Words by:

Tuesday 22 March marked the day hip-hop lost one of its most valuable MCs. Malik Isaac Taylor – known to his fans as Phife Dawg, one of the four original members of the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest – passed away.

Phife formed the group in the late eighties with childhood friend Q-Tip, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White – who left the group after their first album but continued to support them in spirit. It wasn’t until their second critically-acclaimed album Low End Theory in 1991 that people began to take the group seriously, not only for Q–Tip’s jazzy, laid-back production but also for Phife’s undeniable skills on the mic.

Although their debut received positive reviews, the group were slightly frustrated by the response they were receiving from fellow rappers for being a central part of Natives Tongue, a movement heavily influenced by the Zulu Nation. Grounded in afrocentricity, positivity and unity Zulu Nation offered an alternative to gangster rap whist laying the groundwork for what is now known as conscious hip-hop. Whereas most rap at the time was macho-driven, Phife showed that an MC could be aggressive in rhyme style whilst promoting a positive lifestyle. While many rappers were reporting about the media’s ignorance of inner-city life, others were exploiting it for their own good and Phife, the self-proclaimed ‘five foot assassin’ was having none of it. He didn’t boast about cars, money and material possessions, instead he bragged about his lyrical skills, his passion for crushing rival MCs and his inimitable, untouchable style.

Phife and the other members of A Tribe Called Quest were bringing fun to hip-hop. They provided hypnotic, relaxed, sample-driven soundscapes that made it impossible for anybody to resist head-nodding while Phife’s witty one-liners (“Drink a lot of soda, so they call me Dr. Pepper”) made it hard not to crack a smile. Phife possessed a trait that can’t be taught: nobody else sounded like him. Others tried but they were too preachy in their message, many attempted to mimic his bravado without the skills to back it up. Phife was a one of a kind MC who always made sure he never forgot his partner in rhyme Q-Tip. The two would effortlessly trade bars like a doubles tennis team, embarrassing the competition by smoothly finishing each other’s lines and dropping perfectly timed adlibs to emphasise what the other had said to the fullest.

In 1993 the group continued their upwards trajectory with Midnight Marauders. The album pushed boundaries even further with sharper subject matter, unusual samples and shorter songs reflecting a confidence in the madness that was once considered too experimental by fans and critics alike. Nevertheless, despite the shiny facade there was trouble bubbling beneath the surface. Conflicts with the label and tensions between Phife and Q-Tip were growing. It was around this time that Phife revealed he had been diagnosed with diabetes. Although he was initially diagnosed in 1990 Phife kept the news to himself for three more years until going public, of course, via has lyrics (“When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic”).

Growing frustrations with the direction of the group after two more albums saw Phife leave to embark on a solo career in 1998. Two years later he released his only solo album Ventilation: Da LP. The record received an undeserved lukewarm response but has since gained praise for its experimental direction and top-tier production from greats like Pete Rock, DJ Hi-Tek and the late, underground giant J Dilla.

Phife Dawg remains one of the best rappers to ever step up to the mic. Phife made it cool to confess celebrity crushes (“Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue”) way before Kanye West, threw shade at pop rappers long before Eminem (“Vanilla Ice platinum?/That shit’s ridiculous”) and even rapped about his favourite cartoons before Kendrick (“Phife Dawg’s my name, but on stage, call me Dynomutt”).

Phife Dawg took his rhyming skills very seriously whilst bringing wit, insight and a sense of fun to the game. His natural bravado was balanced by his clever memorable one-liners. We lost another hero this year but his spirit will live on through the music.

Rest easy, Mr Taylor.