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Phife Dawg, Fred and the meaning of Life.

By Michael Harriot

I love hip hop.

I know you think you love hip hop, too, but trust me, I love it more than you. I don’t love it in the it-soothes-my-ears-and-restores-my-soul type of way. I love it in the way that every artistic, creative, expressive thing I do originates from hip hop, so it is the source of my livelihood and sanity. If not for hip hop I would be mumbling incoherent poems and passages of classic literature under a bridge overpass somewhere by the freeway. I love hip hop more than almost anyone I know. I have friends who immerse themselves in the culture but they always have blind spots and are limited to a specific style or period of the art.

Perhaps the only person whom I have met who loves hip hop more than I do was my cousin Fred Dix. If I have a black belt in hip hop, then Fred was my first sensei. We would make obscure mixtapes for each other, like 15 rap songs about ex-girlfriends, or an entire cassette tape with songs that sampled the break beat from “Funky Drummer.” We were hip hop nerds. It was our Dungeons and Dragons, our Pokemon and our Marvel Comics. When you are that deep into an art form, you don’t talk about the obvious, you tend to focus on the obscure. One day Fred and I had a conversation about “deuces” or “dubs.”

If you have ever danced or pledged a fraternity, you know what a “deuce” or a “dub” is. An “Ace” is the charismatic, flashy person who is always up front. The ace is the lead man who fronts the band and plays lead guitar, while the dub played bass and sings backup vocals. The ace of a pledge line or dance crew freestyles spins, splits and kicks, while the deuce stand behind them and does the steps according to the choreography. Fred and I were both deuces. We were never the flamboyant, loud spotlight-dwellers up front. We were the second-liners who always had your back and knew all the steps. If you need to get in line,  never follow the ace. Watch what the deuces were doing if you needed to understand the steps and get in rhythm. With a resume that includes George Clinton, Dr. Dre and James Brown, Bootsy Collins was the greatest dub in the history of black music. Scottie Pippen is the greatest deuce in the history of sports. After hours of debate and arguing, Fred and I came to the conclusion that Phife Dawg was the greatest deuce in the history of hip hop.

Everyone likes A Tribe Called Quest. There’s nothing not to like  about Tribe, but most people don’t realize that Tribe was as great a leap forward as had ever happened in music. When hip hop was stuck halfway between too-saccharine MC Hammer dance ditties and the too-gangsta street tomes  that were wresting hip hop westwards, along came tribe with something different. No one can ever specifically say what A Tribe Called Quest  sounds like–all we really know is they left their wallet in El Segundo and they wanted to be put on” by Bonita Applebaum. They sound like if Charlie Mingus had Technic 1200’s. They sounded like Miles Davis had emptied them out of his spit valve. Clearly Q-Tip was the charismatic, beat-seeking, kazoo-voiced driving force behind the group. Ali Shaheed was the third man, uber-producer.

And then there was Phife Dawg.

Phife kept A Tribe Called Quest tethered to the ground. When Q-Tip’s abstract, sometimes nonsensical lyrics weaved through the jazz and funk samples that Tribe mined and made into entirely new songs, Phife would swing in like a hip-hop anchor and make it relatable again. Street again. Real again. Phife was not a lyricist in the same way that Bootsy didn’t play guitar solos and Pippen didn’t drive the lane, one-on-one in half-court situations, but when he started rapping, you knew the meaning. You caught the rhythm. You could start stepping.

We can’t all be the front man. Some of us are seconds. Some of us will never bask in the hot white glow of the spotlight. Some of us are ok with that. We’d rather have it that way. That’s why we loved Phife Dawg. If I was a famous member of a groundbreaking, eclectic hip hop band, I’d be Phife. When Q-tip wore flowing scarves, multi-colored medallions and puka shells, Phife wore a Mets cap.  Phife was a deuce. He was a poem sayer. He was a studio conveyor.

Fred was like that. Fred was everybody’s second. Like Phife he was 5’2″. Like Phife he was always there. He brought charcoal to the barbecue. If you needed to move, he showed up with a truck. When I owned a nightclub, he would show up every night just in case I needed help at the bar. The only thing we ever disagreed with was–what was the Five Foot Assassin’s best verse. I now have to agree with Fred. Nothing can match walking into a room and telling someone:

“Here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am…”

In October 2012, I was visiting my hometown, and passed by Fred’s house. I thought about how he had been like a big brother to me all my life and had always had my back. Although it was late at night I called him, and when he didn’t answer I left a long rambling message on his answering machine. He called me the next morning and asked if I was drunk or high. When I told him no, he said he was going to save that message and play it for me every time he saw me.

He was killed in a car crash a month later.

My sensiei, Fred Dix is gone. He was the only person who loved hip-hop more than me. He was the only person I knew who really got A Tribe Called Quest. Now another deuce is gone too. He liked them black, brown Puerto Rican or Hatian. His name was Phife Dog From The Zulu nation.

I have this weird thing I do with longtime friends where I associate hip hop phrases with their names. My longtime neighbor loved that  one Busta Rhymes song so much that whenever she calls my name, I automatically say “Monday, what it is right now?” I cannot just call my friend by his last name “Huff.” His full title is “Huff Diddy, they say you got the key to the city…” Whenever Fred and I saw each other we said the same thing to each other every time. We had done it so much that there was no longer any pomp or circumstance to it. It was without fanfare, and had become our mundane little greeting. Now he has someone with him to say it with. Each time we talked–whether on the phone or in person, it was always the same routine:

“You on point Mike?

“All the time Dix.”

Here’s to the deuces who hold the world together and glue us to reality.

That is all there is in the universe: Beats. Rhymes. Life.

 

 

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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