The five foot assassin. The funky diabetic. The original rudeboy. It seems that no matter how many names Malik Taylor, or as we affectionately knew him, ‘Phife Dawg’, gave himself, none of them could sum up just how legendary this man was in the hip hop game. Phife’s signature hard-hitting flow throughout a group and solo career put him amongst the legends of old school hip hop, with almost every true rap fan having a copy of The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders in their record collection.
Straight outta Jamaica, Queens, A Tribe Called Quest was formed by childhood friends Phife, Q-Tip (Jonathan Davis), Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. Originally writing as solo performers, the group was united by classmates and fellow hip hop pioneers The Jungle Brothers, and went on to seal a multi-album recording deal with Jive Records. Their first release, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm featured Phife on Tribe’s best known track, ‘Can I Kick It?’, words which will reverberate around the heads of not only hip hop fans but all music enthusiasts for as long as people continue to rap.
While Phife’s rhyming counterpart Q-Tip dominated most of Tribe’s early work lyrically, the Diggy Dawg came to prominence on The Low End Theory, surprising first time listeners on ‘Buggin Out’ with his aggressive, confident flow and spitting the famous words: “Yo, Microphone check, one-two, what is this? The five foot assassin with the roughneck business, I float like gravity, never had a cavity, got more rhymes than Winan’s got family”. To ATCQ lovers, those lyrics were the start of a very special dual-rapping relationship between Tip and Phife, each rapping back and forth at each other, most memorably: “You on point Phife?” to which the loveable MC cockily replied “All the time Tip”.
The year 1993 saw Tribe’s album Midnight Marauders reach #1 in the HipHop/R’n’B charts, with Phife shouting out his neighbourhood in the first words of the opening track ‘Steve Biko (Stir It Up)’. No longer was Phife supporting Q-Tip and Shaheed, and he certainly did not lack stage presence. Tracks ‘Award Tour’, ‘Electric Relaxation’ and ‘Oh My God’ all succeeded as singles, recognising Phife’s new swagger and alternative, yet unforgettable lyrics. This album made unrivalled ground in making jazz rap a genuine genre—a fact which in itself pays real tribute to Phife Dawg.
After a number of releases that the group themselves were not satisfied with, and altercations between Phife and Q-Tip, ATCQ separated in 1998. Phife’s solo career was a much more reserved one to that of Q-Tip, however it saw him travel globally and continue to work with other legendary producers such as J-Dilla, who had been so influential for Tribe back in the day. ‘Dear Dilla’, released a mere two years ago, saw Phife pay tribute to their relationship during times of illness, which in itself is a credit to Phife’s determination to keep doing what he loved, even as his health deteriorated.
An undisputed hero for most up-and-coming hip hop artists today, it is hard to even believe that we have lost such a legend at the age of just 45. Malik Taylor leaves behind a legacy of changing the hip hop game, whilst remaining a loving father and sports enthusiast. I challenge anyone who has ever loved ATCQ to listen to ‘God Lives Through’ without getting a bit emotional, because I failed miserably.