Phife Dawg‘s rhymes gave life to rap. The Queens-bred wordsmith — who helped form the game-changing hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest alongside his high-school classmates Q-Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad as well as Jarobi White — was heralded on the mic for keeping it real while infusing his rhymes with his signature wit and humor.
On Tuesday, the rapper born Malik Taylor died due to complications from diabetes at the age of 45. To help put the hip-hop pioneer’s life, personality and contributions into words, Billboard called on several esteemed journalists to share their memories of Phife Dawg and how the Five Foot Assassin was like a homie to us all.
Datwon Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, VIBE
“The feeling right now is of extreme loss… How do you evaluate someone whose vocal tone is a part of your personal sonic fabric? I’ve loved A Tribe Called Quest as a crew for so long that I routinely throw on various tracks whenever I deal with hardships, big wins or just plain cleaning the house. So to lose the life in the physical of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor hits on a deeper level than just a fan of his music.
It’s more like a family member whose words and rhythm helped you get through tough times. His status as Q-Tip’s right arm in ATCQ is only trumped by the fact that he is a top-flight MC in his own right. The fact that he consistently repped his Trinidadian roots was huge for hip-hop and the islanders that loved the music and rarely saw/heard someone rep for them in “mainstream” hip-hop.
[Phife] was the blue collar rap star that rapped like he was having a conversation with you in a local barbershop. That’s what endeared him to his loyal fans. Pick any video he’s been in, from whatever era of Tribe’s evolving wardrobe style and you can get a sports team logo on a hat, jacket, hoodie or t-shirt worn by The Phifer. Style engineer for street beat lovers, he was a champion of it and pretty much never wavered from that uniform.
To hear his presence on the mic was one that was of calm in the midst of craziness. Listen to how he sets the tone as the first to swing on the classic Tribe and Leaders of the New School posse cut “Scenario”. Calm, clever and constructive with his flow and even iller with the visuals when the video directed by Spike Lee came out. [Full of] one liners, his legacy will be one of steady substance and realness beyond measure. Long live the Phifer.”
Rob Markman, Artist Relations Manager, Genius
?Phife Dawg was truly a lyrical genius. While Q-Tip was abstract and poetic with his verses, Phife’s one-liners were straightforward and raw — it’s that balance that made A Tribe Called Quest so iconic.
Whether he was putting Bo Jackson on blast with his opening “Scenario” verse or professing his love for women of every shade on “Electric Relaxation,” Phife was witty and relatable. This morning Genius curated “10 Iconic Phife Dawg Lyrics We’ll Never Forget” and it was just so hard to narrow down.
Not only was Phife one of my favorites on the mic, he was a style icon. I remember bugging my parents for a Seton Hall jersey after Phife wore it in the “Check The Rhime” video. There will never be another.
Sowmya Krishnamurthy, Contributing Journalist for Village Voice, Billboard, XXL among other publications
I was in elementary school at the apex of A Tribe Called Quest. All the cool, older kids bragged about how “bad” The Low End Theory was (“bad” meaning “good” in suburban, ‘90s lexicon) and I needed to get my hands on it. I remember selecting the CD in Columbia House’s mail order catalog — in Magic Marker. Phife Dawg was such an integral part of the iconic group. His lyricism and wordplay still have us rewinding the bars 25 years later.
Jerry L. Barrow, Managing Editor, WatchLOUD.com
I wouldn’t say that Phife was the opposite of Q-Tip, but he was an ideal complement to him. Tip was always so in control, coloring within the lines and Phife would come along drawing mustaches on the Mona Lisa. His R-rated one-liners are some of the most quoted and memorable in the game without making you feel dirty.
While Tip’s “flooded mind” was metaphorically ejaculating, Phife was busting a nut inside your eye to show you where he came from. He’s also the only MC I know to work the Barney dinosaur jingle into a verse and not sound crazy. Not to mention the leap he made in flow and content from People’s Instinctive Travels to Low End Theory gives him most improved MC emeritus status. Phife was also one of the handful of MCs like KRS-One and Heavy D to mix Jamaican/ Caribbean influences in his rhymes before and after it was trendy. He meant it. Phife Dawg was one of a kind and will be missed.
