RIP Phife Dawg: a look back on the enduring brilliance of Mallik Taylor and A Tribe Called Quest

Phife Dawg

A tribute to Phife Dawg posted by A Tribe Called Quest on Facebook

Following the tragic news of Phife Dawg’s untimely passing, Getintothis’ Janaya Pickett explores the profound musical and political marks his work with A Tribe Called Quest made on popular culture.

Yesterday we woke to the sad news that Phife Dawg, aka Mallik (the 5ft freak) Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest had passed away on March 21, aged only 45. Taylor had throughout his career been vocal about his type 1 diabetes, even nicknaming himself the ‘funky diabetic’ in one of TCQ’s tracks. The artist had undergone a kidney transplant, donated by his wife, in 2008, but was back on the list for another by 2012 after his kidneys once again to fail. Speaking to Rolling Stone last November, Taylor had revealed plans for new material and hoped to release a solo LP, Muttymorphosis, later this year.

A Tribe Called Quest are regarded as one of the most important hiphop groups of our time. Consisting of school friends Phife Dawg, Kamaal Fareed (Q-Tip), Ali Shaheed Munhammed and Jarobi White, TCQ formed in 1985 in Queens NYC and went on to sign a deal with Jive Records, releasing their first album Peoples Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm in 1990.

Along with De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, TCQ formed a cooperative movement, dubbed Native Tongues, which had ties with the Universal Zulu Movement and a mandate to comment practically on issues relative to the black community at that time.
It was on their second album Low End Theory that the infamous back and forth between Phife and Q-Tip became fully established, and the group moved forward with their manifesto, commenting on issues such as consumerism, rape, police brutality and black diaspora. Their low key beats and use of jazz samples set Low End Theory apart from other popular rap records of the time and helped secure the success of the emerging east coast scene. Tours and television appearances steadily increased their following and the album would later be placed on Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 Albums of All Time.
Their next album and their most successful, Midnight Marauders, was highly anticipated and critically acclaimed on its release in 1993. In particular the group were praised for their fresh approach to the genre, not relying on foul or violent language to express their point. The album was certified platinum less than two years after its release and is still considered one of the essential hiphop albums on the 1990s. Indeed it’s influence is still felt today, as an inspiration in the resurgence of socially conscious hiphop artists, most notably Kendrick Lamar.

By the time the group released Beats, Rhymes & Life in 1996, Phife Dawg reflected that he had begun to loose interest in making music. Their record label now valued them as a lucrative business venture and as is the experience of many successful artists, pressure began to mount as fame took hold. Before the release of The Love Movement in 1998 TCQ announced that it would be their final album.

The group disbanded and Phife Dawg by this time had relocated with is wife to Atlanta, Georgia. In the years since the group have occasionally reformed for live performances (most recently their 25th anniversary performance on the Jimmy Fallon show in November of last year). Phife Dawg was not shy in stating that his motivation to reform was often financial, covering the costs of medical care associated with his illness.

In the wake of the news of Phife Dawg‘s passing there has been an outpouring of grief and respect within the music industry and what is astonishing is the far reach of TCQ’s influence on the modern scene. The only silver lining with tragedies such as these is that it inspires us to reconnect with TCQ’s back catalog and opens it up to a generation of music fans who previously have had no reason to explore it. With the mainstream success of contemporary hiphop artists such as Lamar, it is important to revisit those who came before.

Phife Dawg and TCQ helped establish black music as a form of social commentary and protest in the early 1990s, yet in retrospect their output seems timeless and certainly still relevant today. It is impossible to pick one track in particular that personifies their style, with so much stellar material on offer. If you consider yourself a music connoisseur of any kind and haven’t yet experienced the majesty of TCQ, then you’re in for a treat. This is music for the ages. Rest in peace, Phife Diggy, your legacy will not be forgotten.