Written by Ryan Lyons
It’s not every day that we lose someone so vital to our culture, but when it happens, it hits hard. Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor died at 45 this past Tuesday due to complications, a 20 year long battle with diabetes. As a member of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife helped to integrate jazz, consciousness, and honesty within the art form of rap. I’ve been listening to A Tribe Called Quest’s discography for the past few days and reflecting on how its shaped music culture and my own life.
Tip and Phife developed a conversational flow in their music that can be enjoyed in so many arenas whether it'd be kicking it a friends house, at a party, or driving in the car. Much of the current musical landscape including figures like Pharrell Williams and The Roots can be linked back to Tribe. In many Pharrell interviews he states that his music wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for A Tribe Called Quest.
"With the loss of Phife not only did Hip Hop lose a culture shifter and important figure in our community/history. We also lost a bit of its unabashed honesty too." - Ryan Lyons
On a personal level, Phife was one of the first rappers I felt I could relate to. A Tribe Called Quest was in the background of the early stages of my life. I overheard it blasting out of cars, and saw the throwback videos on MTV Jams. When I was becoming a teenager, I went back to digest all those lyrics I heard as a kid. In my Hip Hop family tree, he became my uncle who openly told me about his sexcapades, battles with health, and insecurities. Through his 8 Million Stories he was able to make a lasting impression on me as a young man. His breakout album was on the Tribe’s Low End Theory where he dropped many thought provoking verses like on "Butter", where he questioned black self love spitting, "You looked in the mirror, didn't know what to do/ Yesterday your eyes were brown, but today they are blue." It was verses like those that helped me identify with my blackness and confront myself.
It’s important to know that Phife wasn’t just a dope emcee. He was influential on many levels, from his witty conversational rhyme pattern, range of topics, to the jersey’s and baseball caps that he used to wear. He introduced his lifestyle through his raps and became an advocate for so much more through hip hop.
His most notable role of influence aside from rap would have to be his bout with Diabetes. Through his rhymes he reflected on his disease which developed from his affinity for sweet snacks. Although Phife publicly struggled with his health, he kept going, and later became an advocate for healthy living in the Hip Hop community. In numerous interviews he talked about his process with taking insulin and needing to eat healthier. Most notably in 2014 on “Dear Dilla” Phife penned a song to the deceased producer J Dilla, reflecting on a dream he had about him and and Dilla being in the hospital together. He recognized similar layers of himself in J Dilla. Both musicians are a testament to the true artistry that can be involved with Hip Hop culture, even through their sickness.
On Instagram, Queens rapper and World’s Fair general Remy Banks lamented, “Phife helped pave the way for artists like myself, the whole World’s Fair for that matter. Queens lost a legend today. Rest in power Phife Dawg.”
With the loss of Phife, not only did Hip Hop lose a culture shifter and important figure in our community/history. We also lost a bit of it’s unabashed honesty too.