Phife Dawg aka Malik Taylor, the raspy half of the seminal hiphop band A Tribe Called Quest, has died at the age of 45. The brilliant, funny, wise, immensely talented and lovable rapper from Queens had suffered from diabetes and other ailments for years. Despite his renown as one of the best and most beloved hiphop artists of all time, Phife (like his equally admirable Quest-mate Q-Tip) always respected the music by keeping a low profile, his ego (mostly) in check and his dignity intact.
Linden Boulevard represent represent
Tribe Called Quest represent represent
When the mic is in my hand, I’m never hesitant
My favourite jam back in the day was Eric B. for President
Rude boy composer, step to me you’re over
Brothers wanna flex, you’re not Mad Cobra
MC short and black, there ain’t no other
Trini-born black like Mia Long’s grandmother
Tip and Sha they all that, Phife Dawg ditto
Honey tell your man to chill, or else you’ll be a widow
Did not you know that my styles are top-dollar?
The Five-Foot Assassin knocking fleas off his collar
Hip hop scholar since being knee high to a duck
The height of Mugsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck
The greatness of the track “Stir It Up” that opens Quest’s best record Midnight Marauders cannot be denied, and we may as well watch the cool “Award Tour” video from the same record …
Back in ’89 I simply slid into place
Buddy, buddy, buddy all up in your face
A lot of kids was busting rhymes but they had no taste
Some said Quest was wack, but now is that the case?
I have a quest to have a mic in my hand
Without that, it’s like Kryptonite and Superman
So Shaheed come in with the sugar cuts
Phife Dawg’s my name, but on stage, call me Dynomutt
When was the last time you heard the Phife was sloppy?
Lyrics anonymous, you’ll never hear me copy
Top notch baby, never coming less
Sky’s the limit, you gots to believe up in Quest
Sit back, relax, get up out the path
If not that, here’s a dance floor, come move that ass
Non-believers you can check the stats
I run with Shaheed and the brother Abstract
Niggas know the time when Quest is in the jam
Never let a statue tell me how nice I am
Coming with more hits than the Braves and the Yankees
Living mad phat like an oversized mampi
The wackest crews try to diss, it makes me laugh
When my track record’s longer than a DC-20 aircraft
So, next time that you think you want something here
Make something def or take that garbage to St. Elsewhere
But I guess my single favorite Malik Taylor moment is on the track “Ham and Eggs” from the Quest’s first record, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, a humorous spin on the topic of vegetarianism and religion (A Tribe Called Quest did not stick to familiar lyrical formulas, and rapped about a lot of different stuff). The song brings us back to the Caribbean communities of Jamaica, Queens and the Seventh Day Adventist families both Tip and Phife grew up in. They were supposed to follow a vegetarian diet, except they don’t, and Phife’s got a Trinidadian happy meal to dig into:
And If not that, i get the roti and the soursop
Sit back, relax, listen to some hip-hop
As I’ve mentioned before on Litkicks, I got a chance to meet Phife once at the Bowery Poetry Club in downtown Manhattan. Phife’s mother is the famous spoken word poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor, and they once did a Mother’s Day mom/son poetry/music reading together. I watched from the foot of the stage — maybe in more rapt attention than anybody else in the audience — as Phife delivered a straight-up 20 minute set of his half of the Tribe Called Quest songbook to a canned backing track from a CD (the closest thing a poetry club with no DJ equipment can get to live hiphop, and it was fine enough for me).
Phife talked a bit on this intimate stage about growing up with a cool Caribbean poet as a mother, and also spoke of his legacy as a trailblazing hiphop artist (this was around 2004, when his career was mostly in the past) and mentioned that he wanted credit for being the first rapper to wear sports jerseys onstage, before Jay-Z (a big Tribe fan) ran with the same idea. I thought this was an amusingly quirky thing for Phife to say, since his hiphop influence goes way beyond wearing Knicks gear on stage.
After he stepped off the stage at the Bowery and his mother did a turn at the mic, I approached Phife and told him how much his rhyming and inspiration had always meant to me. He listened graciously, but I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know.