By Brian Ives
Often in the shadow of the group’s other MC, Q-Tip, Phife was a much lower profile personality, rarely guesting on other records, and only putting out one solo album after Tribe’s split in the late ’90s.
But when he did rock the mic, he truly shone, and raised Tip’s lyrics to another level as well. In honor of the man, nicknamed the “Funky Five Footer” and the “Five Foot Assassin,” here’s five great Phife verses. And while he did have some fun features on songs by Fu-Schnickens and Shaquille O’Neal, not to mention his solo album, we’ll stick with A Tribe Called Quest, as those are the records that made him a legend. And yeah, we know there’s many others, here’s five that we just like.
“Oh My God” (1993)
“When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” Phife asked, and Q-Tip responded “I don’t know man, I don’t know man, I don’t know!” Neither did we. Phife didn’t seem to circulate among famous people as much as Tip did, but here he name-dropped a few R&B stars: “My man Al B. Sure, he’s in effect mode/ Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue/It’s not like honey dip would want to get with me/But just in case I own more condoms then TLC.”
By the point, one of the group’s founding members, Jarobi White, had left the group (he’d later return), but in this verse, Phife explains why there can never be a Tribe reunion now that he’s gone: “Now the formula is this: Me, Tip, and Ali/For those who can’t count it goes 1-2-3/The answer/Hiccup is how I be/Brothers find it’s hard to do but never me.”
There are a lot of Tribe tracks that are essentially Q-Tip solo jams. This is one of the few Phife-based songs (Tip does the hook, “It’s like butter, baby!”). Here, the Five-Footer notes that his attitudes towards women needed some adjustment, which came in the form of a lady named Flo: “My whole attitude was new day, next hon/And believe it or not, they all got done/Well here comes Flo, with the crazy whip appeal/And I’m all true man, like Alexander O’Neal/Is this really love, then again, how would I know/After all this time tryin’ to be a superhoe/She finally played me, but yo, I’d find another.”
But when he started looking for a true female companion, he took a closer look at the women he was meeting: “You didn’t want me then, so hon, don’t want me now/Here, here, take the towel, wipe off your brow/And take the contact out your eye, you’re far from lookin’ fly/You get an E for effort, and T for nice try/Now tell me what’s the reason, for dyin’ your hair/Slum village gold still dangling in your ear,” later saying “Yesterday your eyes were brown but today they are blue/Your whole appearance is a lie and it could never be true/And if you really loved yourself then you would try and be you.”
“Check the Rhime” (1991)
“You on point, Phife?” “All the time Tip!”
“I slayed that body in El Segundo then push it along,” Phife spit, reminding you about Tribe’s earlier classics (as if we could ever forget). “You’d be a fool to reply that Phife is not the man/’Cause you know and I know that you know who I am/A special shot of peace goes out to all my pals, you see/And a middle finger goes for all you punk MC’s/’Cause I love it when you wack MC’s despise me/They get vexed, I roll next, can’t none contest me.” He was a nice guy, but one you wouldn’t want to mess with. Yeah, you would be a fool to reply that Phife is not the man.
Probably Tribe’s most well known song, and the one that launched Busta Rhymes into the mainstream. But Phife was a standout as well: “No holds barred, no time for move faking/Gots to get the loot so I can bring home the bacon/Brothers front, they say the Tribe can’t flow/But we’ve been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe so
Sleep if you want NyQuil will help you get your Z’s, troop/But here’s the real scoop/I’m all that and then some, short dark and handsome,” and from there he had a kind of NSFW line, to show you where he “comes from.”
“I’m vexed, fuming, I’ve had it up to here/My days of paying dues are over, acknowledge me as in there!” Speaking of which, ATCQ is eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year; it’s time to acknowledge them, for sure.
“Jazz (We’ve Got)” (1991)
A Tribe Called Quest was one of the first hip-hop groups to incorporate jazz into their sound; between their unique tracks and their distinctive MCs, they were already light years ahead of the competition. And on this track, Phife was clearly feeling that: “How’s about that, it seems like it’s my turn again/All through the years my mic has been my best friend/I know some brothers wonder, can Phife really kick it?/Some even wanna dis me, but why sweat it?” He also noted that he was happy staying far away from the prevailing trend in hip-hop at that moment. He rapped, “Me sweat another? I do my own thing/Strictly hardcore tracks, not a new jack swing.” Which is something that today’s hip-hop acts can surely learn from.