Phife Dawg of hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest dies

AFP , Thursday 24 Mar 2016

Q-Tip, left, and Phife Dawg
Q-Tip, left, and Phife Dawg from U.S group A Tribe Called Quest performs on stage (Photo: AP)

Phife Dawg, the high-pitched and snide rapper whose pioneering group A Tribe Called Quest brought a fresh artistic aesthetic to hip-hop, has died, his family said Wednesday. He was 45.

Phife Dawg, whose real name was Malik Taylor, died Tuesday from complications of diabetes, a family statement said. He long suffered from the illness -- even calling himself in a song the "funky diabetic" -- and had a kidney transplant in 2008.

"We are devastated. This is something we weren't prepared for although we all know that life is fleeting," the band said in a separate statement.

Phife Dawg formed A Tribe Called Quest in the mid-1980s with Q-Tip, his classmate in the New York borough of Queens whose thoroughfare of Linden Boulevard would feature prominently in the lyrics.

The two rappers became one of hip-hop's defining pairs, with Phife Dawg, whose voice in early recordings was markedly high and nasal, generally playing the shrewd back-up man to the smooth and cerebral Q-Tip.

Tensions were never far from the surface, with Phife Dawg gradually taking more vocals but Q-Tip becoming the face of A Tribe Called Quest and going on to a successful solo career, recently being named the first artistic director for hip-hop at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

A Tribe Called Quest broke up in 1998 but reunited several times. The group last reformed in November on Jimmy Fallon's late-night television show to perform its best-known song "Can I Kick It?", which is marked by a mellow bassline sampled from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."

A Tribe Called Quest -- at times a four- or three-man group -- helped chart a new direction for rap beyond straightforward rhyming and beats, with the group often described as pioneers of alternative hip-hop.

The group's debut album, 1990's "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm," on which Phife Dawg appeared on only four tracks, offered quirky humor that brought an early following.

The group's two follow-up albums, "The Low End Theory" and "Midnight Marauders" quickly became considered hip-hop classics for their incorporation of jazz which brought a chill vibe at odds with radio formulas.

"Midnight Marauders" also delivered a more political edge, with references to racial oppression and spiritual uplift.

Phife Dawg, in an interview last month as A Tribe Called Quest prepared to reissue its albums, said that he never expected to become famous outside of his neighborhood.

He attributed the group's success to thinking big rather than pursuing individual tracks, unlike many rappers.

"We wanted the longevity of Earth, Wind and Fire and Prince and people of that nature. We didn't want to be two-hit and three-hit wonders," he told Rolling Stone.

Phife Dawg -- who called himself the Five-Foot Assassin for his short physique -- tried a solo career with a 2000 album, "Ventilation: Da LP," but met mixed reviews and eventually saw his career clouded by health issues.

Questlove, the hip-hop producer best known as the percussionist of The Roots, said that his life was transformed when he stumbled upon "The Low End Theory" in 1991 while he was focused on jazz.

"Malik 'Phife' Taylor's verse was such a gauntlet/flag-planting moment in hip-hop," Questlove wrote on Instagram.

By the time the CD reached the last track, "I swear to God THAT was the moment I knew I wanted to make THIS type of music when I grew up," he wrote.

Chuck D of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest's politically charged contemporaries, called Phife Dawg "a rap word warrior."

"Breathed it and lined rhyme into sport. A true-fire social narrator," he tweeted.

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