by Neil Drumming
Phife cried in front of, like, 300 people. It was a little awkward. You know Phife: "Phife D-Dawg is first up to bat," "the five-foot assassin," the "funky diabetic," the cocky chipmunk who murdered "Butter" and "Buggin' Out" on Low End Theory. You know: Q-Tip's partner.
It was Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, during the Q&A that followed a screening of the documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. Director Michael Rapaport (yep, Zebrahead Michael Rapaport) called Phife to the stage to talk about the film we'd all just seen. The forty-something rapper, tiny as always, more bloated than you remember, bopped to the mike—or limped, I'm not sure—and thanked Rapaport for an honest, surprisingly revealing portrayal of his legacy. He thanked the audience. He thanked his wife, sweetly and rightly so for reasons I won't give away here. He dutifully answered questions. Asked to comment on the state of hip-hop today, Phife did as most old-schoolers do: he lamented. And at some point, quite unexpectedly, he burst into tears.
Maybe it was the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the audience to the film. Maybe it was the swell of emotion from having seen much of his life—his battle with diabetes, his battles with his band mates—laid bare on the big screen. Maybe it was simply because, as he said, he wished the other three members of A Tribe Called Quest would have been there that night to experience this with him. (Yes, there are four members of ATCQ, and sometimes "Y.") Whatever the reason, dude was overcome, and he buried his head on the podium and let it out—right there in front of us.