The “Five-foot assassin with the roughneck business” Malik Isaac Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, has passed away at the age of 45. His struggles with Type 1 diabetes are well known; he was diagnosed in 1990 and even referred to himself as the “funky diabetic” on one of many landmark Tribe singles, “Oh My God.”
Throughout the five-album span of Tribe, it was regularly understood that Q-Tip was the star of the show and Phife was the sidekick. In reality, where Tip was the brains of the group, Phife was the beating heart. On the group’s first album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths to Rhythm,” Phife was basically sprinkled throughout the album, only featured on four songs. Still, he made his spots count. Here he is trading off lines with the Abstract on the eternal “Can I Kick It?”
When it comes to rhythms, Quest is your savior/Follow us for the funky behavior…
The five-footer stepped up and proved himself on that first album, ensuring his almost-even footing with Q-Tip on the next four. “The Low End Theory” earned every one of its five mics from The Source when it was released. Phife even managed to hold his own on the essentially-solo track “Butter.” On a personal note, trying to rap along with “Butter” while I was learning to drive kept me within the lines for my first couple months on the road.
After Tribe called it quits, it was Q-Tip who got the big solo push and stayed working. Phife popped up from time to time, whether it was his own solo album, “Ventilation” or guest verses. Tribe would reunite at various points between 2003 and 2012, with their last official shows coming in the form of opening slots for Kanye West’s “Yeezus” shows in New York City. Most recently, the Tribe reunited one final time for the reissue of “People’s Instinctive Travels” and performed “Can I Kick It?” on “The Tonight Show.”
Around the time of the November “Tonight Show” appearance, Rolling Stone interviewed Phife for the occasion. The interview is interesting for a variety of reasons, but especially of note is that Phife mentioned an upcoming “Give Thanks” EP followed by a full album next year, “Muttymorphosis.” What will become of these projects is anyone’s guess, but hopefully they are presented as Phife would have intended. Also in that interview, Phife bemoans the main thing that made the rap world fall in love with him: his voice.
“It’s hard to listen to [“People’s Instinctive Travels”] because of my voice. It’s almost like, thank God I was only on four records. [Laughs]”
It’s tough to read, but those words say a lot about his character. He was always scrappy and always trying to prove himself not just to the group, or the fans, or the world. He wanted to prove to himself that he belonged. I hope that he did in the end.
Check out some choice Phife videos below and listen to A Tribe Called Quest for at least the rest of the day.
Phife forever 1970-2016. 1991 in Sept I went to visit Tariq at Millersville U in the middle of PA (Lancaster). Miles Davis had just passed & I went on a binge to study his post jazz works. Went to Sound Of Market to purchase Nefertiti, In A Silent Way & Live Evil—the only non jazz purchase I made that day ironically was the most jazziest album in that collection: #TheLowEndTheory by @ATCQ. —it was raining that day so somehow the 1…2 punch of “Nefertiti”/”Fall” just had me in a trance that train trip—even though I suspected there was a possibility that Tribe could possibly have made a better album then their debut (the perfect @@@@@ mic Source rating would be on stands in a week so I was right)—but I knew I wanted to save that listening for when I got up to the campus w Riq.—so some 90mins later when I get to his dorm–we ripped that bad boy open (I can’t describe the frustration that was CD packaging in 1991, just imagine the anger that environmentalists feel when all that paper packaging in Beats headphone gets wasted—it’s like that)—the sign of a true classic is when a life memory is burnt in your head because of the first time you hear a song. —Riq & I had this moment a few times, but the look on our faces when we 1st heard “Buggin Out” was prolly Me & Tariq’s greatest “rewind selector!” moment in our friendship. (Back then every MC’s goal was to have that “rewind!!!” moment. As in to say something so incredible. Or to catch you by surprise that it makes you go “DAAAAAYUM!!!”& you listen over & over—Malik “Phife” Taylor’s verse was such a gauntlet/flag planting moment in hip hop. Every hip hop head was just…stunned HE. CAME. FOR. BLOOD & was taking NO prisoners on this album (or ever again) we just kept looking at the speaker on some disbelief old timey radio Suspense episode. & also at each other “Phife is KILLIN!”–by the time we got to “Scenario” I swear to god THAT was the moment I knew I wanted to make THIS type of music when I grew up–(yeah yeah dad I know: “go to Juilliard or Curtis to make a nice living at “real music”) but he didn’t know that Phife & his crew already wrote my destiny. I ain’t look back since. THANK YOU PHIFE!