Remembering Phife Dawg – The Legacy Of A Hip Hop Icon

Remembering Phife Dawg – The Legacy Of A Hip Hop Icon

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Hip Hop, as an art form, has always managed to bring people together, despite race, creed, or religion. That being said, coming out of Queens, New York, A Tribe Called Quest changed the face of Hip Hop to become a multicultural phenomenon. Led by childhood friends Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Izaak Taylor), and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the trio would go on to become known as one of the most innovative and intelligent Hip Hop groups of all-time.

Unfortunately, A Tribe Called Quest, much like other artists, had internal struggles, and by 1998 the ride appeared to be over. Reuniting in the mid 2000s, as late as November 13th of 2015, the group reconvened to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Celebrating the 15 year anniversary of their 1990 debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, fans had hope that perhaps A Tribe Called Quest was on the brink of a return. A pipe dream, or legitimate, tragic struck on March 22nd of 2016 when legendary Rap soldier Phife Dawg passed away at the age of 45 due to diabetes complications.

Jive Records
Jive Records

Born November 20th, 1970 from Trinidad descent, Phife Dawg was raised in Jamaican district of St. Albans, Queens by his mom, Cheryl Taylor. Growing up, Phife befriended Jonathan Davis at church, who would eventually end up taking the stage name Q-Tip. Becoming quite close, Phife and Q-Tip would launch the trendsetting political Rap group A Tribe Called Quest with classmate Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. Eager and hungry to learn the tricks of the trade, they would often sneak out to learn the local Rap scene, which would ultimately land Phife on punishment. Phife was so passionate for Hip Hop, he dropped out of school to pursue the career full-time.

Quickly making a name for themselves in school and Linden Boulevard, the street they called home, A Tribe Called Quest members still lived in the hood and their excursions showed them how competitive the Rap game was. Then, when Geffen Records helped the group make some demos on a developmental contract, but balked at a full contract, Phife thought A Tribe Called Quest’s popularity would stop at the corner of Linden; little did he know what the future had in story. Flashing back in time, it was in 1985 A Tribe Called Quest formed with Q-Tip under the tutelage of another friend, the Jungle Brothers’ Mike G and G’s uncle, DJ Red Alert, joining the collective group named Native Tongues with contemporaries De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and the aforementioned Jungle Brothers.

According to Phife, he was not originally supposed to be part of the group and he was just to have a guest spot as a jumping-off point for his own solo career. Then, Tribe signed with Jive Records, the aforementioned People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm dropped, and Phife would be a main player in the album. Literally, they became a legend overnight, thanks to his trademarked high-pitched vocal off-settings Q-Tip’s lower end; such as on tracks like “Can I Kick It.”  A bright start, the album went Gold despite only having a core audience.

Moving forward, 1991 saw the release of The Low End Theory; and Phife, only 5 foot 3 inches in stature, now called himself “The Five Foot Assassin.” Stepping up his game, he rapped about issues that impacted people as a whole from an observational standpoint with Phife’s delivery having a slightly humorous spin as opposed to the “up in arms” approach other groups of the time took. Their first Platinum selling album, The Low End Theory, was anchored by three epic singles – “Check the Rhime,” “Jazz (We’ve Got),” and “Scenario.” Highly impractical, it is considered one of the most popular and most influential Rap album ever.

Jive Records
Jive Records
Jive Records
Jive Records

Seemingly prime for more major success, A Tribe Called Quest with Phife would hit number one in R&B/Hip Hop Charts with 1993’s Platinum selling Midnight Marauders, but it was 1996’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life which saw the group rightfully attain number one status on the Billboard 200. Then, as internal battles began to flair, 1998’s The Love Movement hit, and according to the group, it was made with anything but love. Nevertheless, A Tribe Called Quest’s legacy was solidified with their candid conversational delivery as Q-Tip and Phife rapped together despite the group never making another album ever again, and splitting up following the release of The Love Movement.

During and after his time with A Tribe Called Quest, Phife had a successful solo career where he released his first and only solo album, 2000’s Ventilation: Da LP. Keeping busy, he collaborated with artists the likes of  Fu-Schnickens, Diamond D with Pete Rock, Chi-Ali with Dres, and Al’  Tariq & Trugoy while also taking part in a handful of films such as 1993’s Who’s the Man? and 1998’s The Rugrats Movie. Known for his love for sports, it came as no surprise Phife was even a player in the 2007 video game NBA 2K8. Explicit in his writing as well, Phife often made sports related references in his lyrics, ala famous words such as “Comin’ with more hits than the Braves and the Yankees” in the 1993 track “Award Tour.”

Diagnosed with diabetes when only 20 years old back in 1990, Phife’s diabetes caught up with him, and A Tribe Called Quest regrouped to help with his bills. Sadly, egos sabotaged the tour so much so that days would go without words and a pass-by probably would end physically. In 2008, Phife’s wife, Deisha Head Taylor, who had been trying to persuade Phife to reconcile with Q Tip, donated a kidney to save Phife’s life. Then, after years of struggling with his health, in which Phife admitted he was addicted to sugar, Phife and A Tribe Called Quest found out they were still in demand. Thus to the delight of fans, in 2011, the group joined the Rock the Bells Festival. Again, through 2013, Tribe took part in various festivals around the world, culminating in Kanye West’s Yeezus tour. Little did anyone know, their swan song would be that final performance late in 2015 on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.

