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Phife Dawg, A Founding Member Of A Tribe Called Quest, Dies At 45

Rapper Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest performs at H2O Music Festival at Los Angeles Historical Park on Aug. 17, 2013.
Chelsea Lauren
WireImage/Getty Images
Rapper Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest performs at H2O Music Festival at Los Angeles Historical Park on Aug. 17, 2013.

Malik I. Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg who was a founding member of the seminal group A Tribe Called Quest, died Tuesday at the age of 45.

His family said in a statement that Phife died as a result of complications from diabetes.

NPR's Andrew Limbong tells our Newscast unit that Phife, who was one of two main vocalists for A Tribe Called Quest, brought a lot of humor to the group.

"There was a self-deprecating charm to Phife's lyrics — he was always making fun of his appearance," Andrew reports. "He was a teen when he got together with his friends to form one of the most acclaimed rap groups in history."

Last year marked the 25-year anniversary of the group's first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Phife and his bandmate Ali Shaheed Muhammad spoke with All Things Considered about the group's beginnings.

You can listen to the full interview here:

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A Tribe Called Quest immediately stood out. "Their socially conscious lyrics and Afrocentric visual style were in line with contemporaries like Public Enemy, but the vibe was different — loose, fun, with head-nodding beats pulled from sources far and wide," as NPR described last year.

"We pretty much were always into being ourselves. We didn't want to be like anybody else," Phife told host Kelly McEvers.

And on the group's five studio albums, Phife acted "as the high-pitched, gruff vocal counterpoint to Q-Tip's smooth, mellow flow," Rolling Stone reported.

Speaking about that first album, Phife told Kelly, "I hated my voice back then. So if there was one thing I could do over, it would definitely be that." He added that he hated one well-known line from their song Can I Kick It? — which he described as high-pitched.

Phife told Kelly he was struggling with long-term health issues. He said that he had had one kidney transplant, and was on the list for another one.

While he was waiting for the first kidney, he said he "thought it was over" — that he wouldn't be able to perform. But as he told Kelly last November, "Now I'm back in it full-fledged." The band, which broke up in 1998, recently reunited for an appearance on The Tonight Show.

As NPR's Frannie Kelley wrote in 2011, "A Tribe Called Quest burned hot and bright. They worked collaboratively much of the time, sampling the jazz records their fathers loved instead of relying on the funk and James Brown samples rampant in hip-hop at the time. They had a huge impact on their peers and on a younger generation."

The other members of A Tribe Called Quest released a statement, which says in part:

"Our hearts are heavy. We are devastated. This is something we weren't prepared for although we all know that life is fleeting. It was no secret about his health and his fight. But the fight for his joy and happiness gave him everything he needed. The fight to keep his family happy, his soul happy and those around him happy, gave him complete and unadulterated joy... until he heeded his fathers call."

Phife's manager Dion Liverpool said in a statement: "While I mourn the loss of my best friend and brother, I also will celebrate his incredible life and contribution to many people's ears across the world. Even with all his success, I have never met a person as humble as he."

Meanwhile, others in the industry are paying tribute to Phife on social media:

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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