I grew up in central Etobicoke, basically the whitest place in Toronto (for those not familiar, I basically grew up in the heart of Ford Nation, before it was Ford Nation). I had grown up through middle school resistant to hip hop, not because I disliked it but rather what it stood for to me. Growing up in predominantly white suburbia surrounded by upper-middle and upper class peers who, all to rebel against their white conservative parents, listened to hip hop put me in a weird position as a kid more interesting in rebelling against my own peers. I was bullied a lot and the white kids at school wearing do-rags (I kid you not) listening to top 40 gangster rap were exactly what I wanted to avoid. So I did what any other nerdy skateboard kids do, and listened to punk and metal almost exclusively.
This changed for me when I listened to A Tribe Called Quest for the first time. It was early internet and I don’t even remember how I first listened to them, it wasn’t a kid at school, Tribe was too “fruity” for these guys who just wanted to listen to music that glorified wealth (yet never acknowledging the origins of this glorification was from a starting point of poverty…something my peers will never experience because of who their parents are). It was quite possibly Limewire or Kazzaa or something like that, all I know is that the first time I heard Phife Dawg come in on Check the Rhime, I realized I was wrong about an entire genre.
There was something so mind blowing about Phife coming in right away with “me the five footer, I kicks the mad style so step off the frankfurter”, it wasn’t the self-deprecation but rather the acknowledgement of who he is. Phife Dawg was the Funky Diabetic, the Five Foot Assassin, and as young kid who felt like I couldn’t do anything without being made fun of this was a revelation. I wasn’t a happy kid really, but damn if Phife didn’t make me optimistic for the future. Seeing and hearing Phife take ownership of who he is, and then use that as just a building block for his incredible skills as a MC was inspiring and I know I’m not alone.
I think I would have fallen in love with hip hop no matter what, eventually. But that fateful day at my computer and hearing Phife’s voice for the first time locked in years of enjoyment for me, and opened my eyes.