How A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Funky Diabetic’ Helped Bring the Caribbean to Hip-Hop

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Published on March 25, 2016 with No Comments


Malik Isaac Taylor (November 20, 1970 – March 22, 2016), better known by his stage name Phife Dawg

Rapper Phife Dawg passed away on Tuesday at the age of 45.   Many in the hip hop community are aware of his contributions to A Tribe Called Quest’s unique sound but many may not be aware that he was of Caribbean descent, Trinidadian to be exact.  His lyrics regularly referenced Caribbean dancehall music and he frequently rapped in patois.   The straight outta Queens, NY hip hop group started in 1985 with Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Jarobi White.

Phife had struggled with Type 1 diabetes for years, and received a kidney transplant from his wife in 2008. Phife, who was born Malik Isaac Taylor, told NPR in January that he was on the list for another transplant. His official cause of death is not yet public.

A perfect example of Phife’s musical style is his verse in ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ where he references the legendary, dancehall king Shabba Ranks — from the early 90s. It starts about 1:30 in:

“He was just unabashedly Trinidadian. He was unabashedly West Indian, and unabashedly Caribbean,” says Garth Trinidad, a DJ, artist and critic for radio station KCRW.  Trinidad met Phife in 2001 when he interviewed him about some of his solo work.  Every time they ran into each after that, Phife recognized him and would ask him about his life.

“Q-Tip was the water, and Phife was the fire. He brought the flame,” he says. “Q-Tip would season the meat, and Phife would barbecue it. Those two were a one-two punch.”

The Five Foot Assassin wasn’t the only member of A Tribe Called Quest who was of Caribbean descent: Q-Tip’s father was from Montserrat. The group was also one of the three founding groups that made up Native Tongues — the hip-hop collective known for Afrocentric lyrics that eventually grew to include Queen Latifah, Black Sheep and Mos Def, among others.  But even among the other groups in Native Tongues, Trinidad says A Tribe Called Quest stood out.

“It sounds to me like they were more comfortable being themselves,” he says. “They weren’t acting. They weren’t trying to be anything else than who and what they were. And a lot of who they were came from their upbringings, their backgrounds and their heritage.”

Phife stands out from the rest of the group, he says, because of his boldness. He would regularly start verses in patois, fill the middle with references to Caribbean culture and finally end the verse in patois as well.

“He made you take notice,” Trinidad says.

There are plenty of other examples of Phife’s influence in A Tribe Called Quest’s sound. And there’s not many better examples (in my head) than “His Name Mutty Ranks.” The song even ends repeating a line from “You Nuh Ready For Dis Yet” by Jamaican reggae artist Tanya Stephens.

It’s tough to imagine what hip-hop would sound like today without the influence of A Tribe Called Quest, and Phife specifically.

“I think we’d be experiencing hip-hop music and the surrounding culture differently if Tribe never did what they did,” Trinidad says.

Musicians, journalists and fans around the world are publicly mourning his death on Twitter and Instagram. At a concert in Australia, rapper Kendrick Lamar remembered him by having his fans chant Phife’s name

RIP Phife Dawg!

SOURCE:  Kera News



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