Phife Dawg: How A Tribe Called Quest’s Everyman Genius Changed Hip-Hop

While Q-Tip was the mad scientist and mercurial artist, Phife Dawg was a lot like you: a guy who loved hip-hop, sports, and talking shit. Hip-hop will never be the same.

03.24.16 1:21 AM ET

The death of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, gutted me. It’s easy to overstate what an artist can mean to a fan; you’re almost embarrassed to be so hurt when you know that his friends and family are going through something much more painful and devastating. I thought about his mother and his wife and kids. I thought of his estranged bandmates Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. I thought about his best friend, Jarobi. I thought about the first time I heard him rhyme: 1989’s De La Soul posse cut "Buddy," which featured all of the Native Tongues collective; De La, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, Q-Tip, Queen Latifah on ad-libs, and some shine for Q-Tip’s little buddy, a guy we wouldn’t really get to know for another few years. But the very first time I heard the teenage Phife rap, he was explaining what kind of woman he liked.

“Now drop the beat, for the Phifer from A Tribe Called Quest
When I see Buddy, I will never half step
I’ll just do her Tribal style and then jet
The Buddy that I like is to be sexy and nice
Just good enough for the one they call Phife
A brown skin Buddy with shoulder length hair
Nice firm breasts and a round derrière”

At the time, the Naaive Tongues had already forged a reputation for outside-the-box creativity, positivity, Afrocentricism, and humor. But even with early Tribe (who infamously dressed in some “questionable type shit,” to quote Roots frontman Black Thought), Phife managed to project an everyman personality that made him unique, even among the most unique crew in hip-hop. On their subsequent 1990 debut album, the acclaimed People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Phife only made four appearances and had just one verse on a single (the classic “Can I Kick It?”). But on Tribe’s classic second album, The Low End Theory, Phife resurfaced with a newfound zeal and bravado. No longer a footnote in his own group, the Five Foot Freak contributed some of the album’s most memorable verses. It could be argued that the aesthetic shift that Tribe underwent between their first and second albums was the result of Phife’s emergence within the group.

The kinte cloth shirts and daishikis of early A Tribe Called Quest didn’t seem to be a natural fit for Phife Dawg, but the group was largely driven by Q-Tip’s persona and artistry. Around the time of their second album, they began wearing jerseys and baseball caps—a reflection of who Phife turned out to be. The switch helped them distance themselves from their contemporaries De La Soul (who were actually undergoing a similar shift in a less striking way) and it balanced Tip and Phife in terms of how the public saw them within the group. 

I realize now that when I reflect on Tribe’s relatability, I’m really reflecting on Phife and what he brought to the group. And it wasn’t just image-related. It was the music itself. There was something about their music that felt both effortless and tirelessly crafted. It fostered a sense of spontaneity, but that was the result of a musical ambition that most acts don’t have. It takes talent to make that kind of music sound easy and Tribe did it consistently. And while Q-Tip was the mad scientist and mercurial artist, Phife Dawg was a lot like you: a guy who loved hip-hop, sports, and talking shit. He’d rhyme about bustin’ off on your couch (“now you got Seimen’s furniture.”) and how much he wanted to sleep with an R&B star (“I used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue”), and it all sounded like your brothers or your friends. 

I’d known since the early 1990s that Phife suffered from diabetes. Most Tribe fans were well aware of his status as “The Funky Diabetic,” but it wasn’t until after the group’s breakup that many started to realize how long and hard his battle truly was. From missed appearances during the group’s heyday to the kidney transplant he received from his wife (documented in 2011s bittersweet Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest), Phife’s health was seemingly in constant flux. Everyone hoped for the best. 

Part of the group’s appeal was the unique vocal dynamic between its two rappers. Most great hip-hop duos have some kind of a contrast: Run’s slick rhymes always sat across from D.M.C.’s booming declaratives; Bun B’s nimble hood prophesying was a counter to Pimp C’s laidback drawl; and Q-Tip’s nasally smoothness got a boost from Phife’s high-pitched energy. They both sounded so distinct and so different from each other, it gave the back-and-forth of classic tracks like “Electric Relaxation” and “Check the Rhime” a sense of dramatic juxtaposition, and helped them become one of the most beloved acts in hip-hop. 

Phife Dawg’s relatability didn’t just help Tribe resonate with fans, it made him the perfect foil for Q-Tip. On ATCQ’s two best albums, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, the two rappers had a chemistry that proved to be the cornerstone of Tribe’s classic period. As brilliant as People’s Instinctive Travels is, it suffers by comparison mostly because of Phife’s limited appearances. And though the group’s late ’90s material remains woefully underrated, it isn’t as indelible as the music they made from ’91 to ’94 because that chemistry was dead. Latter day Tribe albums sound like a test run for Q-Tip’s solo career and a showcase for J. Dilla’s early production wizardry (he, Tip and Ali Shaheed produced those albums as “The Ummah”) and Phife often feels like a guest star—particularly on 1996’s Beats Rhymes & Life

To younger fans, it may be easy to see Tribe as Q-Tip’s vessel and Phife as a passenger along for the ride. But that would be a great disservice to the man and the group. Those who came up with ATCQ know that there was no Tribe without Phife and hip-hop wouldn’t be hip-hop without Tribe. Phife was me. Phife was you. He was hip-hop’s regular guy and part of why we loved A Tribe Called Quest was because they showed us that we could be creative, regular guys, too. 

When I met A Tribe Called Quest at a reunion show in Atlanta almost a decade ago, Phife sat and talked with me for an hour about his love of Atlanta (his adopted home), the Knicks’ troubles and how he missed J. Dilla. He probably didn’t know that night was one of the highlights of my life and career. Malik Taylor fought long and hard. He's not suffering anymore, but I hate that he’s no longer here, standing on a stage with his old partner, mic in hand, asking that famous question: “You on point, Tip?”