Jive Records
Jive Records
Groove Attack Records
Groove Attack Records

Gone too soon, at the time of his death, Phife was making a comeback working on another album, MUTTYmorPHosis. An album which tells his life’s story, and an EP, titled Give Thanks, where he collaborated with 9th Wonder and Nottz. This EP was titled so, because, as someone living with diabetes, he knew he could have been worse off…a fact and disease he never shied away from, often referencing his diagnosis in his lyrics without playing the pity card. This was most evident in the popular song “Oh My God” with lyrics such as “Mr. Energetic, Who me sound pathetic?/When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”

Chronicling A Tribe Called Quest’s rise and fall, as well as Phife’s health issues, Michael Rapaport’s award-winning 2011’s Documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest vividly shows the implosion of spending too much time together recording and touring. This is while being a family and allowing egos and the same differences the group rapped about to cause fractures in the once cohesive brotherhood they shared. Ultimately, Phife’s legacy is his ability to spin positive lyrics despite where he came from. The amount of artists he has influenced is endless, and Rapper Kanye West and R&B Singer Pharrell Williams credit Phife as inspiration, showing them how to rise above.

Phife’s legacy is such that a petition has been circulating around the web to rename Linden Boulevard, where the group came up, to A Tribe Called Quest Boulevard, as well as another petition to rename St. Albans Park to Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor Park, both close to getting their asked signature quota.

In recent development, as late as August, word came down from Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid that a new A Tribe Called Quest album is in the future. Quoted as saying in a Rap Radar podcast, Reid stated, “[It is] a brand new album that they recorded before Phife Dawg passed away. I’m really happy about it man, it’s really something special. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about over everything we’re working on.” Exciting news in months following the terrible loss of Phife, one thing must be made clear, his untimely death due to diabetes warns the disease is no joke to be left unchecked. That all said, Phife Dawg was a once in a lifetime talent which will not soon be forgot, and serves as inspiration for Hip Hop in decades to follow.


Proving the lasting impression Phife Dawg left on music, read some musicians thoughts on the Hip Hop hero below:

Phife – Hip Hop & Rap word Warrior, simple as that. Breathed it & lined rhyme into Sport.  A Social Narrator. My bro.” – Chuck D, Public Enemy (via his twitter)

The man, brother, son, uncle, and father known as Phife Dawg was the underdog that never stopped fighting. He was a true champion of Hip Hop and an emcee. What I will remember most about Phife is his laid back demeanor. Around me, he was always humble and very approachable. From my view, nothing seemed to bother Phife, and I don’t recall him ever complaining about anything. He was also extremely grateful and appreciative for the work I (and many others) put in on his behalf. Lastly, Phife’s voice and delivery are what made (and make) him unique. As an artist, you really can’t compare him to any other. Nothing or no one is even similar, and that’s what makes him stand out. That’s what makes him distinctive. That’s what makes him Hip-Hop! As a member of one of the most influential groups in Hip-Hop, Phife left his mark in the world and he will forever shine through music he created. Everything still feels so surreal. I was just in his presence a month ago.” – Jahah 

“I came up with ATCQ as a DJ on the radio in Atlanta and then had the good fortune of meeting them — got to be friendly with Phife and Q Tip actually shares my Birthday- April 10th and we have a few friends in common.Phife came to me when he was about to drop his first solo record as asked me to do his album release party which I gladly did.  We did at The Knitting Factory  in 2000 for ventilation – — his whole family came out -he was such a fun loving down to earth sweet person.. Every time I saw him out he always was genuinely concerned for me – asked how my love life was, what I was doing that made me happy and always to keep hustling and that I was doing important things for underground hip hop movement and to keep plugging away! I miss him!  Underrated and one of the most entertaining on the mic!  A big loss for the Hip Hop community and the sports world!” – Fiona Bloom,Music Industry Publicist, Owner of The Bloom Effect

My Phife story (like most of my stories) starts with Speech, who introduced me to DJ Kemit, who introduced me to RastaRoot….but for real, Phife was a humble, kind, GREAT person. I say this to everyone, but Phife was always Phife, just a great guy all around.” – Tony Reames 

1991’s ‘The Low End Theory’ by A Tribe Called Quest has to be one of the top 10 most influential Hip-Hop albums to me. Phife Dawg & Q-Tip complemented each other super well over some of the dopest ’90s sample filled beats. The true beauty to me after all these years has got to be how well they worked together as a Rap tag-team. I learned a lot from them both as a group that has helped me through my 17+ year entertainment career. So when I learned that Phife “Malik Izaak Taylor” Dawg passed away on March 22nd, 2016, I was kinda speechless. Anytime anyone passes away, it’s always a blow to your life, but when the person who passes away has touched your life in some way, shape, or form, it hurts all the more. His music was a part of my growing up, and later, that same music became a study guide to my craft… so I thank you Phife Dawg for the legacy and music you have blessed us all with. RIP– Jamie Madrox, Twiztid

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Jason Rhode
[email protected]

Jason, a Horror and Children Story writer and artist specializing in alternative art, was adopted from the Bronx, NY, and currently lives in Midland, TX with his wife, Joey, and their two dogs, Chewy and Hollywood.

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