“Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am.” So opens Phife Dawg’s verse on “Check the Rhime,” released in 1991 as the lead single from A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark album, The Low End Theory. It’s a weird line, all garbled syntax and apparent non-sequitur: After all, Low End was Tribe’s second album, and introductions had already been made. But it’s got a quirky beauty to it, particularly the back end, “how nice I am,” a phrase that rushed out of Phife’s gruff voice with his inimitable friendly swagger. The line became a sort of calling card: “I never let a statue tell me how nice I am,” Phife declared on 1993’s “Award Tour,” a sly dig at unbestowed Grammys. A year later DJ Premier chopped Phife’s “funky introduction” into the hook for “ALONGWAYTOGO,” the de-facto opener of Gang Starr’s 1994 classic Hard to Earn.
A funky introduction is the only proper kind when eulogizing Phife Dawg, née Malik Taylor, the surly and hilarious soul of A Tribe Called Quest and one of the more criminally underrated MCs to ever grab a microphone. Phife died Tuesday at the age of 45, when he finally lost his long battle with complications from diabetes.