The passing of A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg broke the hearts of hip-hop fans everywhere last week. Along with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg — whose real name was Malik Taylor — formed the seminal hip-hop group as a high schooler back in 1985. Five years later, the group released its first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and changed the genre forever. Hating A Tribe Called Quest is like hating puppies.
Of the innumerable artists who have been touched by Phife Dawg's work, RC Williams had the special privilege of being able to perform with the late rapper at the Palladium back in 2012. As the musical director for Erykah Badu, Williams had performed on bills with Phife Dawg before and is also good friends with his DJ.
“I had been around him at shows,” Williams says. “But that was the first time I really met him. He was so down to earth. We had a legend here, but he was so humble. He really enjoyed the band. It was just a great experience, no pressure or anything.”
Williams is an accomplished musician himself who's received multiple Grammy nominations for writing and producing. A member of Badu’s electronic production group, the Cannabinoids, he also spearheads his own group, RC & the Gritz, which has had one of the best jam sessions in Dallas every Wednesday at The Prophet Bar for over a decade.
Long before he'd ever met Phife Dawg, A Tribe Called Quest's music had a major impact on Williams. When A Tribe Called Quest dropped their first album in 1990, Williams was studying jazz at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“They changed the game,” Williams says. The group's sound was groundbreaking with its altruistic lyrics, prodigal sampling and incorporation of elements of jazz. “They started a whole new sound. A lot of groups based their sound off of Tribe. For me to hear beats made out of jazz songs, it changed my life. They took that jazz influence and started another influence.”
Jazz may be America’s music and brilliant artists like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington made some of the greatest recordings of all time. But it has been tragically under-appreciated in the country of its birth for decades. Through hip-hop, A Tribe Called Quest actually introduced millions of people to jazz. But they changed everything for a young jazz pianist like Williams. “It caught my ear right off the bat,” he says.
“I’m a ‘90s kid,” Williams continues. “That’s my favorite era of music.” He remembers the music of A Tribe Called Quest spreading across Dallas. “It was huge. You heard a group using jazz beats and incorporating different genres of music to make a song. It was mind blowing. I’m a jazz musician. It was an awakening when I heard these bass lines from songs I knew and they were actually rapping over it.”
Williams was also taken by the feel-good mood of the music: “Phife always used to rap about different heroes in his music like Jordan and Bo Jackson. Their music just touched everybody, no matter who you were. Tribe will go down as one of the greatest ever. They touched every race. Everybody listened to Tribe. It just made everybody feel good and want to interact.”
The opportunity for Williams to join his hero on onstage came in September 2012, when Phife Dawg was headlining the Arts Beats & Lyrics tour. One of the founders of the tour contacted Williams and asked if RC & the Gritz were interested in performing as Phife Dawg’s band for the Dallas show at Palladium. Needless to say, the band enthusiastically agreed. They met with the hip-hop pioneer on September 30, rehearsed with him that day and performed with him the same night.
Like the music of A Tribe Called Quest, the show had an overwhelming positive vibe. Phife Dawg struggled with diabetes for the majority of his life and even underwent a kidney transplant in 2008, but Williams remembers a man in high spirits who gave a high-energy performance.
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“I didn’t get any sense of him feeling bad,” Williams says. “It’s really unfortunate that we had to lose a great artist like this.”
RC & the Gritz have regular tribute shows. Last month, they did a tribute for Earth, Wind, & Fire after the passing of the group’s founder, Maurice Smith. With eight core members, RC & the Gritz doubled in size for the performance with several horn players and vocalists. Now they are preparing to have a jam session dedicated to A Tribe Called Quest tonight, featuring an entire set of songs from the group who changed hip-hop forever.
Topic and KoolQuise have already been confirmed as MCs and others are expected to perform. Over the years, Badu, Snoop Dogg, Bilal, Mos Def, Snarky Puppy, Talib Kweli and countless other artists have made surprise appearances.
“You never know who is going to show up on Wednesday,” Williams says. “It’s going to be a wide range of MCs from the city who really want to express how they grew up with A Tribe Called Quest and what that meant to them.”