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Phife Dawg Forever

He was the Everyman at the heart of A Tribe Called Quest. Five years after his death, his family and friends unveil his final album and celebrate his legacy
Chi Modu

P hife Dawg’s mother believes it is important to open with a story that illuminates the cleverness and wit that her son carried through most of his life.

“Malik started playing piano at age eight,” the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor says. “He stuck with it for about three years, and then finally one day he came home very agitated. He and his teacher had had a huge fight. Malik told me that he was not returning to piano lessons and that he didn’t want to work with his teacher anymore because her breath stunk.”

Then comes the punchline: “I knew that her breath did stink, but I could not believe this brazen little boy was bold enough to say it out loud.”

While she was fine with her son walking away from piano, Boyce-Taylor was less fine with him not doing anything. (“We don’t do lazy in my house,” she says.) And so young Malik Taylor chose to pursue acting, writing, and tennis. Growing up in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens in the 1970s, he especially found a home on the stage, doing school plays, performing at church, and evolving into a writer who first leaned into poetry before gravitating toward writing rhymes. By the time he was 12, he was making his own beats, memorizing songs, and in search of a crew.

“My family moved to Queens around 1981, when I was maybe 12 or 11,” recalls Jarobi White. “My neighbor was a guy named Lee who had DJ equipment, and I was into that because I was coming from the Bronx. Lee told me that I should meet his homeboy Malik.”

Jarobi was skeptical at first, but a meeting was arranged in a local arcade. He and Malik bonded over basketball before discovering a shared love of hip-hop. “We were walking down the block to go play basketball, and I started to beatbox,” Jarobi says. “He heard that and said, ‘Yo, you beatbox? I rap.’ ”

Soon the whole world would know Malik as Phife Dawg, Mutty Ranks, the Five-Foot Assassin, the co-pilot of A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most visionary and decorated groups in hip-hop history. He was an Everyman of sorts: a beloved MC who also felt like he could be your friend, who could love some of the same things you maybe geeked out over on summer breaks in the basements of your pals — basketball cards or old football highlights. He could be immensely referential without ever sounding less than welcoming. He could make his deficiencies seem like superpowers. He could be funny and cynical without seeming hardened by the world.

It has been five years since Phife passed in the spring of 2016, at just 45 years old, from complications of diabetes. That fall, A Tribe Called Quest released their monumental final album, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service. Phife’s verses were both a comfort and an ache. He sounded good, on top of his game lyrically, sharp and hungry.

Shortly after the Tribe album’s release, word began to circulate about a posthumous Phife solo project — verses that had been recorded in tandem with the Tribe album, producers and guests lined up. The work to bring that album into the world fell upon his grieving family and friends, who have assembled a final LP called Forever. Executive-produced by Phife’s widow, Deisha Head-Taylor, Forever is one last stop on Phife’s journey, one last chance to put a bow on a life and legacy. His mother puts it succinctly: “This album is representative of his resilience.”

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Phife Dawg onstage with A Tribe Called Quest in Milwaukee in the summer of 1994. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

The story of A Tribe Called Quest begins like so many stories: kids, trying to shrink a neighborhood into something they could keep in their own pocket. One day not long after their initial meeting, Malik dragged Jarobi to his school’s gym to meet a kid with broad shoulders, smoothly knocking down shots from the free-throw line. It was Q-Tip, who’d already been a pal of Phife’s for a couple of years. The seeds of A Tribe Called Quest were planted. They were still kids, still mischievous and passionate about a great many things, and particularly about sports and rap. Jarobi talks about how Phife would freestyle “for days,” anytime the group — rounded out by their DJ friend Ali Shaheed Muhammad — was outside. “We played basketball every day,” Jarobi remembers. “Hours upon hours. Inevitably, somebody from around the way would be like: ‘I heard y’all rap. Let’s battle.’ And we’d battle somebody every day.”

Despite his natural talent at rapping, Phife still had sports dreams. In his early teens, he was a coach for a group of slightly younger boys, one of whom was Zendon Hamilton, who went on to play at St. John’s and had a brief stint in the NBA years later. For his coaching success, Malik won a plaque. Boyce-Taylor still has it in the house.

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Malik Taylor as a kid in Queens, 1974. Courtesy of the Taylor Family

Those who have been in groups or bands often fall back on the idea of family — a level of love that intersects with a very real co-dependence. For A Tribe Called Quest, this dynamic was always heightened. The group was rooted in a type of brotherhood, both real and performed. Because they grew to be icons, it can be forgotten how young they were when they first set out.

Phife was not yet 20 when A Tribe Called Quest released People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in the spring of 1990. Critical acclaim came quickly, and the videos for singles “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?” gained airplay on shows like Yo! MTV Raps. The group was immediately seen as innovative, ushering in a new wave of hip-hop. But they hadn’t yet fully caught their groove.

On 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders, Phife’s confidence as an MC increased as his showstopping verses piled up — memorable ones that endure, like his opening verse on “Scenario,” a packed posse cut from Low End that Phife kicks off with the iconic “Bo knows this/And Bo knows that/But Bo don’t know jack/’Cause Bo can’t rap.” He was after a certain looseness in his rhymes, then and always. “I don’t want to say that we weren’t taking it seriously,” Jarobi says. “But it was still fun, especially for me and Malik.”

There were hints of conflict from the start. Q-Tip’s seriousness and business-minded approach, while necessary, sometimes rubbed up against Phife’s more carefree attitude. Phife’s entire goal, as Jarobi puts it, was to simply be a really good rapper. He wasn’t particularly interested in fame, though he did love the fact that he had fans. He saw himself as someone who wasn’t far removed from the people who loved him — the young listeners who knew stats off the top of their heads, or who watched SportsCenter on loop in the mornings.

Those visions grew further apart as the group went on. Tribe’s 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life, was their most commercially successful, but fell slightly short of the critical acclaim that their first three albums had received. By 1998, The Love Movement met with strong sales but a lukewarm critical response. Both at the time and in retrospect, it is not an album that aligns with its title. The Love Movement is the sound of a group falling apart. Still, Boyce-Taylor says, “They were having disagreements, but they had not agreed to really end it.”

Tribe had become dissatisfied with their record label by this point, and it was against this backdrop that Q-Tip decided he was leaving for a solo career. He wasn’t entirely upfront about this, according to those close to Phife, which led to further tension. (Q-Tip declined to comment for this story.) “Malik was very sad when the group disbanded,” Boyce-Taylor says. “It was the only job he ever had.”

But there was cause for joy in 1998, too: Malik met his wife-to-be through a mutual friend that year. Their initial connection was over sports. “The Jets were his team, and the Raiders were mine,” Head-Taylor remembers. “Our courtship started with playing Madden on the PlayStation. Jets against Raiders.”

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Phife with wife Deisha Head-Taylor around the time of their engagement in 2001. Courtesy of the Taylor Family

That close friendship, which flourished into a marriage, was somewhat of a balm for Phife at the end of Tribe’s run, and as he turned to the recording of his first solo album, 2000’s Ventilation: Da LP. “He was sort of recovering from the Tribe split,” Head-Taylor says. “He had some frustrations he needed to release, but the newfound musical autonomy excited him.”

While making Ventilation, Phife became close with DJ Rasta Root, who remained a close friend and confidant in subsequent years. “What sparked it was that both of our parents are of Trinidadian descent,” Rasta Root says. “So the hardships we were going through at the time were cushioned by Caribbean jokes — inside things that our parents and grandparents would say. It went from me being his kind of work-for-hire DJ to being his real, close friend.”

Ventilation didn’t have the success that Phife expected, receiving a few warm reviews before falling out of print shortly after its release. “Fans wanted to hear Tribe,” Rasta Root says. “I don’t think they understood that for him, the album was literally just a chance to vent, to get things off his chest.”

Phife doesn’t sound angry on Ventilation. He sounds, mostly, defiant: an underdog, out on his own and trying to stake his claim as a solo MC worthy of respect. Still, Jarobi says, “My only thing was the strife between him and Tip. That’s the only thing that put a little bit of bitterness in my mouth.”

He pauses before offering a candid analysis: “Look, there’s no point in their lives where the two of them weren’t the person they love the most. The issue … sometimes, was that both of those guys wanted to be the big brother. That was the whole start of it. If you have siblings, you fight all the fuckin’ time. We really grew up together. We were children together. We were brothers who just happened to go into business. The powers that be don’t understand that. They see a group, and they want to take the brightest part and isolate it. But there was never a time where it was, ‘I hate this motherfucker.’ That was never the issue.”

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Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife, and Q-Tip (from left) in New York in September 1991, the month they released The Low End Theory. Al Pereira/Getty Images

Phife was first diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, the same year as Tribe’s debut. Twenty-five years later, in 2015, his health was a concern — but he pushed through. As long as there were dialysis clinics in the areas he was traveling, he would make the trips. He was spending time with his family, reconnecting with childhood friends. “They patched things up for good before Malik passed,” Jarobi says of Phife and Q-Tip. “There was going to be a future after this.”

