Malik Taylor, the extraordinary writer and performer known to hip-hop fans as Phife Dog, died today at the age of 45, according to reports. A member of A Tribe Called Quest – a key component of the “Native Tongues” movement in ‘90s hip-hop, in which performers like De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, and Monie Love emphasized positivity and knowledge of self – Phife’s vocal style, a loopy, high-pitched near-bark, beautifully complimented the mellow low register of fellow founding member Q-Tip.
The pair grew up together in Queens, New York, and while Phife was always part of the Tribe crew, his involvement on their 1990 debut record People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was minimal, contributing verses to only four tracks. He didn’t really come into his own until the group’s sophomore effort, 1991’s brilliant Low End Theory – due in no small part to his iconic lead verse on the second track, “Buggin’ Out,” with its oft-quoted kickoff, “Yo, microphone check, one-two what is this? / The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business.”
Tribe would ultimately release five records, concluding with 1998’s The Love Movement. There were various reunions and tours in the years that followed, the music often overshadowed by the tension between Phife and Tip, detailed in Michael Rapaport’s excellent 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. (Give it a stream; it’s free on Crackle.) That film also explored Phife’s numerous health woes, brought about by his sweet tooth and subsequent diabetes diagnosis (hence his self-description as a “funky diabetic”), culminating in a kidney transplant. His cause of death has not yet been confirmed.