NEW YORK — Phife Dawg, a masterful lyricist whose witty wordplay was a linchpin of the groundbreaking hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, died Tuesday from complications of diabetes, his family said Wednesday. He was 45.
Born Malik Isaac Taylor, the 5-feet-3-inches-tall rapper was part of number of rap classics with Tribe, including “Scenario,” ”Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.”
“I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian, name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation,” he famously rapped on “Electric Relaxation.”
“Malik was our loving husband, father, brother and friend,” a written statement from family members said. “How he impacted all our lives will never be forgotten.”
The family didn’t disclose any other details.
Mr. Taylor grew up in Queens, New York, with fellow Tribe member Q-Tip. In high school, the two met Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who’s from Brooklyn, to form Tribe. Jarobi White later joined the group.
The collective — known for its artistic songs and lyrics — recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of their debut album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.”
They were pioneers of rap, blending genres like jazz into hip-hop and offering rap fans a different sound and style than the gangsta rap that dominated airwaves at the time.
Mr. Taylor and Q-Tip were known for trading words on songs and playing off one another.
“I was just learning,” Mr. Taylor said in a recent interview with The Associated Press when asked about recording the group’s 1990 debut album. “I was just watching Q-Tip.”
In the November interview, he was just as passionate about rap as he was when the Tribe launched its career. The group had some tense moments — seen in the 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” — but thoughts of re-grouping were being considered.
To celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary, they performed together on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Mr. Taylor had aid he was ready to tour again with his band mates.
“These are my brothers,” he said in the November interview. “I know nothing but them. I only wanna work with them. In terms of going on tour, I wanna go on tour with them.”
Tribe proved influential to rappers from Pharrell to Busta Rhymes.
The music world and other celebrities mourned Mr. Taylor on Wednesday. Among the tributes that poured in, he was memorialized by as rappers Chuck D, Big Sean, Macklemore and Swizz Beatz, as well as actors Chris Rock and Don Cheadle, DJ-producer Mark Ronson, musician Sean Lennon, country singer Darius Rucker and R&B singer Jill Scott.
“Today is a dark day in hiphop,” rapper Talib Kweli tweeted.
At his Wednesday concert in Sydney, Australia, Kendrick Lamar spoke about Mr. Taylor’s influence on him and had the audience of 18,000 chant the late rapper’s name.
“We lost one of the pioneers in hip-hop today by the name of Phife Dawg,” Lamar said. “We’re gonna give it up for him, for allowing me to do what I’m doing on this stage right here, right now, today.”
Questlove posted a lengthy memoriam on Instagram and wrote about how epic Mr. Taylor’s verse was on “Buggin’ Out,” from 1991’s “The Low End Theory.”
“Malik “Phife” Taylor’s verse was such a gauntlet/flag planting moment in hip hop. Every hip hop head was just…stunned HE. CAME. FOR. BLOOD & was taking NO prisoners on this album (or ever again),” Questlove wrote.
As a rapper who took time to craft his skills and come up with clever and intellectual lyrics, Mr. Taylor expected the same from others and was critical of contemporary hip-hop.
“Back when we were doing it, everybody had their own lane,” he said in the interview last year. “Nowadays, it’s one on top of the other. ‘Oh, this sold 3 million with that style. Let me duplicate that style and run with it.’
“In order for [us] to see the future everybody can’t sound like Future. Like, everybody sounds like Future,” he added, referring to the popular rapper-singer-producer Future. “Like, I don’t know even know who’s who outside of Future. It’s the same thing. You watch the hip-hop awards, and I watch it religiously because I’m hip-hop …and it’s like, ‘Oh! I thought that was …wait a minute.’ Because everybody sounds so much alike. I think we honored our craft a little bit more compared to now.”
He added that “there’s a few who still honor their craft, the Kendricks, the J. Coles, that whole Pro-Era crew … but there’s not enough.”
In 2000, Mr. Taylor released his solo album, “Ventilation: Da LP.” His manager, Dion Liverpool, called him his “best friend and brother.”
“I also will celebrate his incredible life and contribution to many people’s ears across the world. Even with all his success, I have never met a person as humble as he,” Liverpool said. “He taught me that maintaining a positive attitude and outlook can conquer anything. Now my brother is resting in greatness. I’m honored to have crossed paths with him. Riddim Kidz 4eva.”