Kathy Iandoli, Writer/ Author who has contributed to Pitchfork, Maxim, Cosmo, Mass Appeal, among other publications
I accidentally fell in love with Phife Dawg. The year was 1992, and the Fu-Schnickens dropped their single “La Schmoove,” a joint filled with Adderall raps featuring a Phife cameo. A year prior, he became my favorite member of A Tribe Called Quest after the release of “Scenario,” but on “La Schmoove,” something felt different. He was always the most relatable member of ATCQ, but jumping on the Fu-Schnickens track, he was like the guest of honor. He stuck out. While the rest of the Fu was losing their shit rapping in that early ‘90s Das EFX branded high-sped flow, Phife strutted out in a striped sock hat (matching his undershirt) holding a bottle of water super casually. 20 years old (but he would still seek knowledge), out of everyone on that track, he really had nothing to prove. But his confidence, his charisma, his smooth delivery that cut through the Fu’s hysteria like a hot butter knife… It was just so dope. I would eventually be seven inches taller than that man, but damn was I enthralled.
I remember meeting him for the first time while on assignment many years later, and he was probably the nicest guy I have ever met (next to Jarobi). When he finally got his kidney in 2008, I cried a little for him. And that’s the mark of a true artist: someone who can create music that makes you feel like you really know them and root for them on the sidelines. Phife was that dude. Short in stature, with confidence as tall as the Freedom Tower, he allowed us to know him before there was Instagram or Twitter or any other voyeuristic means of reaching a fanbase. He spoke through his music. I didn’t really know him but I loved him. Rest well, Phife Diggy. You always had something to say.
Alvin “Aqua” Blanco, Deputy Editor, HipHopWired
Phife Dawg embodied the spirit of the hip-hop underdog who puffs out his chest and talks ish, but always backs it up lyrically. He effortlessly dropped quotables whose double meanings you might not catch until way later and ultimately left a body of work that proves without a doubt he wasn’t anyone’s sidekick. Saying Phife was the Scottie Pippen to Q-Tip’s Michael Jordan has become cliché but when it comes to A Tribe Called Quest, you couldn’t have one without the other, and the Five Foot Assassin was essential to the equation.
Andre Torres, Executive Editor, Genius and founder and former Editor-In-Chief of Wax Poetics
While Phife was somewhat absent from the first couple of Tribe singles, “Can I Kick It?” marked his official announcement to the world. His verse easily became one of my favorites on the album, and cemented him as an essential part of the ATQC dynamic.
I had already devoured People’s Instinctive Paths by then so I knew the deal, but it was great to see everyone else waking up to Phife’s laid-back style. He was the Everyman to Q-Tip’s cerebral abstract vibes, bringing in pop culture references and grounding the group for the streets. Similar to Flavor Flav’s role in Public Enemy, Phife played Flav to Tip’s Chuck D. Adding much-needed levity to the group’s boho aesthetic, Phife was the dude you wanted to kick it with.
I was never fortunate enough to meet him, but my former passion project of fifteen years Wax Poetics was able to secure a cover story with the group that will be running in a few months. I found out the writer turned the piece in just hours before Phife’s passing. A strange turn of events, but one that will hopefully bring more attention to one of the greatest sidemen the culture’s ever seen.
Rest In Power, Phife Dawg.
Miles Marshall Lewis, Former Editor at XXL, VIBE, BET and Ebony
“I first spoke to Phife down in his (then) hometown of Atlanta in 1998, working on a story to reveal A Tribe Called Quest’s breakup for The Source magazine, back when magazines could reveal breakups. I knew the ATL from college; we ate at Diddy’s (then) restaurant Justin’s, partied at Club 112 and recovered at Phife’s house. I expected to bond fast with ATCQ’s crate-digging, jazz-loving Q-Tip, but didn’t know how things would go with Phife. The only sport I’m versed in is boxing, not his beloved basketball. But it turns out hip-hop is a sport. That weekend, we spoke mostly about women “brown, yellow, Puerto Rican and Haitian” and the roots of rap and its commercial takeover, still relatively new back then.
