Phife Dawg was not supposed to come to my class. I was teaching "The Art and Culture of the DJ," but Phife, a member of one of the all-time great hip-hop groups, A Tribe Called Quest, was an emcee. Despite no obvious connections to Chapel Hill, though, Phife was a die-hard Carolina basketball fan, with a whole room in his house devoted to Tar Heel memorabilia. When he heard that his friend and manager, DJ Rasta Root, was to visit UNC, he wanted to tag along. I couldn't imagine a more welcome uninvited guest.
The day Phife and Roots visited was the most exhilarating class session I have ever experienced.
Word had gotten out, so the class doubled in size. Local DJs showed up. B-boys sat on the floor. Academics from nearby universities visited. An entire hip-hop crew rolled in. We opened up the mics and decks, and the class turned into a community jam.
When Phife took the microphone, I figured he'd just say hello. When Roots started playing some Tribe tracks, though, Phife couldn't help himself. Everyone crowded around. Students rhymed along with him, shouting out the hooks with glee. I was taken aback; the students were barely older than the songs. But that's the power of Tribe—the group's music serves as a soundtrack for multiple generations.
This was 2013, and Phife and Roots returned a year later. Now in a bigger room, the class became an indoor block party. We had food. People brought their kids. A visiting dance crew from Houston performed. An eager freshman, Atticus Reynolds, swore he could play every Tribe instrumental, so he showed up with a drum kit, though he wasn't enrolled in the class. Phife seemed skeptical until the kid flawlessly played "Find a Way." Then he joined in. For Atticus, and for so many others, these class sessions were the experiences of a lifetime.
Phife's visits weren't limited to the classroom. I took him to the Carolina Basketball Museum and to his first game in the Dean Dome. He met Chancellor Carol Folt and Rameses, the team mascot. He loved every second of his time here.
He was also sick. A diabetic with a borrowed kidney, he had to schedule dialysis treatments during his stay. We had talked about a third trip in 2015, but he wasn't up for it. I had hoped for a long series of annual appearances, and I wanted to help him fulfill his wish of meeting Roy Williams. But Phife is gone now. I am deeply grateful for every moment that he shared with me, my students, and all the other uninvited guests.