I was ten years old and slumped in the back seat of a friend’s older brother’s car when I first heard A Tribe Called Quest. It was 1991. My friend’s brother put “The Low End Theory” into his car’s cassette player, and the throbbing bass line of “Buggin’ Out” started to play. Then I heard a rascally and raspy voice: “Yo! Microphone check, one two what is this.” It went on:
This was Malik Izaak Taylor, a.k.a. Phife Dawg, a.k.a. the Five-Foot Freak—his most memorable and self-deprecating sobriquet. I was also about five feet tall, at the time, and similarly cavity-free. “The Low End Theory” was A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, out of an eventual six, and it was becoming a crossover hit. Among the factors contributing to its popularity, perhaps none mattered as much as the playful dynamic between the group’s two emcees, who were essentially fraternal foils. Phife Dawg traded verses with Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, a.k.a. Q-Tip, a.k.a. the Abstract, who was the dominant creative force behind the group’s first album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.” Q-Tip’s flow—sometimes delivered in Queens-inflected French, full of gently cerebral, perpetually nasal appeals—was seductive. Taylor was a scamp with a gravelly throat, who later boasted, on “Check the Rhime,” of having had “no home training.” The two had met in Queens when they were both just a few years old.
“Even though Tribe had a smooth jazzy feel, Phife would always say, ‘Don’t get it twisted,’ ” Dion Liverpool, a.k.a. DJ Rasta Root, who became Taylor’s touring d.j. and beat-maker in 1998, told me recently. He and Taylor got to know each other in the late nineties, bonding over music and their shared Trinidadian roots. Eventually, Liverpool, who has a business-management degree, became Taylor’s manager, as well as his full-time musical collaborator. “He loved to jump in ciphers and freestyle,” Liverpool said, of Taylor. “He loved that street rap that Queens is about.” Taylor idolized the Queens-bred superstars LL Cool J and Run-DMC, and absorbed their street-corner braggadocio, which lent A Tribe Called Quest a grinning edge.
Shortly before A Tribe Called Quest released its fifth album, in 1998, the group announced, onstage, that it was disbanding. In the documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” released in 2011, the filmmaker and Tribe superfan Michael Rapaport suggests that the band’s dissolution was the result of predictable struggles, mainly between Fareed and Taylor, over control and credit. Taylor put out a solo album, “Ventilation: Da LP,” in 2000; it received mixed reviews, which Liverpool attributed to the album’s “unprocessed anger” over Tribe’s breakup. Years later, Tribe began performing again on occasion, and eventually returned to the studio. In March, 2016, eight months before the group released “We Got It from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service,” Taylor died, at the age of forty-five, from complications of diabetes, a condition that he had occasionally rapped about. (“When was the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” he asks on “Oh My God,” a track from Tribe’s third album, “Midnight Marauders.”)
Among the things that Taylor left behind was a wealth of unreleased recordings, which he had spent roughly a decade assembling into an album that he never completed. This week, a selection of that material is being released as a posthumous solo album, “Forever,” executive-produced by Liverpool, who is now a lecturer in music at Emory University. Ahead of its release, I went to see Liverpool at his townhome in north Atlanta a few weeks ago. Liverpool, who has the endearingly encyclopedic manner of a music nerd, had converted the second-floor guest room into a studio. I sat down between a hookah and a Himalayan salt-rock lamp, across from a life-size cutout of Phife and crates of records heavy on early hip-hop, soul, reggae, and Brazilian jazz.