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A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg Dead at 45

Malik Taylor’s distinct voice and nimble flow helped anchor landmark hip-hop albums.

Malik Taylor's distinct voice and nimble flow helped anchor landmark hip-hop albums.

Malik Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg whose nimble, clever rhymes helped launch A Tribe Called Quest to both commercial and critical success, died Wednesday at the age of 45. Rolling Stone has confirmed the rapper’s death, though an official statement has yet to be released.

While the cause of death has yet to be announced, Taylor had had health issues for years, undergoing a kidney transplant in 2008 to deal with a longtime battle with Type 1 diabetes.

“It’s really a sickness,” Taylor said in Beats, Rhymes & Life, Michael Rapaport’s candid 2011 documentary on the group. “Like straight-up drugs. I’m just addicted to sugar.”

Taylor appeared on all five of the group’s studio albums, most notably 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders, acting as the high-pitched, gruff vocal counterpoint to Q-Tip’s smooth, mellow flow. The group broke up and reunited multiple times since the release of their last album, 1998’s the Love Movement. As documented in Beats, Rhymes & Life, the group would sporadically reunite for live shows, but stopped short at recording new material.

Health problems deterred Taylor from recording much solo material, though the rapper released his only solo album Ventilation: Da LP in 2000. Speaking to Rolling Stone last November, Taylor was tentatively optimistic about both his health and future recording plans.  

“I am in a good spot, but I have my good days and I have my bad days,” he said at the time. “But I’m more or less in a good spot, so I can’t really complain.” In the same interview, Taylor revealed plans to release the J Dilla-produced “Nutshell,” the first single off a planned EP titled Give Thanks. The rapper released a video preview of the song, though a full version has yet to be released. Prior to his death, Taylor had also been at work on Muttymorphosis, his new LP that would have functioned as “basically my life story” that he hoped to have released later this year.

Taylor was born November 20th, 1970 in the Jamaica area of Queens, NY. Living in the same area as Q-Tip, he would meet his future group mate at the age of 2, with the duo attending the same school and playing little league baseball together. “We were best friends,” Q-Tip said in Beats, Rhymes & Life.

As recounted in the film, the rapper would visit his grandmother, a strict Seventh-day Adventist, on weekends and sneak in episodes of Soul Train for his early musical education. “When it came to block parties and hip-hop, once I saw them grab the mics and getting busy, I risked my livelihood getting kicked out of the house and everything just to be a part of it,” Taylor said in the film.

At the age of 19, Taylor contributed verses to four songs on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, including an iconic verse on the group’s third single, “Can I Kick It?” Despite the song’s enduring appeal, Taylor himself was not happy with his contribution. “It’s hard for me to get into ‘Can I Kick It?’ … for the simple fact that I hated my voice back then,” he told Rolling Stone. “It was high-pitched and [speaks in high-pitched voice] ‘Mr. Dinkins’ and I couldn’t stand it. It’s hard to listen to that album because of my voice. It’s almost like, thank God I was only on four records.”

Taylor and fellow Tribe member Jarobi had planned to start their own group, but the two would join Q-Tip and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad officially on 1991’s Low End Theory. Buoyed by exuberant songs like “Buggin’ Out,” “Check the Rhime” and “Scenario,” Low End Theory‘s landmark fusion of hip-hop and jazz remains a benchmark for the genre, influencing countless rappers and producers and providing the blueprint for a strain of rap as indebted to Grover Washington, Jr. and Ron Carter as James Brown. “He brought the street to A Tribe Called Quest,” said the group’s former manager Chris Lighty in Beats, Rhymes & Life. “If Q-Tip was esoteric and on Pluto, Phife would bring them back to the moon so that it was in the realm of human understanding.”

The album would eventually earn a spot on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, with hip-hop fans flocking to the vocal interplay between Tip and Phife. “I like the fact that we bounce off of each other like yin and yang, nice and smooth, you know?” Phife told Rolling Stone last year.

Midnight Marauders would appear two years later, equalling its predecessor in lyrical dexterity and organic, layered production. The album would spawn hits like “Award Tour” and “Electric Relaxation” and is often ranked as one of the best hip-hop albums of all-time.

Taylor moved to Atlanta from New York following the release of Marauders, a shift he claimed exacerbated the infighting that had been increasing in the group. Two more albums would follow — 1996’s Dilla-co-produced Beats, Rhymes & Life and 1998’s The Love Movement — though neither achieved the same success as previous efforts.

Following the group’s dissolution, Taylor continued to battle diabetes, reuniting with the group for live shows, in part, to help defray medical costs. “Even though I knew I had [diabetes], I was in denial,” Taylor said in the documentary. “I had to have my sugar. You have to accept it. If you don’t accept it, it’s going to kick your ass.”

Last November, the group reissued People’s Instinctive as the first of a massive reissue campaign. A Tribe Called Quest’s Tonight Show performance of “Can I Kick It?” — their first televised performance in 15 years — would end up being the group’s last.