Words by Jason Fitzroy Jeffers
It’s getting harder to remember, but there once was a time when hip-hop wasn’t the dominant force in global pop culture. Being a fan meant you stood—probably in a b-boy stance—on the fringes of the mainstream.
Imagine then, what it was like growing up a hip-hop head in the Caribbean.
For me, growing up in Barbados in the ’90s, it meant an adolescence lived in exile: there was barely any hip-hop on the radio, not having MTV or BET meant you’d have to beg a friend with a satellite dish to videotape hip-hop music videos for you, and CDs cost the equivalent of $32 USD; praise be for yankee aunties and uncles who were kind enough to bring in one or two for you when they visited.
Not only did you get pegged as strange for listening to rap music, but you were also so very far removed from the culture itself. It was so alien to the shape and flavor of your daily island life. You were an outsider twice over.
And then came Phife.
Just as much bohemians as they were b-boys, A Tribe Called Quest stood out the minute they showed up on the hip-hop landscape, and I quickly became a fan. When Phife’s Trini roots started to bust out however, I became more than mere fan; I was now a disciple.
“I get the Roti and the Soursop…”
That line, delivered in an unmistakable Trini lilt on the track, “Ham ’N’ Eggs,” on their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was the first clue. It would be the first of many references to his heritage that Phife would drop. I can’t overstate how inspiring it was to hear these bars delivered with a dialect and swagger that sounded so close to home. As corny as it sounds, something changed in me. Here were new horizons.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one thinking the same.
“Any kid from that era who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, or anywhere in the Caribbean, hearing his shout outs and references meant everything,” says Jillionaire of Major Lazer, who was then just a rabid music fan. “When you come from ‘nowhere,’ that’s something you hold onto. He was a beacon out there.”
Mind you, Phife wasn’t the only one. The truth is that so many of hip-hop’s founders and legends were from the Caribbean, and the culture of hip-hop is itself derived from aspects of the Jamaican sound system, but it wasn’t something that many really played up. Mostly, their culture and parentage were just background factoids you might chance upon in the pages of an imported, duty-taxed copy of The Source magazine. Phife, however, wouldn’t let you forget that he was of Caribbean stock.
With each new Tribe album, he’d pepper more of his rhymes with sing-song cadences referencing classic dancehall songs and references to his Trini background. Both he and Q-Tip littered Tribe’s albums with a lot of Caribbean lingo, but for Phife in particular, Caribbean pride was just as much the source of his MC boasts as was his formidable penmanship.
I considered myself a rapper at the time, much to the confusion of most of my friends and peers. After all, what chance was there for a rapper from the Caribbean? Actually, things were pretty daunting for most musicians from the region, regardless of genre. Maybe you could become a road march champion or calypso monarch, but even then you’d still have to hold down a day job. For most musicians, the most reliable source of income you could probably tap into was a regular gig at a hotel. Telling people you were going to pursue a career in music or even the arts was to invite rolled eyes and a chorus of sucked teeth.
“I remember a lot of dream killing was happening at that time,” says Trinidadian soca star Bunji Garlin, who in Phife’s heyday was just beginning to feel the performance itch. “There was a lot of discouragement, people telling you not to get caught up in that. But it was also a blessing to see his success and how it affected the world.”
Much has changed since Phife first emerged as hip-hop’s most recognizable icon of Caribbean descent. Dancehall and soca music now move bodies on dance floors around the world where they were once mere novelty. Figures like Bunji and Jillionaire march forward into new terrain, while other people like myself—though no longer striving for musical success—still push ahead in the Caribbean arts both at home and abroad, carrying a torch that Phife once helped keep alight. What’s more, there are plenty of MCs who now proudly proclaim their Caribbean heritage, whether stateside—Nicki Minaj, A$AP Ferg, Trinidad James—or in the region itself—Trinidad’s Make it Hapn, Barbados’ Teff Hinkson or Jamaica’s Five Steez, among many more.
Though it was well known that Phife was diabetic for some time, his death still dealt a heavy blow across the hip-hop world. For many of us from the Caribbean, it’s renewed our commitment to our various crafts and especially to each other.
“Anytime anybody of Trini, Barbadian or whatever roots has an opportunity to take it to the face like that and make it work is something we should really grab and appreciate,” says Bunji. “We should make an effort to learn about their journey, their struggles and what it took to get where they are. That’s what I’ve absorbed from all of this. When I found out about Phife I reached out to Chip-Fu [Trinidadian/Barbadian rapper, formerly of Fu-Schnickens] and I spoke to him. I told him that I want to appreciate him as well for what he did to influence me. In the light of Phife’s passing, I wanted to make sure I did that.”
“It’s weird now to think that kids may look at what we do in that same type of way, but it’s cool,” says Jillionaire. “It gives people a sense of pride, and young musicians in the region a sense of hope.”
It’s been a little over a month since he passed, and it’s still hard to grasp that we’ve lost Phife, and that what was perhaps the world’s most beloved hip-hop group will never reunite. However, I suspect that for many Caribbean hip-hop fans, Phife’s passing hurts in a very specific way. When we were the odd ones out, the Trini gladiator made us all buff out our chests just a little bit more.