Five months ago, 17 years after my breakup story on the group, I interviewed them all once again up at Sirius XM, in the booth of the Sway in the Morning show. We’re all about 45, but Phife looked the most aged, due to a 25-year battle with diabetes that ultimately took his life yesterday. But he had just as much to say about hip-hop and, this time around, social media. Instagram @iamthephifer was his drug of choice. I wished him well for their Jimmy Fallon performance that night before shooting our own Instagram selfie. I wish him well still. Rest in peace, Malik Taylor.
Miss Info, Hip-Hop Personality
Obviously Phife’s passing hits me very hard. This was the group (alongside Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A) that really made me the hip-hop fan I am. And his life as an underdawg, pun intended, is one of the most dramatic struggles in the music’s history.
I just said in an IG post of some incredible vintage photo of Phife, Tip, Heavy D and D-Nice, “I know that tastes change and style is wasted on the youth, but I hope that the future doesn’t treat diamonds like Phife (and Heavy D) as artifacts to be displayed behind glass for class trips…what they gave is more like water or air, in finite amount and never not necessary.
And that’s basically what I wonder the most…we have no place dictating what future fans should love and listen to, what will change them or inspire them…but ATCQ and Phife’s voice specifically helped build more than one gen of thinkers and lovers…so I believe it should and can do the same over and over again.
Brian Coleman, Author of the Check the Technique book series (Tribe’s Low End Theory is covered in Volume 1, released in 2007 on Random House / Villard)
I didn’t know Phife well, but I think we all felt like we knew him – that’s what happens when artists speak to you honestly through their music. Phife was a very honest, intelligent, funny and at times self-deprecating guy. I interviewed him at length in 2001, initially for XXL’s “Classic Material” column, about his early years, up through 1991’s The Low End Theory. The real meat of the interview appeared in my 2007 book Check the Technique, where I covered the group’s sophomore album in a great deal more depth.
Looking back at my transcription from 2001, a couple things made me smile just now:
- (Note to myself, in the margins: “(he was) listening to Thriller when I called”)
- He mentioned that he was thinking about becoming a sports agent. Considering all his lyrical sports references, it certainly made sense. He admitted to being a basketball fan first and foremost, with football coming second. “In high school, I really wanted to play football or basketball, or at least coach.”
- He made a point of mentioning how good the Jungle Brothers’ Done By The Forces of Nature album was.
- He admitted that he didn’t take his rap career seriously on the group’s first record, Peoples’ Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm. He admitted, “I was being ignorant… I would have rather hung out with my boys on the street and got my hustle on than go to the studio… I was hardly around, not like I should have been.” He knew that Low End Theory was his “make up” chance, and he made the most of it, cementing his status as one of the great MCs of the ‘90s.
- He wouldn’t tell me the earliest name of the group, before they landed on A Tribe Called Quest (expanded from just Tribe). He mentioned that he was embarrassed by it, and towards the end of the interview I figured maybe I had warmed him up a bit, and that he would finally cop to it. So I asked again. “Chill, leave it alone,” he scolded. “I’m not admittin’ that one.” I apologized.
Finally, he wasn’t even really part of another great Phife memory of mine. Sometime in the mid-‘00s, I was on a panel about the greatness and importance of Tribe at PowerHouse Arena in Brooklyn. After the talk, a kind-looking, older woman came up to me, had bought a copy of my book and wanted me to sign it. It turns out it was Phife’s mom, poet and writer Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. I immediately (politely) demanded that she get a refund and that I wanted to give her a book – a request she adamantly rejected. She could not have been nicer, and it was an amazing honor for her to request such a thing from me. I didn’t feel worthy, and it was a great moment for me to be able to thank her for raising such a great man and artist. I can only imagine what she is going through right now, as her son was snatched from her far too soon.
Phife was an around-the-way guy with incredible skills on the mic and a personality that lit up any stage he strutted across. He was someone you always loved hearing, but he wasn’t intimidating. In a lot of ways that’s as or even more powerful than someone with “God” status on the mic (Rakim, for example). It’s about relatability, and Phife had it for days. Decades, in fact. He was a great man, and all of his fans will miss him, now and for many, many years to come.