[UPDATE BELOW] Malik Taylor, a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest known the world over as Phife Dawg, has passed away at age 45, Rolling Stone reports, leaving behind one of the most beloved and influential bodies of work in all of hip-hop.
The specific cause of Phife's death has yet to be confirmed, but Taylor had struggled with Type 1 diabetes for decades and underwent a kidney transplant in 2008.
Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, Taylor befriended fellow A Tribe Called Quest members Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White at a young age. In the 2011 documentary Beats Rhymes And Life, both Phife Dawg and Q-Tip recall playing hooky during grade school and learning how to write rhymes together. "When it came to block parties and hip-hop, once I saw them grab the mics and getting busy, I risked my livelihood getting kicked out of the house and everything just to be a part of it," Taylor said in the film.
Heavily-influenced by other NYC groups including, most prevalently, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest would come to prominence with their 1990 debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, a record that featured the 19-year-old Phife Dawg delivering high-pitched, rapid-fire verses that served as the perfect counterpoint to Q-Tip's smooth delivery. His verse on "Can I Kick it?" ("Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor? / You'll be doing us a really big favor") became an early highlight of the group's career. (Taylor has often admitted to hating his early work; in an interview last year he told me "I hated my voice back then. That’s really it. I hated it, and “Can I Kick It?” is one of my least-favorite Tribe records to be honest.") However, the MC truly came into his own on Low End Theory, Tribe's second, heavily jazz-influenced LP.
With that single "Yo!" and everything that followed, Phife secured himself a place amongst hip-hop's greats. No longer just Q-Tip's jocular sidekick, the rapper proved that his wordplay, musical chops, and energy was what truly made Tribe tick. And it only got better: 1993's Midnight Marauders featured Taylor handling tracks completely on his own, and also delivering unforgettable one-liners. That line in "Electric Relaxation"—the one about Siemens furniture—will forever be a classic.
As the '90s wore on, Tribe struggled to keep it together. White left the group quickly after People's Instinctive Travels, and simmering tension between Taylor and Q-Tip eventually boiled over. The group's fourth and fifth LPs, Beats Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement, both offered flashes of the group's old brilliance, thanks in large part to Phife's rhymes, but it became clear that the old magic was waning.
Along with Phife's health. "It's really a sickness," Taylor said in the group's documentary. "Like straight-up drugs. I'm just addicted to sugar." Phife moved away from New York City and re-focused his life around basketball, occasionally doing reunion shows his old bandmates.
"Even though I knew I had [diabetes] I was in denial," he went on to say. "I had to have my sugar. You have to accept it. If you don't accept it, it's going to kick your ass." Though it was never confirmed, many suspected that the revenue from A Tribe Called Quest's sporadic 21st Century touring was in large part directed toward Taylor's medical expenses. Still, during a 2015 interview with Hot 97, the MC sounded eager to get back on the road. "We’re all doing different things, and at the same time it is a business. But I think it’s ridiculous that we’re not touring." A Tribe Called Quest still has one album remaining on their original 1989 contract with Jive Records.
Now, the news of Phife's death cuts short the possibility of a real Tribe reunion. And in the coming weeks and months, the material intended for his upcoming solo album Muttymorphosis will most likely take the form of a tribute release. His collaborations with the also-deceased producer J Dilla will be spun by DJs around the world. He'll be shouted-out in MCs' verses and immortalized in murals across Queens. Rest in peace, five-foot assassin, funky diabetic, Malik Taylor, Phife Dawg.
UPDATE: In a statement, Taylor's family has confirmed that his death was the result of complications from diabetes. "Malik was our loving husband, father, brother and friend," Phife's family wrote. "We love him dearly. How he impacted all our lives will never be forgotten. His love for music and sports was only surpassed by his love of God and family."