Q-Tip and Phife Dawg onstage at Penn’s Annenberg Center | still from video
Watch Phife Dawg rock a Ricky Watters jersey onstage at Penn’s Annenberg Center with A Tribe Called Quest
The thing about hip-hop icons A Tribe Called Quest — they were purists all the way, coming up during the three-MCs-and-a-DJ era, and that’s how they always brought their show to the stage. Even when their sound evolved beyond its sampledelic beginnings, even when original arrangements and instrumentation became part of their records, the live show always remained true to the classic hip-hop form.
Certainly, in nightclub settings, this rocked the freaking house; as the venues got bigger, though, results were more mixed. As much as the 90s were a golden era of hip-hop, and Tribe was very much a band responsible for breaking down the barriers of genre to reach bigger audiences, mainstream promoters and show producers were still very much confused by it as a live art, clearly didn’t know what the heck what to do with it in big rooms — which is why my two encounters with the band in its heyday were very mixed.
Seeing them open for the Beastie Boys at the First Union Center in 1998, their mix pumped through the massive and reverberant arena without much in the way of sonic reinforcement; their performance was live as hell, but from the stands it sounded like Tribe was lost in a cavern. Playing the Vet for Temple’s football homecoming that fall, they only got a couple songs in before the performance got called.
However, this video I came across today — as I reflect on the anniversary of Malik Isaac “Phife Dawg” Taylor’s passing — sits more comfortably on rock-the-house side of things. It was April 18th, 1997, and the band was playing the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a pretty spacious room, and you can hear the booming mix trying to find its proper space within the walls. Q-Tip mentions mic problems throughout the set, and even freestyles about the topic at one point. But once DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad finds his sonic groove — I’d put this at about the 8 minute and 20 second mark, a remarkable transition from “Buggin’ Out” into “Oh My God” — it’s truly OMG amazing.
Phife’s delivery on “Buggin'” is unreal, and throughout this show he shows what a charismatic MC he truly was; more than just Tip’s hype man, Phife was really his other half, balancing his ultra-cool persona with a dose of down-to-earth humanity, rocking the party, doing the back-to-back rock and roll jam-out thing. As we noted while remembering him last year, Phife was the sports fan of the Tribe crew, and at this show he rocks an Eagles cap and jersey; number 32, running back Ricky Waters, who had been with the Birds for two years at that point, and was just about to skip town to join the Seattle Seahawks. (Later in the show, presumably after working up a sweat, Phife tosses the Jersey to the side to reveal a FSU basketball Jersey underneath — which, they only got as far as the NIT finals that year, and lost to Michigan, but it was his under-undershit, and we can’t really expect Phife to rep Philly sports on every layer of his clothing.)
The spacious room is later used to full effect when Tip eulogizes Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, who had both been killed in shootings in recent months, and asks a moment of silence of the turnt up (though nobody called it that back then) crowd; there is, by God, an actual moment of breathless silence, broken only by one screaming heckler, and then Ali’s cuts into “Stressed Out” from the previous year’s Beats, Rhymes and Life. (Being their most recent album, the setlist was particularly heavy on it — not that we’re complaining.)
As the hour-long set nears its close — and Consequence busts onstage for the collaborative rarity “Rock n’ Roll” — a cypher ensues, and Phife once again shouts out Philly: “Phife Dawg on the mic and I ain’t no faker / represent for the Pennsylvania Quakers.” You can hear that at the 54:47 mark in the video below, you can hear Tip’s riff on “Other Side of the Game” by Erykah Badu at 1:01:05…and really, you should just hear the entire thing. Watch it and check out the setlist below.
Keep It Moving
Oh My God
Steve Biko (Stir It Up)
Get A Hold
[Broken Microphone Freestyle]
Everything Is Fair
[RIP Tupac and Biggie, moment of silence]
Can I Kick It
Check the Rhime
Rock n’ Roll [w/ Consequence]