The BBC reports that Malik Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, co-founder of the pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest, has died. There has been no official statement from his family about the cause of death, but Taylor struggled with complications from diabetes for years, and had received a kidney transplant in 2008. He was 45 years old.
Taylor was born November 20, 1970, and grew up in Queens with Kamaal Ibn John Fareed (then Jonathan Davis), a.k.a Q-Tip. The two friends formed their rap group, which was originally known simply as Quest, in 1985 and brought DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White into the fold. The group’s name got its familiar prefix from their classmates and hip-hop contemporaries The Jungle Brothers who, along with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, made up the The Native Tongues collective.
Buoyed by the buzz surrounding The Native Tongues, Tribe drew lots of attention from record companies, including Geffen Records, who gave the group a demo deal in 1989. But Tribe ultimately signed with Jive Records, through which it released the debut album People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm. The group’s first hit, “Can I Kick It?,” was a playful counterpoint to the posturing that dominated the genre. But Q-Tip and Taylor were no less skilled than their contemporaries, rapping fluidly over a fusion of jazz and hip-hop.
Tribe’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, was an impressive follow-up and featured Taylor’s lyrical stylings more prominently than People’s Travels. The Five Foot Assassin (as the rapper referred to himself), Taylor helped tackle social issues on The Low End Theory, including racial politics and consumerism. Dubbed “The Sgt. Pepper’s of hip hop,” the critically lauded Low End Theory shaped alternative hip-hop: Its socially conscious themes and production influenced future acts like Common, The Roots, Jill Scott, Kanye West and The Neptunes. In 1993, Tribe performed the album’s lead single, “Check The Rhime,” on The Late Show With David Letterman.
Tribe released three more albums before disbanding in 1998, reportedly over issues with their record label and intra-group turmoil. The relationship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg was explored in Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary of the group, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest.
After the split, Taylor pursued a solo career, featuring on songs by Fu-Schnickens, Diamond D, and Chi-Ali. Taylor’s health really began to fail in 2008, when he required a kidney transplant following renal failure; he was reportedly back on the transplant list four years later. But the hip-hop pioneer was also gearing up for a solo album, Muttymorphosis. The first single, “Nutshell,” was teased last fall in this clip.