Compared to other genres, Hip Hop is young. Its founders are still here. Most of its greats and legends are still here. So when news of the death of a Hip Hop legend breaks, it sends an immediate shock through the Hip Hop universe. Especially when it’s unexpected. Such is the same with Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. When I woke up on the morning of March 26 to multiple people tagging me in post about Phife’s passing, I’m pretty sure I had the same reaction as everyone else:
what the fuck?
Hip Hop tends to have this weird relationship with death, as it is glorified throughout different parts of the genre. We always pour out one for the dead homies, put up a mural on their block, or drop a RIP in a verse. Bed Stuy rose in song for Biggie. We’ve seen award shoes pay homage to Hip Hop legends. However I don’t think we’ve ever had a true Hip Hop memorial…until now. Last night’s memorial to Phife Dawg at the Apollo Theater left its mark in the Hip Hop history books. Not only was it a chance for family, friends and fans to come together and celebrate the 5 Foot Assassin, but it was also a chance for Hip Hop to reminisce and pay homage to itself.
There were multiple stars in attendance. Mayor David Dinkins spoke of Phife’s greatness. Angela Winbush FLAWLESSLY sang Angel at the request of Phife’s widow Deisha backed by The Roots, who then played a selection with a piece written by Black Thought that had excerpts of Phife lyrics in them (he literally was rhyming off the paper. That’s how new it was.) Kanye and Andre 3000, who weren’t even scheduled to speak, got up and shared. Kanye saying that anything he ever did wrong is Tip and Phife’s fault because they taught him (lol) and Andre not only speaking on Tribe’s influence on Outkast and how their record label wanted them to be a Southern version of Tribe, but he also revealed the news that there were talks to do an Outkast/Tribe collab album (how amazing would that have been). D’Angelo graced the staged for a performance of You’ve Got A Friend. And many other Hip Hop heavyweights took the mic to pay their respects to Phife. At the end of the night, we were blessed with visuals from Phife’s posthumous single Nutshell produced by his long time friend and Hip Hop legend J Dilla.
While many family and friends graced the stage to pay homage to Mutty Ranks, there were 3 that distinctly made this a true Hip Hop memorial fit for a legend such as Phife:
(in no particular order)
3. Quest Green serving as the Emcee.
While memorial’s tend to be sober events, Hip Hop is known for taking any event and turning it into a celebration. As soon as Quest walked on stage and started spitting Phife’s lyrics I knew that this would be a memorial like no other. Quest was the embodiment of Hip Hop yesterday. Yes we are hurting and even he himself said he was going to be in his feelings, but his love for Phife and Hip Hop carried everyone through the program. Although Quest was hurting just like the rest of of us, he understood the importance of his roll that evening as emcee. Not host, but emcee, as it was billed in the program. That is uniquely hip hop. Even in pain, we celebrate.
2. KRS-One’s performance
You can not have a group of Hip Hop artists, legends, and fan come together and not have SOMEONE get on the mic. Hip Hop is a performance genre. It is a communal art form. And when you are mourning the death of legend, you call the legends to honor their comrade, or in this instance, one of their students. Hip Hop’s eternal teacher KRS-One, joined on stage by other legends like Special K and DJ Kid Capri, performed in honor of Phife and then, with Capri on drums began spit a freestyle. This is the epitome of a Hip Hop memorial. We remember our greats through bars.
1. A Tribe Called Quest’s dedication to their brother.
There were many emotional moments of the evening however when Jarobi, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed got on stage to honor their brother the weight of what was really happening once again began to fall on everyone. Holding back tears, Tribe paid homage to their brother by not only speaking of his greatness and the impact he had on their lives, but also speaking to Phife’s wife, parents and son, assuring them and thanking them for their unrelenting support. One of the moments that stood out for me was Ali acknowledging Deisha and her strength during this difficult time.
As Hip Hop gets older, more of our legends will begin to pass from this life. While it will be a difficult time for all of us, I hope that we can celebrate their lives the way we did Phife’s. Full of song, love and lyrics and the message of unity. That was a major theme of the evening. The importance of not only appreciating our own culture but bringing the gap between generations so that the culture may continue to flourish. I’m sure that Phife would have loved this memorial. We mourn his death, but we also celebrate his life.
Watch a replay of the full memorial here: