Sound studio

Give Phife Dawg the sound of “Forever”

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” in his car’s cassette player, and the throbbing bass line from “Buggin’ Out” started playing. Then I heard a naughty, raspy voice: “Yo! Checking the microphone, one two what is it. It continued:

The five foot killer with the thug business

I float like gravity, never had a cavity

I have more rhymes than the Winans have family

It was Malik Izaak Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, aka the Five-Foot Freak – his most memorable and self-deprecating moniker. I was also about five feet tall at the time and didn’t have a cavity either. “The Low End Theory” was A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, out of an eventual six, and it became a crossover hit. Among the factors that contributed to its popularity, perhaps none mattered more than the playful dynamic between the group’s two emcees, who were essentially brotherly foils. Phife Dawg exchanged verses with Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, aka Q-Tip, aka The Abstract, who was the dominant creative force behind the band’s debut album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.” Q-Tip’s flow—sometimes delivered in Queens-influenced French, full of softly cerebral, perpetually nasal appeals—was seductive. Taylor was a gritty-throated thug, who later bragged on “Check the Rhime” that he had “no home practice.” The two had met in Queens when they were just a few years old.

“Even though Tribe had a smooth jazzy feel to it, Phife was always like, ‘Don’t distort it,'” Dion Liverpool, aka DJ Rasta Root, who became Taylor’s touring DJ and beatmaker in 1998, recently told me. He and Taylor got to know each other in the late 90s, bonding over music and their shared Trinidadian roots. Eventually Liverpool, who has a degree in business management, became Taylor’s manager, as well as his full-time musical collaborator. “He loved jumping in numbers and freestyling,” Liverpool said of Taylor. “He loved that street rap that Queens talks about.” Taylor idolized Queens-raised superstars LL Cool J and Run-DMC, and absorbed their swagger around the corner, which gave A Tribe Called Quest a smiley edge.

Shortly before A Tribe Called Quest released their fifth album in 1998, the band announced on stage that they were dissolution. In the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, filmmaker and Tribe superfan Michel Rapaport suggests that the band’s disbandment was the result of predictable struggles, primarily between Fareed and Taylor, for control and credit. Taylor released a solo album, “Breakdown: Da LP,” in 2000; it received mixed reviews, which Liverpool attributed to the album’s “unprocessed anger” at Tribe’s breakup. Years later, Tribe resumed performing on occasion and eventually returned to the studio. In March 2016, eight months before the band released “We Got It from Here”. . . Thank you 4 for your service,” Taylor died, at the age of forty-five, of complications from diabetes, a disease he had sometimes spoken of. (“When’s 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 Taylor left behind were a slew of unreleased recordings, which he had spent about a decade assembling into an album he never finished. This week a selection of this material is released as a posthumous solo album, ‘Forever’, produced by Liverpool, which is now a Lecturer in music from Emory University. Ahead of its release, I visited Liverpool at their townhouse north of Atlanta a few weeks ago. Liverpool, who has the endearing encyclopedic way of a music nerd, had turned the second-floor guest bedroom into a studio. I sat between a hookah and a Himalayan salt lamp, in front of a life-size cutout of Phife and cases of records laden with hip-hop, soul, reggae and Brazilian jazz.