Remembering Phife Dawg: How He Changed Hip-Hop Forever

PHOTO: Rapper Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest performs at H2O Music Festival at Los Angeles Historical Park, Aug. 17, 2013, in Los Angeles.PlayChelsea Lauren/WireImage/Getty Images
WATCH Remembering Phife Dawg

Hip-hop artist Malik Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, has died from complications resulting from his diabetes, his family confirmed today.

He was 45.

As a member of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg helped shape and create a new brand of hip-hop.

With thoughtful flows, a playful sense of humor, jazz-influenced beats and an aim at something larger than mere chart success, Tribe’s influence can be firmly felt throughout the genre today.

A Tribe Called Quest came out of Queens, New York, in the late eighties. They were part of the “Native Tongues” clique. (Other notable “Native Tongues” members included De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Queen Latifah and Monie Love.) Each “Native Tongues”-associated act added a unique alternative spin to New York hip-hop.

The group released five albums together between 1990 and 1998. Last year, they reissued their debut, “People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm” in honor of its 25th anniversary. Around this time the group also reunited on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” to perform that album’s single, “Can I Kick It?”

Phife was often overshadowed by Q-Tip, but he cemented his legendary hip-hop status on the track, “Buggin’ Out” from 1991’s classic album “The Low End Theory.” His opening verse in that song is one of the best in hip-hop history not because it is complex, but because it is delivered with perfect confidence. His performance on that track is flawless.

Often while Q-Tip showed wisdom in his words beyond his years, Phife served as the relatable everyman with more traditional hip-hop appeal. Together, the two emcees often worked as a successful yin and yang, playing off of each other effectively. Their sometimes stormy latter-day relationship was also a centerpiece of Michael Rappaport’s 2011 documentary about the pioneering hip-hop group, but really they were brothers who came up together and knew each other really well. Sometimes with relationships that close, things can get quite heated. The tensions between them partly led to Tribe’s calling it quits after 1998’s “The Love Movement.”

In 2000, Phife Dawg released his lone proper solo album, “Ventilation: DA LP.” That album showcased a slightly harder sensibility than his work with Tribe, but it does contain the track, “Beats, Rhymes & Phife,” which basically tells his origin story. This album on the whole was a tad uneven and was overlooked by even many Tribe fans, but its best parts deserved to be re-examined.

Phife deserved more of a solo career. When he appeared last year on Slum Village’s track, “Push It Along,” (named after the Tribe classic) it was great to hear him back on the mic. When Phife’s voice popped back onto a track, it was like the sudden return of a long-lost friend.

Hopefully, more solo material will see the light of day. With De La Soul on the cusp of releasing their Kickstarter-funded “And The Anonymous Nobody,” Q-Tip being recently named the Kennedy Center’s inaugural “Artistic Director of Hip-Hop Culture” and Tribe’s DJ, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, hosting a podcast on NPR, the loss of Phife comes at a time when that “Native Tongues” output is just as timeless and important as ever.

Like the Beastie Boys after the loss of Adam Yauch, A Tribe Called Quest can no longer be complete, cut short before their time. The time for hoping that a Tribe reunion would stick and result in new material is over. Though one can hope that Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White will figure out some musical way to pay fitting tribute to their fallen brother.

No matter what kind of music you listen to, you can’t deny that 2016 has been a terrible year filled with loss thus far. We’ve lost David Bowie, Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Keith Emerson, Harvey Danger’s Aaron Huffman and more. We now sadly can add Phife Dawg to the list of silenced notable musical figures.

Rest in peace to the “funky diabetic” and “the five-foot-assassin.” You will be greatly missed.