I Hope They Even Know Who Phife Dawg Is

Phife Dawg, he of the legendary — and I’m not throwing that word around lightly here — rap group A Tribe Called Quest, passed away today.

You knew that if you spent time on the internet, had a radio on, or watched the news. His passing was, thankfully, a bit of a thing. Again, him being a legend and all. He deserved that much and got it.

I was busy during the day so I didn’t have much time to read the tributes, though I certainly saw more than a handful. I don’t know how many people actually read them either, but I know they were there.

Still, when I heard the news, my immediate reaction was, like all people these days, to open my big mouth and say something. To use one of the varied platforms available to me, and reminisce.

But I couldn’t muster up the energy, and, like I said, I was busy with other things. I guess that’s part of having a life, not having time to drop everything and address whatever the internet thinks is addressable.

I also, when it really came down to it, just didn’t have that much to say. That didn’t mean I didn’t think about Phife’s passing, or that I didn’t feel like the world lost someone special. ATCQ is — was? — an incredible group, and theirs was some of the first real hip-hop I ever fell in love with. It has a special place in my heart.

And yet as the day wore on, and the tributes kept coming, I wondered how many people — people who were writing these tributes — really knew Tribe’s music, or even knew who Phife was. I have no doubt that there is a sizable audience of a certain age — roughly, my age — for which Tribe is very important. But the next generation, do they know? Do they care?

I don’t know. It sort of puzzles me. I can’t help but feel like when it comes to older hip-hop, there really hasn’t been much done to preserve the legacies of certain artists. Tribe is an important group, for sure, but does anyone outside of the die-hard hip-hop audience really know who they are?

With rock and pop and even jazz, there is literally mountains of scholarship that exists that kind of celebrates classic artists and their artistry. In that way, what they do gets preserved, and it’s taught in schools and it becomes a part of the American cultural lexicon. It becomes a part of us, without us even noticing.

Of course, just because something is institutionalized, that doesn’t mean people care about it. Some would argue it’s the complete opposite, in fact. That when you get institutionalized, you’re “over,” which is something I’d tend to agree with. Oh they’re teaching it in school? Well then it can’t be cool.

Even still, music preservation in other genres is significantly more vibrant — probably thought of as more important — than it is with hip-hop. And it’s funny, because hip-hop in all its related facets is the lingua franca of pretty much the last thirty years of global pop culture. Go anywhere on earth, people know who Kanye West and Jay-Z are.

That is not to say that there haven’t been other important cultural movements, things that people have embraced. Heck, dance music has owned much of the last decade, and that’s another genre that seemingly gets no respect.

I guess the upside is that outside of institutionally educating people, society has a way of doing it for us. Being culturally aware, culturally informed, shaped by a cultural artifact — it doesn’t come from a magic bullet.

Collectively, we unconsciously pick and choose what we deem important, by repeatedly engaging with it. Not because we are told, but rather because we like it. And we pass it on. Nobody from up high can do this for us. Only we can.

Case in point, I’m sure critics don’t think Coming to America is the greatest movie on earth, but I’m also pretty sure that every person born after 1975 thinks, at least when they’re watching it for the hundredth time, that it’s the greatest movie on earth.

You see this a lot with music, because in the music industry, people are obsessed with charts and numbers and figures. Something hits number one on the charts, therefore it must be important. But that’s just momentary, a blip on the radar of time. Does it mean anything in the real world? Most times, no.

Even with A Tribe Called Quest — I’m sure if you went back and looked up their stats, like what their albums sold and how many of their songs charted, they’d probably wind up being not that impressive. If you didn’t know anything, might even think, gee, these guys weren’t really that successful. Not unsuccessful, but not 50 Cent Get Rich or Die Tryin’ successful.

And yet, no doubt, ATCQ is considered a legendary group; here we are, in 2016, and the Phife tributes are endless. Certainly in a certain part of culture, he is revered. But I just don’t know if younger people, older people, people who are not in media or music, people who are not especially plugged in to the hip-hop zeitgeist — just people, man — know.

But everyone knows who Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles are. Even if they don’t know their music, they know who those guys are. And it’s kind of weird to me that there aren’t a lot of hip-hop groups or artists held in that kind of regard. That are seen not hip-hop icons, but just flat out musical icons, period.

It could be a racial thing, but even then, I’m not sure. Because many black artists, mostly jazz, soul and R&B acts, are held in this sort of sacred space, even if by traditional statistical standards they don’t really rank up there alongside anyone else. Some of these jazz guys would sell less than a 1,000 copies of an album, and there are libraries filled with shit about them.

So, I guess this was my way of paying tribute to Phife. Not by really saying much about his music, because what am I possibly going to say about his music that is going to make it sound any better than it already is? Nothing. And what does my experience with his music really mean to you? Nothing. These are wholly unique things that are going to be different for everyone else, especially now that this man is no longer here.

What I do hope, though, is that through his passing, some people take the time out to educate themselves on who the man was, what the group was, why they were important, and most of all, appreciate the music for what it is.

Compared to current hip-hop, A Tribe Called Quest’s is something of a cultural artifact, a byproduct of an era and time period in black culture, New York culture — American culture — that I, personally, don’t think really exists anymore.

And hearing it, experiencing, it kind of makes you feel alive in a way. If you were a young rap fan turning it on today, you might think, wow, so this is what hip-hop sounded like at one time? Very different. These guys are really saying stuff. There are a lot of words. They sound smart. And I’m kind of enjoying this.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.