Phife Dawg, the Queens rapper and co-founder of a Tribe Called Quest, has died, as Rolling Stone reports. No cause of death has been revealed yet, but Phife spent years battling a severe case of diabetes, and he had a kidney transplant in 2008. He was only 45.
Phife was born Malik Taylor in Queens, and he met Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, the other principal members of a Tribe Called Quest, when the three of them were in high school. Phife was 19 when Tribe released “Description Of A Fool,” their first single. Tribe were part of the beloved Native Tongues crew and part of an overall movement that changed rap in the late ’80s, making room for a looser, goofier side of rap, one that was simultaneously more fun and introspective. They used explicit jazz influences more than almost any rap group that preceded them, but they were also capable of putting together an electric banger like 1992’s “Scenario (Remix).”
Phife was the first rapper on that remix, and his punchy playfulness was crucial to the group. Especially in the early years, Q-Tip’s buttery smoothness and boundless confidence tended to soak up much of the attention around the group, but without a foil like Phife, none of it would’ve resonated the same way. And as the group developed, Phife got better and better as a rapper. By the time Tribe released 1993’s Midnight Marauders — to my mind, their best album — the two were equals, and Phife’s self-deprecating swagger — “height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck” — was maybe the most immediately engaging thing about the group. And the chemistry between the three of them was always evident in the group’s records, videos, and especially their consistently stunning live shows.
A Tribe Called Quest had arguably the greatest run of any ’90s rap group, but by the time the decade wound down, they seemed relatively uninspired. They were having record-label issues, and the love/hate relationship between Tip and Phife was driving them apart. After releasing 1998’s attempted-crossover move The Love Movement — an album that seemed disappointing at the time but that now feels deeply underrated — the group broke up.
While Q-Tip went onto solo stardom, Phife Dawg’s solo career never quite took off. He released Ventilation: Da LP, his only solo album, in 2000, working with producers like J Dilla, Pete Rock, and Hi-Tek. On first single “Flawless,” he bashed Q-Tip without saying his name. He was reportedly working on another album, but perhaps because of his health struggles, he never got around to releasing it.
A Tribe Called Quest first reunited in 2004, headlining the Rock The Bells festival. After that, they came together intermittently for tours or one-off performances. In Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary Beats Rhymes & Life, we saw just how difficult it was for Q-Tip and Phife to get on the same page every time, but also how the love between them ultimately trumped the resentment. (Q-Tip said in the movie that one of his main reasons to go on Tribe reunion tours was to help Phife pay for his medical treatments.) Just a few months ago, Tribe played The Tonight Show together and absolutely ripped it.
UPDATE: Here’s the official statement from Phife’s family:
“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.
UPDATE 2: And here’s an official statement from A Tribe Called Quest:
Our hearts are heavy. We are devastated. This is something we weren’t prepared for although we all know that life is fleeting. It was no secret about his health and his fight. But the fight for his joy and happiness gave him everything he needed. The fight to keep his family happy, his soul happy and those around him happy, gave him complete and unadulterated joy… until he heeded his fathers call.
We love his family his mother, his father, his son, his wife, his nieces, his family here in New York, Atlanta, California and Trinidad.
Thank you for the outpouring of prayers and support from the fans, fellow artists, music outlets, blogs, radio stations, DJ’s, social media and the music community at large. This too is part of his joy and means a lot to him. His family is overwhelmed by the support, well wishes and are thankful. His music and what he’s contributed is seismic and hard to measure. He’s affected us as much as he’s affected all of you. We’re inspired by his daily joy and courage. He wasn’t in pain. He was happy.
We take comfort in knowing he will be beside his grandmother.
And via Noisey, here’s Kendrick Lamar paying tribute on stage in Sydney.
Below, watch some videos of Tribe and Phife at work.