I don’t care who you are, the first three A Tribe Called Quest albums - People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) - are hip-hop essentials.
And at the very centre of that work is Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, aka The Five Foot Assassin.
Along with Q-Tip, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife formed one of the most influential groups in modern music. And while Q-Tip may have been deemed the “star” of the group, Phife’s lyrical work is indisputable. His opening verse to “Buggin’ Out” still gives me chills…
Phife died of diabetes complications yesterday. He was 45 years old. His passing was met with an avalanche of tributes from hip-hop fans and stars trumpeting his legacy. (This Atlanta traffic report incorporating Phife’s lyrics almost brought me to tears.)
That legacy is not only cemented with the groundbreaking music (and some fantastic opening lines), but also with his warm, openhearted appearance in the 2011 documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.
Directed by character actor Michael Rappaport, the film was not without controversy. Only Phife showed up to the Sundance screening in 2011 and despite working closely with Rappaport, Q-Tip pulled his support over certain aspects of the portrayal – most likely the moments that capture some of the bands interpersonal difficulties.
But at its heart, the documentary is a portrait of a pioneering band that began out of childhood friendship and everything that entails – passionate collaboration, infighting and, ultimately, amazing music.