Marrying rap music and hip-hop culture to sports and pop culture at-large doesn’t seem like a big deal now. It’s expected. It’s considered passé in certain ways. But when it was still new, one man did it effortlessly through his rhymes. That man, Phife Dawg (real name Malik Taylor) of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest, passed away this Tuesday morning at the age of 45.
In a statement sent to Billboard magazine, Phife’s family revealed that his death was the result of “complications resulting from diabetes.” Phife’s struggles with type 1 diabetes were well chronicled and eventually forced to him to undergo a kidney transplant in 2008.
Born Nov. 20, 1970, Phife hailed from Jamaica, Queens and met Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed at the age of 2. They went to school and played Little League baseball together. Phife’s down-to-earth rhymes balanced the abstract, spacey vibe that Q-Tip provided. The Native Tongues-affiliated group (which also included Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi) released five albums between 1990 and 1998: “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” “The Low End Theory,” “Midnight Marauders,” “Beats, Rhymes and Life” and “The Love Movement.”
At least three albums in the group’s catalog are regarded as some of the best popular music ever recorded and constantly make lists of best rap albums.
Within those albums, which helped spawn the so-called “jazz rap” subgenre, Phife’s rhymes referencing sports teams such as the New York Mets, the New York Yankees, the New York Knicks and athletes such as Karl Malone, Scott Skiles, Vinny Testaverde, Mario Lemieux, Joe Namath and Magic Johnson seemed to fuse perfectly with a decade that saw rappers wanting to be athletes and athletes (like Shaquille O’Neal) fancying themselves rappers. Phife wound up recording a song with O’Neal and former New York Giants running back Rodney Hampton.
Phife continued to occasionally record music post-Tribe. He released “Ventilation: Da LP” in 2000 and was recently gearing up to release a new solo album later this year titled “Muttymorphosis.” But Phife’s second love, sports, dominated a huge chunk of his post-Tribe life.
He blogged about sports, used phone apps such as Periscope to talk with the public about sports, appeared on several ESPN programs as a guest (including Scott Van Pelt’s late night show) and became a basketball recruit for South Kent School, a prep school in Connecticut.
While infighting eventually led to the group’s demise, the group got back together for some shows. The Michael Rapaport-directed documentary “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” detailed that journey. Tribe’s last two performances as a group involved opening for Kanye West at the Barclays Center during the latter’s “Yeezus” tour in 2013 and performing their classic song “Can I Kick It?” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in 2015.
People within and outside of the rap community were quick to offer condolences and speak on what Phife and A Tribe Called Quest meant to them.
On the photo app Instagram, Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson talked about the first time he heard the Tribe song “Buggin’ Out.” “[T]he sign of a true classic is when a life memory is burnt in your head because of the first time you hear a song,” he said. On the same app, Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit discussed how his first group, Little Brother, descended from the musical tree of A Tribe Called Quest.
“You gotta understand the identity that Tribe gave to a 15-year-old Black kid like me, who felt like other artists/groups in 1990, although great, just didn’t fit my persona,” said Douthit. “Tribe did. Their sound, message—especially the girl records—and movement was perfect for a kid like me.”