It has been three weeks now and I still really don’t know what to say. Instead of trying to say something really profound or wise about the death of Malik Izaak Taylor b/k/a Phife Dawg, I’m going to tell you a story.
It was 1993 and I was a freshman in college, and I had undoubtedly made a bad choice to start my collegiate career in a place that was NOT Iowa State. I transferred to ISU two years later and it was the best decision I ever made. In the meantime, during the hell time, I was in a town that was almost one horse less than the one horse town I grew up next to. (I can’t say I grew up in town – I actually lived several miles outside of it. RURAL LIVING, BABY.) The only good thing about this college was its proximity to Nebraska, and the reason I say that is because I learned that A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Souls of Mischief were playing a concert in Lincoln at a venue called Rockin Robin.
I knew nothing about going to concerts. Keep in mind I was a freshman in college, from a zero to approximately one horse town, and I’m not even legally old enough to drink a beer (not that it stopped me from imbibing). Nevertheless I formulated a plan – I had to go to this show. I corralled one of my few friends at this shitty college to road trip with me as the navigator, and we in turn networked it over an internet bulletin board to pick up a couple of fellow hip-hop heads at a place called Dana College (now defunct). We arrived at our destination with no other plan but to hope it wasn’t sold out – not wise I know but this was before you could just buy tickets online via Ticketmaster (and pay their exorbitant surcharges) for almost anything. We lucked out – tickets were still available at the door.
If you were a fan of any of these three groups 1993 was a pretty good time in your life, but for A Tribe Called Quest it was especially memorable because “Midnight Marauders” had just been released THAT FALL. That album quickly became my anthem, and often times my medicine, when I felt more isolated and alone at college than at any other time in my life. So I had to go to my first ever concert, whatever it took, and being in the Rockin Robin that night in Lincoln definitely took its toll. When I say tickets were still available at the door in truth they probably shouldn’t have been. People often use the phrase “packed in like sardines” without really understanding the truth of the statement, and this club was IT. Once you got in the door moving was impossible – literally. You weren’t moving forward, backward, to the bar or to the bathroom. You were going to stand in one place for the entire concert, so get used to it. It got SO DAMN HOT in that hellhole that they passed a bucket of ice around over our heads so we could grab handfuls to rub on ourselves and cool down.
A few things come to mind as I reminisce about this first ever concert, including the fact the opening act was someone I’ve never seen before or since, but they claimed to be from Nebraska and I THINK their name was The Blunted Brothers. As you might expect from the name, blunts were rolled and blunts were smoked, and pretty much anything they had to say was about marijuana. I’ve already admitted to my lack of experience with concerts, somewhat minimal exposure to alcohol, so you can imagine I had never smoked a joint nor even knew the term “hotboxing.” In that packed club though when the lead rapper said “THIS IS FOR ALL MY BLUNT SMOKERS IN THE HOUSE” and lit their Phillies up, every single person at the concert did too. No room to move, no other air to breathe, so let me assure you that I got a pretty good “contact high” before the night was over. Driving home was MORE than a bit of an adventure. Was I on point Phife? In a way I probably haven’t been since.
Now here’s the kicker to the whole thing – Tribe was not in their best of health on this evening. I’m trying hard to remember if it was Phife or Tip that was in the worse shape, but I can guarantee that one of the two was as hoarse as a lifelong smoker just two songs into their set. Being that sick and being unable to speak you would hardly have blamed them for cutting it short and getting the hell out of this sweaty hellhole in Lincoln, but the Tribe decided to get live NO MATTER WHAT. As I bobbed my head to each song, no matter how hoarsely the lyrics were spit, Tribe would not quit until they had performed all of their hits from “People’s Instinctive,” “Low End Theory” AND “Midnight Marauders.” It was an act of dedication that blew me away as a fan, and even though there would have been no room for a cameraman in Rockin Robin, I still wish somebody had been filming that night.
You wouldn’t call it a “great” performance – you’d want to see Tribe at full health and in the full luxury of a roomy, air conditioned, but still well packed venue where they could roam around freely interacting with concertgoers. This was not ideal in any stretch of the word but in that tiny little hole in the wall in Lincoln they made memories for me just with their “we won’t f—ing quit, not yet” attitude. There were even encores. It was a heroic set. So when I reminisce over Phife Dawg, and pour one out for the Five Foot Assassin, I’m going to remember that time they came to the Midwest and gave it their best while feeling their worst. Come to think of it I’m pretty sure Q-Tip was feeling more ill of the two and Phife Dawg had to finish most of his lines like a hypeman. That may be rose colored glasses, that may be the weed smoke talking, but that’s how I want to remember it anyway. Rest In Peace, Malik.