Malik Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, has died at 45. The rapper’s grounded vignettes and snappy delivery made the perfect counterpoint to A Tribe Called Quest colleague Q-Tip’s silky-smooth weirdness. The group’s five albums between their 1990 debut and 1998 breakup helped secure hip-hop’s place in the pantheon of American art.
The Taylor family confirmed Wednesday that he died from complications related to his diabetes. Taylor had battled the disease for years, receiving a kidney transplant from his wife Deisha Head Taylor in 2008. The group reunited briefly afterward, performing a handful of shows on the summer festival circuit for a few years before dismantling again.
They never recorded another album, and fans have puzzled over the breakup of such a beloved crew almost as much as they’ve drawn upon the music the four made together for joy, insight, and strength.
Phife and Tip met at age 2 in Queens, New York, and became intensely close for years. The Taylor family was devout, and tapping into the budding hip-hop scene around Phife meant risking his parents’ wrath by sneaking out to parties and shows. Q-Tip says it was Phife who first encouraged him to start rhyming when they were about nine years old.
They discovered they each had talent for the craft, and after Phife’s beatboxing pal Jarobi and Tip’s schoolmate Ali Shaheed Muhammad all came together, gradually Tribe was born. On top of their talent for making music, the four caught some serious luck.
Another school friend, Mike G from the Jungle Brothers, turned out to have one of hip-hop’s originators in his family tree. Mike G’s uncle DJ Red Alert was one of the best connections a budding rap group could hope to have in late-80s New York, and offered a conduit for their drive and ability to reach beyond the school lunchrooms and city parks where they’d been honing their skills.
Tribe put together a demo for Geffen Records, but the high-powered corporate label declined to pick them up — perhaps luckily, for the four men and for rap as a culture.
The quartet signed instead to Jive, then an independent label which had already launched Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff into prominence and nurtured Too Short from his origins making custom tapes for street hustlers in Oakland into a nationwide star.
Success soon followed. The group’s five records with Jive all went gold, and the middle three — The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders, and Beats, Rhymes, & Life — all went platinum.
Along with The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and numerous other artists in the loose Native Tongues collective, Tribe established a lane within hip-hop that mixed party vibes and social interests in new ways. Muhammad’s tightly-pinned jazz samples, Tip’s abstract observations of city life, and Phife’s nimble mix of comic relief and street scenes straddled a space between the confrontational tenor of NWA’s gangster rap and Public Enemy’s overtly revolutionary critique.
Rapper/producer Mac Miller put together a moving tribute mix in honor of Phife Dawg.
The infectious quality of their music ensured the group would endure among hip-hop fans even after their dissolution. You can hear their influence in largely forgotten New York contemporaries, like Bush Babees and Urban Thermodynamics (which birthed Mos Def’s career), and in enduring superstars and friends, like The Roots, Busta Rhymes, and Pharell Williams. The group passed its early good fortune along, helping turn the late great J Dilla from a local Detroit star into a national force who reshaped the entire genre of music.
Tribe was explicitly aware of its role in bridging black art forms. One of Tip’s most famous verses references conversations with his father about how hip-hop shared some DNA strands with the bebop artists who revolutionized jazz in the mid-20th century. Phife’s higher-energy verses coined lasting lyrical currency (“Microphone check 1–2, what is this?”).
The Native Tongues movement and so-called “conscious rap” in general sometimes gets used as a cudgel to beat up on commercial modern rap that seems comparatively shallow to some observers. But the truth is they themselves balanced street sensibilities with frustration about inner-city neglect in the same way today’s very different-sounding hitmakers often do.
Phife and Tip were always tugging in different directions, even in the good times. Success strained their decades-long relationship, as each man acknowledges in the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes, & Life. Phife moved away from New York after Midnight Marauders was finished, and says in the film he fully expected the group was already done at that point. It turned out they had two more albums and dozens more enduring tracks in them.
Phife is particularly open in the film about what pushed the foursome apart. Some of it is painfully typical behind-the-music stuff. “I’m in a group with you, you’re not my dad,” Phife says in the film. “I love you [Tip]. But the whole MO to me was, it’s not A Tribe Called Quest, it’s Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest. It’s Diana Ross and The Supremes. OK so I guess Ali’s Mary Wilson and I’m Florence Ballard?”
But more than any particular conflict with Tip, the pressure and confinement of sharing most hours of most days together in buses, green rooms, and stages bred the same kind of impatience that even blood relatives can develop over time.
Through nearly a decade of touring and making music together, Taylor says in a deleted scene, he sometimes would bail on the bus and hop a flight to the next city by himself.”It was just like that sometimes. It was no disrespect or nothing. You just need that air to breathe sometimes, y’know? Ventilation,” he told director Michael Rapaport.
The group’s breakup in 1998 led the four men in disparate directions. Q-Tip’s solo musical career unfurled smoothly, and he started getting cast in the odd movie. Ali Shaheed Muhammad found new collaborators and nurtured up-and-comers on his own compilations. He now co-hosts NPR’s excellent Microphone Check hip-hop podcast, while continuing to contribute production work on a variety of projects including Kendrick Lamar’s recent untitled unmastered EP.
But Jarobi and Phife all but disappeared from the scene. Phife made one solo record in 2000, but spent most of the last 15 years of his life warring with his diabetes.
He was born with the illness. The self-described “funky diabetic” laced his lyrical catalog with references to his battle with diabetes. He called it an addiction to sugar in the 2011 documentary that plumbed the group’s influence and tensions. His medical expenses helped bring their summer festival reunion together. For all their success as young men, by his late thirties, Phife simply needed the money.
His death Wednesday sparked the hip-hop community into the special mix of grief and celebration that attends any beloved creative force’s passing. In one tweet, New York-based music critic Stereo Williams offered perhaps the best summation of what made Phife so essential to his group and their fans.
“That group changed my life, man,” Williams wrote. “And even in times when I didn’t ‘get’ Tip, I always got Phife.”
Malik Taylor’s family and friends released a statement Wednesday morning (via Complex):
The family of A Tribe Called Quest member, Phife, also known as Malik I. Taylor, has released a statement announcing that he has died, aged 45. “We regret to share the news that on Tuesday March 22nd, 2016, Malik has passed away due to complications resulting from diabetes. Malik was our loving husband, father, brother and friend. We love him dearly. How he impacted all our lives will never be forgotten. His love for music and sports was only surpassed by his love of God and family.” Dion Liverpool, his manager adds, “While I mourn the loss of my best friend and brother, I also will celebrate his incredible life and contribution to many people’s ears across the world. Even with all his success, I have never met a person as humble as he. He taught me that maintaining a positive attitude and outlook can conquer anything. Now my brother is resting in greatness. I’m honored to have crossed paths with him. Riddim Kidz 4eva.” The family asks that their privacy be respected at this difficult time.