Malik Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg whose nimble, clever rhymes helped launch A Tribe Called Quest to both commercial and critical success, died Tuesday at the age of 45 from complications resulting from diabetes. Rolling Stone has confirmed the rapper’s death.
Taylor had had health issues for years, undergoing a kidney transplant in 2008 to deal with a longtime battle with diabetes. “It’s really a sickness,” Taylor said in Beats, Rhymes & Life, Michael Rapaport’s candid 2011 documentary on the group. “Like straight-up drugs. I’m just addicted to sugar.”
“Malik was our loving husband, father, brother and friend,” his family said in a statement. “We love him dearly. How he impacted all our lives will never be forgotten. His love for music and sports was only surpassed by his love of God and family.”
“Family, my heart is shattered at the loss of my beautiful son,” Taylor’s mom Cheryl Boyce-Taylor wrote on Facebook. “Thank you for your love and good wishes. Malik made me so proud, and he was a good and humble son. What holds me is that he brought joy through his music and sports, and that he lived a magical life. He is with his beloved grandmother and his twin brother Mikal today. God bless you Malik Boyce Taylor. Please send prayers to my daughter-in-law Deisha.”
Taylor appeared on all five of the group’s studio albums, most notably 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders, acting as the high-pitched, gruff vocal counterpoint to Q-Tip’s smooth, mellow flow. The group broke up and reunited multiple times since the release of their last album, 1998’s the Love Movement. As documented in Beats, Rhymes & Life, the group would sporadically reunite for live shows, but stopped short at recording new material.
Health problems deterred Taylor from recording much solo material, though the rapper released his only solo album Ventilation: Da LP in 2000. Speaking to Rolling Stone last November, Taylor was tentatively optimistic about both his health and future recording plans.
“I am in a good spot, but I have my good days and I have my bad days,” he said at the time. “But I’m more or less in a good spot, so I can’t really complain.” In the same interview, Taylor revealed plans to release the J Dilla-produced “Nutshell,” the first single off a planned EP titled Give Thanks. The rapper released a video preview of the song, though a full version has yet to be released. Prior to his death, Taylor had also been at work on Muttymorphosis, his new LP that would have functioned as “basically my life story” that he hoped to have released later this year.
Taylor was born November 20th, 1970 in the Jamaica area of Queens, NY. Living in the same area as Q-Tip, he would meet his future groupmate at the age of 2, with the duo attending the same school and playing little league baseball together. “We were best friends,” Q-Tip said in Beats, Rhymes & Life.
As recounted in the film, the rapper would visit his grandmother, a strict Seventh-day Adventist, on weekends and sneak in episodes of Soul Train for his early musical education. “When it came to block parties and hip-hop, once I saw them grab the mics and getting busy, I risked my livelihood getting kicked out of the house and everything just to be a part of it,” Taylor said in the film.
At the age of 19, Taylor contributed verses to four songs on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, including an iconic verse on the group’s third single, “Can I Kick It?” Despite the song’s enduring appeal, Taylor himself was not happy with his contribution. “It’s hard for me to get into ‘Can I Kick It?’ … for the simple fact that I hated my voice back then,” he told Rolling Stone. “It was high-pitched and [speaks in high-pitched voice] ‘Mr. Dinkins’ and I couldn’t stand it. It’s hard to listen to that album because of my voice. It’s almost like, thank God I was only on four records.”