People always askin’, “Why is Phife so cocky?”
I gotta be good at something ’cause I can’t play hockey
— Phife Dawg, “Where Ya At?”
The last time I heard a funky diabetic was right now.
A Tribe Called Quest’s catalogue is on repeat all day and probably all week. It will be for anyone whose instinct was to follow paths to rhythm in the 1990s, when the New York rap crew expanded imaginations, re-imagined jazz, and piled banger upon banger. They changed the game.
Phife Dawg — born Malik Taylor but better known as the Five Foot Assassin — died Tuesday at age 45. The hip-hop community lost a quick wit, a team player, and a unique voice to diabetes.
The sports world lost one of its most committed fans.
“Sports and music came into my life simultaneously. Growing up in New York, if you didn’t emcee or play ball—basketball, football, baseball—you were looked at as weird,” Phife told Longhorn Hip Hop in 2012.
“I was a big basketball fan. I played point guard, but I didn’t grow tall enough to take it to that next level.”
Battle rhyming began as just a hobby; ball was his focus.
Those priorities flipped when Phife stopped growing at five-foot-three, which gave him a cool alias but also stunted his hardcourt dreams. He once described his appearance like this: "the height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck.”
I skate on your crew/ Like Mario Lemieux — "Keep It Rollin' "
“Sports was always my first love. I played Little League baseball. I played Pop Warner football. Basketball happened to be my favourite sport,” Phife said.
So it was genuine when, playing Scottie Pippen to ATCQ star Q-Tip's Michael Jordan, Phife littered his verses with sports metaphors and splashed his videos with throwback jerseys and Starter caps. After Tribe landed its record deal, Phife described himself as the "first draft pick for the label called Jive."
Growing up I used to use the Afro Sheen/ Knicks and Lakers was my favourite basketball team — “Lemme Find Out”
Cleveland Indians getup here, Atlanta Braves representation there, and — oh, my God — even a New Jersey Devils sweater, Phife helped popularize the sports-junkie chic of mid-'90s hip-hop but never abandoned the logos when they went out of style and designer fashion took over.
When Orlando Magic superhuman Shaquille O'Neal recorded his debut rap album in 1993, Phife was a natural fit as ghostwriter and microphone setup man:
The face and propelling force of Tribe was always Q-Tip, the creative one, the singular talent. Still, Phife knew the group worked better as a unit, and as strong as some of Tip's solo work is, the balance provided by the jokey, skirt-chasing, ESPN-addicted everyman is missed. Phife was Big Boi to Tip's Andre 3000. You were in awe of one, you related to the other, you needed both.
“Being in a group is like being on a basketball team," Phife said in that 2012 interview. “If Q-Tip’s Michael Jordan, I have no problem playing Scottie Pippen." He then compared ATCQ’s less-vocal members, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi, to Phil Jackson and Tex Winter. "When we get together on one court, we dominate.”
Remember White Shadow?/ My clique stay sharper than an arrow — “Steppin’ It Up”
Seeing as how he played point as a kid, Phife preferred to be compared to another basketball player -- not Pippen, who was a small forward.
"Rod Strickland was one of the best point guards in the game, but he was always under the radar. Never made an all-star team, but people he played with, like David Robinson, Chris Weber, Juwan Howard, they would tell you Rod Strickland was the man. The party didn’t start till Rod Strickland brought that ball up and orchestrated the offence so it could be successful," he said. "That’s how I feel I am to A Tribe Called Quest."
The dissolution of A Tribe Called Quest increased Phife's connection to sport.
Malik's family encouraged him to throw himself into sports radio because he'd watch games and talk to the television set like he was a commentator. From poetry to prose, Phife wrote sports articles for Slam and Rap Pages. He served as a basketball scout for prep school in Connecticut and coached both his son's and his younger brother's teams.
Phife realized many a kid's dream when he became a playable character in the NBA 2K7 and NBA 2K9 video games.
“I sleep, eat, walk, talk basketball all day," he said. "Every sport, but really basketball.”
Phife donned a customized No. 5 New York Jets jersey on the album jacket for 2000's Da Ventilation, his lone solo album (though another was in the works). He interviewed the comically taller Dirk Nowitzki.
And he was Periscoping his analysis of NBA games through his Twitter account, Phife Sports Network, up until Monday.
Here's a video of Phife's analysis of the Toronto Raptors before performing at a halftime show in 2015:
Even when he memorably threw shade at sports icons like Bo Jackson ("Bo knows this and Bo knows that/ But Bo don't know jack, 'cause Bo can't rap") or a wild quarterback ("Your styles are incomplete, same as Vinny Testaverde"), Phife did it with a smile and a wink.
"Malik was our loving husband, father, brother and friend. We love him dearly. How he impacted all our lives will never be forgotten," Taylor's family released in a statement Wednesday.
"His love for music and sports was only surpassed by his love of God and family.”
Rest in peace.
My main purpose in life is to be no one but Phife. — “Thought U Wuz Nice”