The five-foot assassin made it all ok for me. He single-handedly sorted out all of my confusion, and boy was there a lot. I was a 14 year old jewish kid living in Boulder, Colorado trying to make sense of my raging obsession with hiphop. I knew I loved the beats, I knew I loved the rhyming and the flows, but none of the topics or content resonated with me at all. I couldn’t relate to Public Enemy’s need to fight the power, though their passion and talent spoke to my soul. Like Two Live Crew, I too wanted some pu$$y, but I was years away from that fun stuff. Easy-E’s voice was really cool, but his album, and NWA’s scared the shit out of me, and honestly I never found the beats/production/west coast vibe all that hot.
But then Phife came to the rescue. He was short, like me. He was a Jets fan, like me. He felt insecure around girls, like me. He loved hanging out with his friends and talking shit, like me. He was simply a cool ass kid that rapped in a way that was so clear and pure it was impossible not to relate to him. Q-Tip always got most of the props because he was way more outgoing and had incredible producer chops to go along with his lyrical talents, but I’ve always believed the soul of A Tribe Called Quest was Phife. He kept it low-key on “People’s Instinctive Travels” while Hippie Q-Tip took front and center, and that worked perfectly for them at the time. But you could tell there was a lot more to Phife than his background guy role on that debut album. Thank goodness that Tip allowed Phife to take on a bigger role for “Low End Theory” because he morphed into an absolute beast on that record. He reeled Q-Tip in from hippie-town and ATQC became the poster children for swagged out east coast hiphop. Plain and simple, there was nothing cooler in music. The beats, the flows, the every-man lyrics, the fashion, their crew (Native Tongues), it all came together with these guys like no group before them, or possibly after them. I truly believe that “Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders” are and always will be the backbone of what we know as hiphop, but frankly thats a redundant statement at this point.
My point is, it was Phife that tied it all together, like the rug in Big Lebowski. His simple but wise words allowed anyone and everyone to become a listener of hiphop. I remember playing Phife’s verses for my parents when trying to convince them that hiphop was a real form of music. If you’re reading this and don’t know what “Microphone check 1-2, what is this, the five-foot assassin with the ruff neck business” means or where it comes from, go back through ATCQ’s catalog immediately and absorb the greatness of a sorely underrated MC that inspired a generation of kids not only get into hiphop, but to start rapping themselves (me included). He provided us kids – white, black and every other race – a true connection to hiphop by simply talking about life in general. Most of us couldn’t relate to a story about a drive by shooting or a drug deal gone bad, but we sure could relate to taking our nephew down to Kay-Bee toy store or getting benched by the high school basketball coach cause our jump shot sucked. RIP Phife! But let’s not be too sad, instead let’s be grateful that he’s given us yet another reason to revisit his legendary music.