Remembering Phife Dawg: How He Changed Hip-Hop Forever

The Tribe Called Quest emcee died from complications resulting from diabetes.

— -- 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.

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.

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.

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