Heavy is the head that wears the No. 2 crown. I was reminded of this when the news of A Tribe Called Quest’s Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor’s untimely, gut-punching death blindsided my early morning social media news rush. For an obsessive music junkie just getting over the heart wrenching physical departures of David Bowie and Natalie Cole, the 45-year-old’s losing battle with a litany of health struggles (a 2008 kidney transplant; debilitating struggles with diabetes) was like some cruel insult to injury.
Throughout his defiant, I-got-something-to-say career, Q-Tip’s proverbial right-hand man was never comfortable with the thankless job of “sidekick.” In fact, it became downright suffocating. In the excellent, at times cringe-worthy documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife’s battle to be heard and respected by the lead visionary of one of hip-hop’s most celebrated groups almost led the childhood friends to come to blows on screen. “I want to let you all know that I’m not that bad of a guy,” Phife said during a 2011 press conference following the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “But it is real life and I’m glad Mr. [Michael] Rapaport was able to bring it to you in such a great way. So thanks, man, for real.”
Phife’s frustrations were justified given the longstanding politics of hip-hop. Being “the man/woman” in a musical genre that rewards the spoils of lyrical glory and, more recently, savvy commercial branding is paramount. Over the decades, hip-hop’s most celebrated No. 2’s have handled the push and pull for respect differently.
Public Enemy’s sneaky gifted instrumentalist Flavor Flav (Not only can he play drums, peep his nasty bass solo at around the 1:08 mark) thoroughly embraced his role as Chuck D’s animated sidekick, reveling in his status as rap’s greatest hypeman. DMC of the game-changing act Run-D.M.C. rarely tripped that the more boisterous Run at times enjoyed a larger spotlight (“Whose house? Run’s house!”). That’s because Darryl McDaniels — and Run D.M.C. fans — understood that his powerfully echoed, voice-of-God vocals fueled the Kings from Queens’ signature sound. The Lost Boyz’s late Freaky Tah was happy just to get the party started.
Then there’s Outkast’s criminally underrated Big Boi, who had the unenviable task of rhyming on the same definitive records with a G.O.A.T.-level lyricist (Andre 3000) that, to this day, is still omnipresent in Top 5 Dead or Alive lists. But Big has long put an end to such “No. 2” talk, releasing a string of acclaimed solo albums and collaboration side projects that have given new insight into his ‘Kast contributions.
Phife Dawg? He has always had to fight for every ounce of sweat-inducing respect. He was a mere afterthought on Tribe’s beautifully strange 1990 debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. “Do you like the garments that we wear? / I instruct you to be the obeyer…” he rhymed on “Can I Kick It?” Cute. Unbeknownst to hip-hop heads, Phife Dawg was set to unleash some rewind-worthy heat just one year later on his lyrical coming-out-party “Check the Rhime”: “Now here's a funky introduction of how nice I am / Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram / I'm like an energizer cause, you see, I last long / My crew is never ever wack because we stand strong / I slayed that buddy in El Segundo then Push it Along…”
If Q-Tip was Tribe’s larger-than-life visionary, Phife was its indispensable anchor. Name the track and you are bound to find a holy-s**t Phife Dawg verse. He bodied “Buggin’ Out” and "Jazz (We’ve Got),” proved he could excel as a solo lyricist on the slick-talking “Butter” and literally set-it-off on the monster posse cut “Scenario.” An avowed sports fanatic, Phife possessed hip-hop’s greatest athletics-related lines (“Your styles are incomplete, same as Vinny Testaverde…”).
The self-proclaimed Five-Foot Assassin was an emcee’s emcee, a witty wordsmith who got the most out of his abilities. Other rappers may have been more complete as lyricists, but when it came to straight-no-chaser quotables, the Funky Diabetic could more than hold his own ("Let me hit it from the back, girl / I won't catch a hernia / Bust off on your couch / Now you got Seaman's furniture…").
It was all too easy to root for Phife. In him we saw ourselves: an imperfect every-man who defied the odds and became a legend amid more gifted talents. The LeBron James's of the world may get the biggest pop. But it’s Stephen Curry that you never see coming.
(Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)