s the word I would use to describe my present state after finding out that Phife Dawg, born Malik Isaac Taylor, had passed away at the all-too-young age of 45.
As the #RIPPhifeDawg hashtag continues to trend on Twitter, it becomes more apparent that that jolt of sadness is being shared by many people, all over the world, from different communities, different nations and different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Of course, death will almost always result in solemn grief and reflection, but with Phife Dawg, it’s a little different. We didn’t just lose a great artist, or witness a family lose a great husband, father, brother and son; we lost a hip-hop vanguard.
A revolutionary rap poet who was caught in an era of exploding commercial opportunities and overtly violent imagery who, along with Q-Tip and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, decided to forge their own path. With a unique sound, unique consciousness and unique album covers, they did the one thing that separates legendarily brilliant artists from really good acts — they gave us something we didn’t know we needed.
How can a reverend preach, when a rev can’t define/ The music of our youth from 1979/ We rap by what we see, meaning reality/ From people busting caps and like Mandela being free/ Not every MC be with the negativity/ We have a slew of rappers pushing positivity/ Hip hop will never die yo, it’s all about the rap/ So Mayor Barry smoking crack, let’s preach about that
– Phife Dawg, “We Can Get Down”
Phife Dawg had the ability to be conscious, raucous, hilarious and licentious all in the same verse, and that’s truly what attracted many hip-hop heads, such as myself, to his sound and his lyrics. He didn’t preach but he informed, he didn’t scold but he didn’t subdue, he never took himself too seriously but he was never the joke. He was unapologetically black, unapologetically Trini and unapologetically Queens.
“I like ’em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian/ Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation”
– Phife Dawg, “Electric Relaxation”
Phife Dawg’s passing is so painful for so many because he destroyed the black youth binary of the time, created by the C. Delores Tucker’s of the world stating that you could either be an educated brother or sister concerned with the advancement of the black community or a hip-hop head who indulged in vulgar music with racy language. For young black folks attempting to define themselves in a new age, Phife’s lyricism was akin to arriving at a fork in the road and choosing to go straight. That was our collective cue that we can rap alongside the five-foot freak when he said he’d “bust off on your couch, now you got Seamen’s furniture,” knowing that participating in free-flowing, energetic fun didn’t detract from our own Afrocentricism.
In the coming days, as we experience the different stages of ‘social media grief’, there’s no doubt we will encounter those people who lash out at the younger generation for not knowing who Phife is or who attempt to berate the elder hip-hop heads for “not caring” about Phife in his last days. But what’s sad about their commentary is they will miss an important truism about our relationship with him and ATCQ — they never left us. The music, the insight, the pro-blackness and the hilarious, hyper-sexual hyperbole is part of how we tweet, how we talk and how we live.
In an NPR interview, Phife Dawg stated, “We didn’t want to be like anybody else.”
Mission achieved, Phife.
Rest in peace.