Heads Gather In St. Albans Park For A Moving Celebration Of Phife Of A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest joined with Phife Dawg‘s family and management in inviting fans to attend a Celebration Of Phife in St. Albans Park in the group’s home turf of Jamaica, Queens, this morning, promising there would be “something special” for the first 200 people in attendance. Accordingly, Phife disciples gathered early, forming a diverse yet quietly unified crowd, ranging from Native Tongues brothers (Dres from Black Sheep) and industry vets (VJ Ralph McDaniels) to young converts who were born the year Low End Theory hit shelves, yet still came out dipped head to toe in the trademark red, black & green stripes made famous on that album cover. Not surprisingly, almost everybody else was dressed in 300 shades of black, many holding their favorite albums and fan-made artwork dedicated to Tribe. Even God came through in the form of a steady rain which seemed to set an appropriately overcast mood over the proceedings.
The special something turned out to be a ticket to tomorrow night’s invite-only Phife Tribute going down at The Apollo, wrapped around a Phife tee. Not much has been shared in the way of details but the industry is abuzz with speculation about which Native Tongues and Okayplayer-centric artists will be paying tribute in some form–and which will not. We won’t know exactly who shows up until the curtain rises, but word is that some artists on tour overseas will be flying in especially for a surprise appearance. The release of tickets was a typically positive and egalitarian gesture from Tribe–the group that many credit for putting positivity back into rap music–a way of making sure the crowd at the exclusive event had room not just for musical collaborators and industry elite but also Phife’s most dedicated fans.
You certainly couldn’t ask for a more dedicated fanbase than the 300-odd souls who trooped out on a rainy Spring morning to pay their respects–and even though many drifted away once they received their invite, many more continued to arrive. With the gathering having lost it’s immediate focus, those who remained simply shared their memories of the 5-foot Assassin while a van parked nearby blasted Phife tributes, solo joints and Tribe jams. Industry outlets who came out to cover the event, perhaps expecting a speech or performance, turned their cameras instead on the fans. With no particular center to the event, the fans and the memories of Phife became the center in a spontaneous and strangely appropriate exchange of the peace. People told their favorite stories and spit their favorite Phife bars. Many old friends who had not seen each other in years reunited and many more connected who did not realize they had a friend or inspiration in common ’til he was gone. One couldn’t help but think of that much-quoted story about soldiers who carry their fallen comrade’s footlocker through the jungle, only to realize he tasked them with delivering an empty chest so they would stay by each others’ side through their moments of greatest trial.
Dres spoke for many of those assembled when he addressed Okayplayer’s cameras:
“We out here giving it up for my brother Phife…he’s just going to be missed immensely. My dude was a Lord of The World! But he was right from right here in Queens. I was privileged to be able to call him family.”
Just when it seemed there was nothing more to be said, Phife’s funeral procession drove by the park to give fans a final chance to absorb the fallen MC’s baraka. Fists were thrown in the air in salute as the line of SUVs rolled through and A Tribe Called Quest’s Jarobi and one or two other recognizable faces looked out from open windows to acknowledge the fans’ love for their brother. A heartbeat after the motorcade passed, one angry watcher lost his cool: “Man, we was out here taking this boy to get something to eat and now we out here in the rain. I didn’t see one face in there that really know Phife, but I’m standing in the rain like a sucka n***a.” Even this outburst, however, seem to reflect less any real grievance so much as the simple, inescapable truth that there’s no right way to deal with the hurt of a friend gone too soon. Cussing at the rain and the disappearing back of the hearse that took him from you felt as valid as any other way of expressing the pain.
As we prepared to leave, a rare, unreleased instrumental of Tribe’s classic “Butter” floated through the open door of the jam-van, the sad yet soaring Gary Bartz saxophone lament playing on in hypnotizing loops, followed by the piercing crack of the Chuck Jackson drums, even more haunting because many of us were hearing them alone and unadorned for the first time, “Where the hell did they get an instrumental of ‘Butter’!?” exclaimed one industry vet out loud. The familiar sounds felt suddenly jarring and alien without Phife’s voice on top.