2016 officially sucks.
Lee Andrews. George Martin. Vanity. Maurice White. Blowfly. David Bowie. Daryl Coley.
Now, add Phife Dawg to that list. He died Wednesday at age 45.
Unlike those previous pioneers I mentioned — who are all celebrated for revolutionizing pop, gospel, soul and rock — Phife’s name is rarely mentioned among those who revolutionized rap.
Phife deserved those flowers while he could still smell them.
Malik Issac Taylor was born in Queens, and was fated to meet Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed in high school. The trio would go on to become the core members of A Tribe Called Quest, a group that used heavy jazz influences to blaze a new path for hip-hop.
While Tribe’s contributions to the game are rightfully praised, it’s usually because of Q-Tip’s wordplay or Ali’s iconic soundscapes. Phife’s often the odd man out, downplayed as a jokester rather than a full-fledged MC.
That’s a mistake.
Phife was the perfect foil for Q-Tip’s smooth yet straight-laced delivery. He peppered the track with playful punchlines, creating the infectious synergy that made Tribe so much fun. As great as Q-Tip was, there would be no Tip without Phife. The Five-Footer was the glue the strengthened Tribe, bonding wordplay, production and personality into an unbeatable package.
Phife’s solo career never took off, with his 2000 debut Ventilation: Da LP mainly being remembered for the vague shots it took at Q-Tip. Despite the group’s well-documented friction, it was heartwarming to see them back together just a few months ago on The Tonight Show, with Phife just as magnetic as ever.
Phife’s self-deprecating humor and hilarious quips became the inspiration of dozens of future artists — Ludacris, Kanye West, Devin the Dude, 2 Chainz and many more have a little Phife Dawg in their DNA.
Phife never got the love he deserved for setting a new standard in hip-hop. While I was discussing Phife’s legacy with one of my boys today, he compared the dynamic between Phife and Q-Tip to Shaq and Kobe: “There would be no rings for Kobe without a 7-foot assassin under the rim.”
And I’ll add to that — hip-hop wouldn’t be the same without the Five-Foot Assassin behind a microphone.