For me, the passing of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor hits home in a very literal sense. I grew up in the St. Albans area of Queens, New York. To this day, I pass the Nu-Clear Cleaners on Linden and the one-nine-two-where A Tribe Called Quest stood atop in the “Check the Rhyme” video-regularly to take my grandmother to the bank. To me, Tribe isn’t special because of their nearly flawless catalog of music; they are because they too called St. Albans home.
We all grew up on those five albums. There are flashes of moments that are forever ingrained in my mind based around songs of theirs. I recall being in first grade, crossing Murdock Avenue from Allen Christian School to St. Albans park and a group of us singing “Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what’s so what’s so what’s the scenario?” when The Low End Theory was scorching. My mother used to play “Electric Relaxation” at least three times every Saturday afternoon as we cleaned up our two-bedroom apartment on Francis Lewis Boulevard. I remember starting middle school in the fall of 1996, and listening to “Stressed Out” on my walkman as my cheese bus got on the Van Wyck Expressway from Northern Boulevard and feeling like this moment was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. Sixteen Novembers later, that song would be the soundtrack to the hardest time in my life. I’ll get there.
Tribe’s 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest was released in October of 2011. After watching it several times, of course, I was prompted to revisit ATCQ’s whole catalog repeatedly. After dropping Timile and Cydney off in Virginia, I listened to “God Lives Through.” It’s the last song on Midnight Marauders, the album in which the kids from Queens pulled off their three-peat of flawless and classic albums. The musical bed of the track is moody and looking back, it’s as if Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Phife knew that this last song was the end of an era. The perfected chemistry of the trio would forever be thrown off and nothing would be the same. Enter the Beats, Rhymes, and Life era.
Beats, Rhymes, and Life doesn’t get the props that it deserves. It’s an incredible album; but I can’t bear to listen to it. During my three week residency in the Tidewater Area, I gravitated to the album’s darkness. Listening to it was an outward reflection of where my mind and spirit was. It was soothing to me. After having to sneak visits to Timile in the hospital, I would vent to my friend, Donnell while driving to my not-so-well lit apartment to go to sleep on the green couch my in-laws had donated. Shit, just thinking about that moment is giving me chills. Picturing the moment where Phife raps “From Linden Boulevard down to Cascade Road” on “Mind Power” to my good friend who is no longer with us about someone I loved dearly who has passed on while writing a reflective piece based around the music of someone who just died.
I listened to “Stressed Out” the most while living in Virginia. The version that’s on Beats, Rhymes, and Life only features Q-Tip and newcomer, Consequence. I think that was well-fitting, because the two cousins only rapped about being frustrated. That moment in life was missing Phife coming in and reminding me to be thankful for those who have supported him in the midst of all the bullshit. In that period of life, I could have used his blunt delivery with a dash sense of humor as balance.
Yesterday afternoon, I took Cydney and my nephew to St. Albans to visit my dad. Cydney’s school is off Linden in nearby Elmont. After picking her up, I felt as if I needed to drive all the way down past Nu-Clear Cleaners instead of taking the quicker backstreets. I had to for my man, Phife Diggy who always had something to say.