At the premiere of Beats, Rhymes & Life, the 2011 documentary about seminal rap group A Tribe Called Quest, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor addressed the crowd after the film ended. He was the only group member in attendance. His best friend and musical brother Q-Tip didn’t support the film or help to promote it.
Phife began to speak and then got choked up and had to take a minute to compose himself. And then, he said: “Q-Tip has no idea how many people love him. I just wish he was here to witness how much love you guys showed."
On Tuesday, March 22, after Phife’s death was announced, the hip-hop community found themselves feeling the same way about Phife—hoping that he left this world knowing how much he was loved.
Born November 20th, 1970 in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York, (hometown of 50 Cent and Nicki Minaj, among others), Phife met his future band mate Q-Tip when they were little more than toddlers attending the same schools.
Raised in a strict religious household, the allure of hip-hop proved so influential that Phife accepted any kind of punishment and continued to hone his rap talents, ignoring his family’s displeasure.
At just 19 years old, Phife contributed to four songs on ATCQ’s landmark debut album, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. While he initially planned to then start his own separate group, Phife officially joined ATCQ for their classic sophomore album The Low End Theory, cementing the group’s place in hip-hop history.
Phife Dawg’s impact on hip-hop culture can’t be overstated. In the early ‘90s, he was unafraid to deviate from the hardcore boom-bap approach to hip-hop that had been the genre’s go-to approach since the 80s. Phife was both self-deprecating and humble, rapping about everything from his height to his struggle with diabetes. Musically, Phife and ATCQ’s use of jazz and experimental musicianship encouraged other artists to take more risks and work outside their comfort zone. Before DJ Premiere made Nas’ Illmatic one of the best rap albums of all time, ATCQ brought jazz and blues infused production to hip-hop.
He was the king of what Questlove calls “rewind lines”, those quips that make people stop and rewind to take another listen to an amazing lyric. Throughout social media, it’s no coincidence that nearly all of the reactions to the news of Phife’s death included some of his classic lyrics.
Though his health had been challenging in recent years, Phife showed no signs of slowing down. At the time of his death, he was working on his second solo album and promoting the 25th anniversary of ATCQ’s debut album.
Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor passed away at the age of 45. The official statement from his family listed complications from diabetes as the cause of death.
For the last several years, Phife spoke often about Fight For Life, his nonprofit charity foundation devoted to educating people on diabetes prevention and treatment.
In October 2013, he gave an interview to DiabetesForecast.org about his health condition. At the time, he was going through dialysis three times a week.
“I just go through it and do what I have to do,” said Phife. “But I’m going to live. Believe that.”
While Phife’s earthly Quest has ended, his contributions to hip-hop are forever.
(Photo: Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic)