“Can I Kick It? Yes you can!” These lyrics are widely known by anyone who indulges in the hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest. Pioneer to the hip-hop and rap community, member Malik Taylor, better known as “Phife Dawg” passed away on March 22 at age 45 due to complications involving his long battle with diabetes.
His fellow group members released a statement that reads “Our hearts are heavy. We are devastated. This is something we weren’t prepared for although we all know that life is fleeting.”
The group first materialized in Queens, NY when Phife [met future member Q-Tip at the age of two during little league baseball]. The duo later partnered up with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White and were signed to Jive Records. From the year 1985 onward, the group composed 5 albums, leading them on a path to be one of the most progressive hip-hop acts of their time. Their 1996 album “Beats, Rhymes and Life” reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, as well as earned a spot on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. “The Love Movement” from 1998 peaked at No. 3 on the charts.
The group’s lyrical dexterity allowed for their songs to overflow with catchy, feel-good rhymes that not only charmed the listener, but told a story. ATCQ relied heavily on samples drawn from jazz fusion records from the 1970s, giving their music a mellower flow that set them aside from other rappers of that era. With each album release, they further demonstrated their innovative abilities and incorporated humor into their lyrics.
An aspect of ATCQ that may have gone unnoticed was their clever political statements. On the single “Can I Kick It?” Phife rapped, “Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor? / You’ll be doing us a really big favor.” This was a reference to Democrat David Dinkins, who would become the first black mayor of New York City. They actively avoided being overly politically and racially charged, but adopted Afrocentrism in their early career.
Tension between the members led Phife and Q-Tip to launch solo careers with the latter’s being more successful than the former. Following the group’s official split in 1998, Phife released his solo album in 2000 titled “Ventilation” which was well received by fans.
The 2011 documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life” detailed the group's influence as well as its eventual disbanding. In the trailer for the film, artist Pharrell Williams credits the group. “Myself, Kanye West, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Tribe’s album.”
Looking back on the immense success of the group, Phife told Rolling Stone he never expected it to take off on such a scale that it did.
“I just thought we were going to be celebs in the hood,” he said.
He also told the magazine that himself and Jarobi were originally just supposed to be featured on a few songs, and had plans to form a separate group.
ATCQ reunited in 2008 for a series of concerts and announced in 2013 that they would no longer be performing together. In interviews, Phife admitted he only performed in these shows in order to help support his medical costs, following his kidney transplant.
In 2015, the group celebrated the 25th anniversary of its debut album by releasing a commemorative issue of “People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm,” which featured remixes by artists such as Pharrell, Cee-Lo Green and J. Cole.
After the release, the group appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to promote the new rendition of the album, which would be their last performance. Their music will be remembered as the stepping stones that gave other aspiring rappers the opportunity to incorporate their own individual styles into their music.