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Rapper Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest Dead at 45

Phife Dawg, one of three members of the pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest, had rapped about his diabetes.
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Phife Dawg, one of three members of the pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest, a New York City band that helped redefine hip-hop in the 1990s, died on Tuesday, according to his manager. He was 45, and had long suffered from chronic health issues related to his diabetes; he had referred to himself in one song as a "funky diabetic."

Known more for by stage name than for his given one, Malik Taylor, Phife Dawg wrote lyrics that mixed outrageous boasts, self-deprecating humor and sports trivia with warnings about the pitfalls of the music industry.

Tribe Called Quest
(l-r) Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, and Jarobi White of musical group A Tribe Called Quest perform with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on November 13, 2015.NBC / Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

Phife Dawg's family released a statement saying he'd died from complications related to diabetes.

"Malik was our loving husband, father, brother and friend," the family said. "We love him dearly. How he impacted all our lives will never be forgotten. His love for music and sports was only surpassed by his love of God and family.”

His manager, Dion Liverpool, added: “Even with all his success, I have never met a person as humble as he. 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.”

Phife Dawg and partners Q-Tip — his childhood friend from Queens — and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, along with occasional collaborator Jarobi White, incorporated elements of jazz, 1970s rock and black consciousness as an alternative to another genre, gangster rap, that was ascendant at the time. Their intelligent, self-aware message linked them to what became the Native Tongues collective, which also included De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers.

The recipe was wildly successful: A Tribe Called Quest became one of the most successful rap acts of its era, with three albums hitting the Billboard top ten and all five of its releases going gold or platinum. Many current top hip-hop artists cite A Tribe Called Quest as an influence.

After their 1998 breakup, Phife Dawg and other members went on to pursue solo careers, but his didn't go very far, as he struggled with health problems. The group reunited a few times in the past several years, last appearing on "The Tonight Show" in November 2015.

Phife Dawg, born in 1970, provided lyrics for early songs but didn't become an official member until the group's second album, "Low End Theory," released in 1991.

"But as far as chemistry, it’s always been there because I’ve known Q-Tip since we were 2 years old. The chemistry was always there," Phife Dawg told New York magazine last year on the 25th anniversary of their debut album, "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm."

Phife Dawg was arguably the group's most playful rapper, making fun of his short stature (calling himself "the five-foot assassin") and his affinity for sugar, and referencing an array of sports and pop culture figures: "The Bionic Woman," turbulent former New York Knicks guard John Starks, the "Three's Company" character Mr. Furley.

Last fall, he told New York that he was at work on solo albums, which he hoped to release in 2016. Those records have yet to come out.

Phife Dawg said he saw the time of his group's rise as a high water mark in rap, and expressed hope that there would always be an audience. "Life is a cycle, and certain things are always going to come back around, especially if people cherish them like they cherish the golden era,” he said.