When Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest passed away, joining hip-hop pioneers Biggie Smalls and Adam "MCA" Yauch in the sky, my Twitter timeline lit up.
I’ve been reflecting on the impact Phife’s life has left on my communications career.
People that grew up listening to hip hop in the 1990s — like I did as a teenager in Texas — found in the philosophical rhymes and staccato delivery a message about the inequity of life and the struggle to overcome reprehension. What originated on the streets of Queens was not confined to a neighborhood. A Tribe Called Quest took the best parts of communication and applied it to their raps.
It wasn’t just Tribe.
Hip hop in the 90s defined a new way of communicating, finding transcendence over a beat.
Rap was the medium for sending a message of class struggle, discrimination and justice out of the inner city and into the bedrooms of suburban youth. Kids were drawn into well packaged and delivered songs. Biggie and the Wu-Tang Clan knew the power of their message would carry their rhythms farther than a hook or bassline.
Rappers tossed off the conventions of sanitized pop for a message delivered in contemporary language. What Tipper Gore and my parents found vulgar was the way people spoke on the streets of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The immediacy carried the message by providing authenticity and a powerful emotional connection with the audience.
When Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan spoke about the struggles of his youth — jail at 15 for selling drugs for food — it showed kids who exactly they were “fighting” in the “War on Drugs.”
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacin', going up state's my destination
Handcuffed in back of a bus, 40 of us
Life as a shorty shouldn't be so rough
-Inspectah Deck of the Wu-Tang Clan
Like Inspectah Deck, Notorious B.I.G. possessed the storyteller’s gift scene setting. Inner city life was grim in a way people on the outside struggled to understand. There were just four routes out of their situation: become an entertainer, establish a small-business trading in illicit substances, incarceration or death. Hearing these words in the prosaic world of the suburbs humanized a story that I’d only read about what Raekwon called “the crime side, the New York Times side”
But a gritty message will only carry a story so far. The hip hop impresarios of the 1990s gave people something to aspire to with a vision and strategy. Perhaps no song better lays out the realization of this vision than Notorious B.I.G’s biggest commercial success, “Juicy.“
“It was all a dream”
In those powerful five words, Notorious B.I.G. sets the stage for the realization of a life he could only dream about as a kid. He moves us through his early childhood troubles straight into the dream his life became "no heat, wondered why Christmas missed us. Birthday were the worst days, now we sip champagne when we're thirsty."
A story does not need complex words to be powerful.
Communicators today would do well to reflect on the power of the message delivered by the hip hop pioneers.
These lyrists and poets gave the world impactful messages that resonate stronger today than when they dropped 25 years ago. Find the connection to the audience with authenticity and the resonance will follow.
Sit back relax and let yourself go
Don't sweat what you heard, but act like you know
-Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest
Eric Hazard is a vice president at Cognito where he helps financial companies tell interesting stories to the world. When he’s not at the office he enjoys hiking in New York’s Catskill mountains and amusing gifs of panda bears. Follow along on Twitter.
Photo: Boombox via Shutterstock