Malik Izaak Taylor a.k.a. Phife Dawg a.k.a. the Five Foot Assassin a.k.a. Mutty Ranks a.k.a. Don Juice. Phife went by many names, but he remained a hip-hop great no matter the moniker. He was an emcee whose presence almost constantly conveyed joy and passion. Whether it was passion for hip-hop, or passion for the New York Knicks, Phife was a man who could wear his emotions on his sleeve behind the mic. However, he was also known for taking a solid, meat-and-potatoes approach to his verses. He was also a rapper that exemplified the ability to step one’s game up and become a hip-hop legend.
You’d be excused if you listened to some of Phife’s earliest performances and wrote him off as the “other guy in the group” in waiting. He didn’t exactly set the mic ablaze with his verse on De La Soul’s “Buddy” remix, or the majority of his verses on A Tribe Called Quest’s first album, 1990’s People's Instinctive Travels And Paths Of Rhythm. However, his lyrical evolution from that album to 1991’s The Low End Theory is every bit as phenomenal as the hype. The infamous opening line of “Yo! Microphone check one, two, what is this? / The five-foot assassin with the ruffneck business…” on “Buggin’ Out” heralds the beginning of one of the great transformative performances in hip-hop history.
Though Phife’s performances on “Buggin’ Out,” “Scenario,” and the solo-cut “Butter” deservedly have received their shine, the fact that he continued to improve lyrically on subsequent Tribe releases often gets overlooked. While Phife remained a proverbial co-star on The Low End Theory, he became a full-fledged partner on Midnight Marauders (1993). And though Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life (1996) often gets the short shrift, Phife continued to shine on tracks like “The Hop” and “Baby Phife’s Return.”
Phife spent the better part of the ’00s working inside and outside of the music world. His debut solo album Ventilation (2000) was unsurprisingly solid, and it’s a shame that his second solo album, the unfinished MUTTYmorPHosis, never saw the light of day. He dropped a few guest verses on various projects, but in his later years, most of his involvement with the world of hip-hop was the occasional Tribe reunion tour and a few scattered solo runs. Mostly he lived in his Bay Area home, enjoying his other great passion: sports. He struggled for years with diabetes, eventually requiring a kidney transplant in 2008.
Before he eventually succumbed to complications stemming from the disease in March of this year, he began working with his Tribe brethren on their final group album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Though he passed before the album’s completion, his impact on it is indelible and his presence is undeniable. His contributions to the project very much help make it one of the year’s best albums. And his presence, despite his 5’3” stature, still towers amongst the hip-hop gods.