All of us at KCRW were saddened to learn of the passing of A Tribe Called Quest MC Phife Dawg, aka Malik Taylor, last night at the age of 45. He and his bandmates, Q-Tip, Jarobi White & Ali Shaheed Muhammad, lead the charge to create a more diversified alternative to the hard minimalism of gangsta rap that was becoming the popular style in the late 80s. DJs Mario Cotto and Anthony Valadez offer up their thoughts in the wake of Phife’s untimely death:
Last night, as I hazily drifted off to sleep, I saw a tweet mentioning the passing of legendary MC, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. There was little to confirm it, and given the miserable modern trend of pranksters creating social media chain reactions by proclaiming deaths, I shrugged it off and went to sleep sad and unsure.
After a night of fitful sleep, waking to the verified news of Taylor’s passing felt endlessly nightmarish. The increasingly familiar death-knells for our musical heroes and legends clangs horribly within us. Every new passing a combination gut-punch that reminds us of our own mortality and a dizzying upper cut that we will never get to see an artist we hold dear do what they do again.
The first time I heard The Low End Theory was a personal seismic shift. Some fall afternoon 1991, I skipped lunch with Zak Moffson, and we slipped into the empty French Class because Ms. Gluck had a cassette deck to play tapes during class. He said, “check this out” and handed me the sleeve as he popped the tape in the deck. Because Zak had an older brother, he always had the heat before anybody. I looked at the body painted model, song titles, and the hand written aesthetic that hinted at work by Basquiat I would later appreciate.
The deep upright bass sounds that open the track “Excursions” shook the doors my brain and like a lightning storm made jazz make sense. This was an introduction to VIBE, a most elusive concept to a scrawny, late-blooming 15 year old boy. This was the birth of cool in my life. Then, as “Excursions” abruptly ended and with a simple “YO…” the doors blew off the hinges as Phife burst through and became the MC I would essentially compare all other MCs to. Forever.
Self-assured but not cocky, authoritative but not preachy or pretentious, a diminutive ladies man but not a creep and damn if he wasn’t actually lyrically the funniest MC, Phife Dawg became a spiritual avatar. You saw yourself in him and wanted to be more like him. He proved to be a paragon of acceptance of self, finding strength in embracing his quirks, height, complexion, diabetes. He was also not afraid to be vulnerable, which made him really real in a Golden Age Hip-Hop world of realness. Additionally, he made it not only OK but sexy to be “brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian,” just as long as you were real and not wearing colored contacts or hair made by Diane.
It was that wit and the ease with which he’d turn a phrase that made Phife truly one of the Greatest of All Time.
Without reservation, I’d argue that the Five Foot Assassin’s “Seaman’s Furniture” crack in “Electric Relaxation” is the best play on words in any medium since Shakespeare came up with “the beast with two backs.”
A real MC and human being, Phife Dawg Malik Taylor loved the music, the fans, the vibe and he gave love through it…and he left us far too soon. May he rest in peace.
In a lot of ways Phife was the “everyday Joe” in rap music. He would announce his love for positivity, and then follow up with the fact he’s “far from a bully, but not a punk.” For kids like me this was inspiring to hear: that you could keep the peace, yet still hold your ground on the playground in the LAUSD (Los Angeles School District). He taught me that that duality was acceptable and cool.
He dropped some of the best opening lines in Hip Hop and some of the most memorable lines in history.
One of my favorite quotes from Phife mentions his love for woman of all colors while still introducing himself in such a cool and causal way. Only Phife could do it like this: “I like ’em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian/Name is Phife Dawg of the Zulu Nation/ Told you in the jam that we can get down/ Now let’s knock the boots like the group H-Town”