What’s happening folks! I’m not going to lie to you. A week removed and I’m still at a profound loss for words. This was something none of us saw coming. One member of arguably the most important Hip Hop group (not named Run-DMC) of all-time dead at the age of 45.
Malik Isaac Taylor, otherwise known as Phife Dawg, passed from complications from his over twenty-year fight with diabetes last Tuesday. This one has fully sent the Hip Hop world into mourning, reflection, and tears. Keep in mind, we still are trying to move past the passing of the great Sean Price in August. We were, and still are, so in love with Tribe, in spite of their much publicized break up back in ’98. We always wished and hoped for one last Tribe album, a reunion just for Hip Hop’s sake. Those dreams will sadly never come to fruition now. As a young thirty-six-year-old guy that lives, breathes, sleeps, eats, walks, talks, and bathes in Hip Hop, this one truly hurts my feelings and shakes me to the core.
We first peeped the self-professed “Five Foot Assassin” on Tribe’s stellar debut, Peoples Instinctive Travels In The Paths Of Rhythm. This was an album that was very different than anything else upon its release in ’90. It was very bohemian in nature, stressing musicianship and lyricism, but compared to Q-Tip, for the most part Phife took the backseat. Considered an “alternative” Hip Hop album for its time, this was far from the N.W.A., Geto Boys, and Ice-T music we were becoming accustomed to. This was different, yet beautiful, lyrically very promising music. I remember buying it some three months after it came out because I was deep into EPMD, De La Soul (another “alternative” Hip Hop trio that has earned the status of icons), Heavy D, and D.O.C. Although I didn’t become a huge fan of “Left My Wallet In El Segundo” at first, I (like many) was an enormous fan of “Bonita Applebum”, and I was intrigued to buy the album at some point. When I bought it I was pleasantly surprised, as it proved to be a playthrough from beginning to end.
It was ’91, however, when my mind was blown. Tribe quickly crushed any notions of a sophomore jinx with The Low End Theory, which up until Illmatic was my absolute favorite album in the game. It saw them fusing more jazz into their melodic structure, and it was more groove-centric than their debut. This album was when we started to fully know how strong Phife was lyrically and it was the album we officially saw Phife emerge as a star. Aside from his monster performances on my all-time personal Tribe fave “Buggin’ Out” and his solo cut of “Butter”, we saw him otherwise holding it down lyrically on impeccable cuts like the anthemic first single “Check The Rhime”, their follow-up “Jazz” and “Everything Is Fair”. Of course, nobody can deny his performance along with everyone else on one of the greatest posse cuts ever heard in Hip Hop: “Scenario” with Leaders Of the New School. Yeah, I know. Busta beasted the track at the end, but who didn’t hold their own all through that cut? The point is, Phife arrived and for me, this remains my all-time fave from Tribe.
Just when you thought he couldn’t get any more dope, Tribe dropped their third epic piece, Midnight Marauders, which although more accessible, didn’t stray far at all from what brought them to the table. With the phenomenal singles of “Award Tour” and “Electric Relaxation“, it took Tribe into higher stratospheres and it also continued Phife’s momentum as a more than capable emcee next to Tip. This was yet another monument for them, as they wrapped up the single most acclaimed triple threat in albums ever heard in Hip Hop. Described as the three most “perfect” albums by close friend Busta Rhymes, this was clearly the best group in the world at the time (besides a group that consisted of nine emcees from Staten Island and five young cats from Cleveland).
In ’96, they dropped their arguably darkest effort with Beats, Rhymes, and Life. Although still a very dope release, it was clear they were trying to go a different route, but the music was reflective of the turmoil going on within the group, as Phife started beefing with Tip around this time. Regardless, Phife still didn’t come short, with strong showings on cuts like “The Hop”, “Keep It Moving” and “Baby Phife’s Return”. I thought it was a good release, but even I noticed something was off and different with this album compared to their CLASSIC prior three. Then came their swan song in ’98, The Love Movement. Again, good album, and although there were traces of old Tribe, it just wasn’t the same. This was the end of one of the best groups not just in Hip Hop, but in all of popular music.
We tend to forget that Muddy Ranks had a solo album back in 2000, called Ventilation: Da LP. Blessed by the likes of Dilla, Pete Rock, and Hi-Tek (who brought a funky and dope sound to his first single “Flawless”), this was severely slept on, but we saw him at his lyrical strength all album long. Barely selling anything, Phife stopped recording, and remained low-key. We publicly saw his fight with diabetes on the Michael Rappaport documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life though, where he documented his struggles with it and where we even see him going into the hospital to undergo a kidney transplant, which was given to him by his wife.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve heard him do a Dilla tribute cut called “Dear Dilla” – which was quite dope by the way – and he showed up on Slum Village’s Dilla-flavored album from 2015, YES, on the track “Push It Along”, which ended up being the last time we heard fresh vocals from Muddy Ranks. Sadly, we wish there were more. While many consider Q-Tip the face of Tribe, Phife was clearly the lyrical b-boy of the group. We will greatly miss this trailblazing emcee who bathed in Hip Hop all day, every day. God Bless the Five Foot Assassin. We will NEVER forget you brother. Salute!