It was a time of joy and renewed focus. Rasta Root recalls a visit to a studio in Denver that year as a turning point: “Watching him on the mic, he had this intensity and this ferociousness. We knocked out three or four songs that day.”

Phife, who had moved to the Bay Area in his final years, traveled back and forth to New York to work on the final Tribe album and his own second solo LP. In his downtime, he’d go to Knicks games. His friends held three different birthday parties for him, in three cities, that year. His energy level was high, and he was religiously following his treatment plan. “Throughout his fight with diabetes, he had good days and bad days,” his mother says. “He was ill for almost 25 years while he traveled, performed, and tended to his family. I have been a Type 1 diabetic for over 50 years, and this is how it goes.… Some days I’m at the peak of my game, and other days I’m dragging. Is that not how a chronic illness acts on the body?”

Phife’s father, Walt Taylor, offers a finer point: “He was a warrior. He was sick, but he found the energy and strength to fight.… But guess what? As God says, ‘Joy comes in the morning.’ And guess what? I miss him. It was very difficult when he passed away. But now, joy comes in the morning. I’m joyful because of his music.”

Before he passed, Phife left behind a blueprint for how he wanted his final album to be executed. Head-Taylor and Rasta Root finished Forever over five years of pushing through grief. It was a process of many moving parts, and it required scaling an emotional mountain. “We had to get through birthdays,” Head-Taylor says, her voice heavy. “We had to get through certain dates, holidays. We would be at a standstill sometimes, because we just needed time to grieve.”

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Phife with his mother, poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, at a movie premiere in 2011. WENN Rights LTD/Alamy

The stakes are high for this album, the final musical output from an all-time great. Phife’s father insists that there is no timing better than the present. “This is God’s timing,” he says. “We are in the middle of political unrest in this country, the pandemic, and people losing their jobs. For Malik’s album to drop now is God’s plan. People have asked the question of why this took so long. I don’t question that, because I really believe that in the difficult times we live in right now, it will be a blessing to have his work in the world again.”

On Forever, Phife sounds bursting with energy. As always, he carried the spirit of his parents in his rhymes, equally present on the mic as a poet and as a joke slinger. (One gift of speaking with his parents is hearing those dual personalities in action: Cheryl, overjoyed, yet thoughtful and patient; Walt, quick to both laughter and seeking laughter from others.) The ferocity that Rasta Root mentions is palpable on tracks like “Wow Factor,” where Phife piles together entire timelines’ worth of rapid-fire references, never once losing the thread or the beat, or “Nutshell Pt. 2,” where he spars delightfully with Redman and Busta Rhymes. These songs show him at the height of his powers as an MC.

But the album’s real gifts are in its retrospective nature, its vulnerability. Many of the tracks are slow drips, sweetened by rich samples, with Phife showing off his evolution as a clear and succinct narrator, concerned with his own interior life, and what messages he might want to leave behind. “Sorry” has the spirit of an old ballad from the middle of the last century, a man lamenting his wrongdoings, hoping to be taken back by his beloved. Phife’s extra layers shine through: He is still witty and boastful, but not too proud to dissect himself in the name of love, in the name of legacy.

The album’s crown jewel and most revelatory moment comes in the title track. “Forever” details the pleasures and tribulations of Phife’s time in A Tribe Called Quest. He recalls smaller regrets, like some of the group’s early clothing choices, and larger ones, like butting heads over communication lapses. The beat drops out at the end, and what’s left is Phife’s voice, with no other sound to cushion it. Here, and only here, he sounds emotionally exhausted. It hasn’t been easy, but Phife’s love for his bandmates has endured. He closes: “Deep in my soul, I believe what will be shall be. Requiem for a Tribe — ’Ro, Sha’, Kamal, and Malik.”

Ali Shaheed Muhammad took on the job of mixing Forever. The content of the title song wasn’t much of a shock to him, because he and Phife had the kind of relationship where they often talked through the group’s complications. “It’s a little hard, because I’m hearing my brother’s voice,” he says. “But I wasn’t surprised by the words. Except for one thing in particular — as much as he’d shared with me, he’d never shared the sentiment of forgiveness.”

While he was working, Muhammad could almost believe he was talking again with his dearly departed brother. “There’s an artist from Vancouver who did a pencil drawing of Malik,” he says. “It’s the only actual picture I have up in my studio. Every now and then, I’d look at it and laugh: ‘Yes, boss. I’m on it.’ “