Like many people around the world, I was saddened to hear news of the death of legendary '90s hip-hop artist, Phife Dawg. I was sad not because I knew Phife Dawg (I didn't) nor because at 45 he was too young to leave us (although he was) but because he and his group, A Tribe Called Quest, created the soundtrack to my teenage years.
But even that's not really why.
You see, hip-hop has always had a bad rap. Originating in New York in the 1970s, the genre was largely associated with the influx of Jamaican migrants such as MC Kool Herc, who brought with them the dub technique of MCing over two records played simultaneously. Just as earlier generations of poor African Americans improvised musical instruments from found objects, so the young black men and women who were the early hip-hop artists used pre-existing vinyl records, the urban environment and their own bodies to create something that was utterly new and innovative. Hip-hop was more than just rapping; it was a culture that included breakdancing, cutting two (or more) records together and graffiti art.
Hip-hop was an unconscious but ingenious strategy of dismantling and reinventing the world as the B-boys knew it. Early rapping tended to take the form of "battles," with each MC attempting to outdo his peers in a spirit of one-upmanship, using a combination of lyrical wit and unexpected, comical rhyming patterns. As such, the early hip-hop records of the late '70s and early '80s were often upbeat, good humoured and full of witticisms. The Sugarhill Gang's 1979 record "Rapper's Delight" is often cited as one of the first.
As tends to happen when new musical genres evolve, the early '80s witnessed a good deal of creative fluidity between styles that would soon splinter irrevocably: early house, techno and electro music bubbled out of the same pot as hip-hop, using the same techniques of cutting between records and sampling beats. As much as we take this for granted now, at the time this was cutting edge. And although social commentary began to creep into lyrics at this stage (Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel's White Lines, about inner-city poverty and drug use, is just such an example), they were equally likely to be about outer space or the Cold War.
By the late '80s, hip-hop had established itself as a discreet musical genre and was no longer associated with graffiti or breakdancing. It was at this time that it began to be viewed negatively by the mainstream press, principally because as its appeal grew more widespread (artists such as MC Hammer and the much-maligned Vanilla Ice becoming huge successes), it was finding its way into the homes and ears of suburban white teens and their parents. The obligatory Parental Advisory label stamped on most of these records probably served as a badge of recommendation to teenagers playing with subversion – as teenagers do.
But that's by the by. If there was something explicit about the lyrics it was that, increasingly, they had something to say. And they said it. The hip-hop of the late '80s and early '90s was explicit in its message in a way that recorded music simply never had been.
Artists such as Public Enemy were among the most outspoken political messengers and marked the blossoming of a brief but exquisitely powerful trend in conscious lyricism and poetry that still has no parallel across any other musical genres. For all the blanket criticisms of rap as being misogynistic, homophobic and violent, its truly revolutionary aspects have been largely overlooked. Often harking back to the civil rights movements of the '60s, the new sound referenced the profound cultural loss of an authentic homeland – Africa – and spoke of dislocation and alienation.
A Tribe Called Quest, along with groups such as Gang Starr, embodied a less aggressive form of musical messaging that had more in common with earlier rap in terms of its playful lyricism and musicality than it did with the newly emerging specter of gangster rap. Phife and his peers used a combination of layered melodic and atonal jazz samples to create an introspective and even intellectual sound that would later be picked up by Nas in his landmark 1994 album Illmatic (Phife's band member Q-Tip was part of the production team).
Hip-hop's golden age may be over, and perhaps that's why I'm especially saddened by the death of Phife Dawg. He represents the passing of an age when hip-hop still contained the germ of revolution. We may not be able to recreate that age; but if we can even begin to recognize and celebrate it for what it was, we just may have the beginnings of a suitable epitaph for one of hip-hop's finest sons.