Still from Phife Dawg, "Dear Dilla," 2014. (YouTube)

Lessons from the Funky Diabetic: Phife Dawg as Reluctant Health Rap Pioneer

Often being a hip-hop fan means learning how to deal with the sudden loss of beloved artists. It always feels like they’re taken away too soon. Boogie Down Productions’s DJ, Scott LaRock, was shot and killed in 1987 at the age of 25. Eazy-E succumbed to complications of the AIDS virus in 1993. He was 30 years old. Tupac Shakur was shot and killed in 1996 at the age of 25. Notorious B.I.G. was murdered a year later at the age of 24. I also remember vividly the deaths of other notable rap artists like Big L, and J Dilla. Yet the death of Phife Dawg (born Malik Taylor) on March 22 has hit me the hardest. Phife was young when he passed — 45 years old — from complications of diabetes. And A Tribe Called Quest’s (Tribe) music formed the cornerstone of my soundtrack growing up. I was old enough to remember and enjoy pioneering rap groups like N.W.A., Boogie Down Productions, and Run DMC, but as I began to follow hip-hop more closely as a high school student, Tribe seemed to speak to me.

A Tribe Called Quest. (Shayan Asgharnia)
A Tribe Called Quest. (Shayan Asgharnia)

Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad embraced their nerd-dom at a time when a rougher, if not “gangsta,” black masculinity began to permeate hip hop culture. The group was weird. They wore odd and colorful clothes. Their music was earnest and idealistic. They were playful, yet subtly political and socially conscious. What made Phife special was that he presented himself as a familiar friend. He rapped about things we cared about and could relate to — sports, rapping, food, and other topics preoccupying young (black) folks. Phife could go off on the mic, while at the same time, he would tell self-deprecating tales about his life.

Phife did not mention his diabetic condition on the group’s first two albums — Peoples’ Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm (1990) and Low End Theory (1991). Still, I would consider Phife a health rap pioneer — one who became a reluctant mouthpiece for those who struggled with the disease. When Phife referenced living with diabetes in his music, he did not preach about how others living with the condition should live, precisely because he struggled mightily with what he called “an addiction” to sugar. His lyrics captured the complexities of living with the disease.

Addicted To Sugar

Phife was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes in May 1990. He was nineteen years old. According to his mother, the disease ran on her side of the family.1 Unfortunately, many of us hip hop fans, especially African-Americans, can relate to Phife’s and his mother’s predicament. There is a good chance we know someone living with the disease. According to the American Diabetes Association, African Americans tend to suffer from the disease at disproportionate rates. They are 1.7 times more likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites.

As Michael Rapport’s documentary on the group, Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest shows, Phife initially was not open about his diabetes. He was in denial, admitting to not adjusting his diet while growing up. During one of the interviews, Phife confesses, “Even though I knew I had it [diabetes], I was in denial, so to speak. I had to have my sugar.” Yet, he also framed his dietary struggles as a matter of addiction, rather than just “bad” behavior. He explained, “Of course Ali Shaheed and Q-tip was beating me in the head unmercifully about it. ‘You gotta do better than this…’ So, I step up, then I’ll slip again. Step up, slip again. It’s really a sickness, man. Like straight up drugs, man. I’m just addicted to sugar.”2 I am not a medical or health expert, but there are countless stories and studies that appear to corroborate Phife’s claim about sugar’s addictiveness.

Still from Phife Dawg's 2014, "Dear Dilla," where Phife tries to eat a donut, and his DJ and manager, Rasta Root, disapproves. (YouTube)
Still from Phife Dawg’s 2014, “Dear Dilla,” where Phife tries to eat a donut, and his DJ and manager, Rasta Root, disapproves. (YouTube)

Phife did not appear much on Tribe’s first album and he really did not reference the disease on the group’s second album, Low End Theory. His condition only spilled into the open in 1992 when Phife failed to appear with the rest of the group for a planned appearance on The Dennis Miller Show due to a diabetes-related setback. But, it was not until the Midnight Marauders (1993) album that Phife actually referenced diabetes in song. He went public on the single, “Oh My God.”

“When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”3

I did not think much of Phife’s question when I first heard it as a young teenager. I probably just thought it was a cool line, without making the connection. But many other Tribe fans did. In the documentary, Phife recounts, “It’s amazing how words move people because they’ll see you in the street, or a signing in a store, or something like that be like, ‘Yo! Are you taking care of yourself? You the funky diabetic!” He then continues, “Damn, I did say that… It was just a little flashback, like, ‘Why did I say that in the first place?’”4

No one will probably ever know why Phife punctuated his verse with such a revealing rhetorical question, but it gave much context to some of his other famous lyrics. “I never half step cause I’m not a half-stepper. Drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper,” Phife declared on “Buggin’ Out,” the second track on Low End Theory. In the documentary, Phife acknowledged again this line’s connection to a sugar addiction. We watch as he rhymes while filling his cup from the dispenser. “Drink a lot of soda, so they call me Dr. Pepper. You know what it is.”5

He also offered this double entendre in the first verse in “We Can Get Down,” which also appeared on Midnight Marauders:

Straight from the heart, I represent hip hop
I be three albums deep, but I don’t wanna go pop
Too many candy rappers seem to be at the top
Too much candy is no good, so now I’m closing the shop.6

Here, Phife likened rap artists who enjoyed popular success, such as MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, to candy and compared their effect on music culture to the effects of sugar on health.

Hip-hop’s Health Message

Just as we may not know why Phife famously asked, “When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?,” we also may never understand why he was so silent about his condition after Midnight Marauders. Besides a passing reference on the group’s “Stressed Out,” Phife barely discussed his condition on the group’s last two albums — Beats, Rhymes, and Life (1996) and The Love Movement (1998) — and his 2000 solo album, Ventilation: Da LP.

Phife Dawg, "Dear Dilla," 2014. (YouTube)
Phife Dawg, “Dear Dilla,” 2014. (YouTube)

But had he lived, there is evidence that Phife would have again addressed his experience living with diabetes through his music. Last year, he released the video for the single, “Dear Dilla.” Addressed to the famed Detroit hip hop producer, J. Dilla, who succumbed to complications from lupus in 2006, Phife playfully depicts his own struggles with disease. In the first scene, Phife wakes up in a hospital where he’s sharing a room with the producer. In one scene, Phife tries to eat a donut, yet his DJ and manager, Rasta Root, disapproves. In the ensuing scenes, Phife is listening to a doctor talk about his kidney function and is shown running while his DJ dangles a candy bar for motivation. The last scene in the sequence pans Phife’s and Rasta Root’s breakfast. Rasta Root prepares to enjoy bacon, sausage, eggs, and toast while Phife looks disapprovingly at his lonely orange and blueberry.

According to April Dembosky from KQED News, Phife also planned to address his experiences in a three-part song called, “God Send.” The song comprised a series of encouraging emails, with Phife reciting a verse about undergoing his kidney transplant at the end.

In January 2014, I published a post documenting the short history of “health rap.” I discussed how rap artists and groups such as KRS One from Boogie Down Productions, Goodie Mob, and Dead Prez used hip-hop to articulate messages of healthy eating and living. I also passively referenced A Tribe Called Quest’s ode to refraining from pork and cholesterol, “Ham ‘n Eggs.” However, in that post, I neglected to analyze how Phife discussed his struggles. Phife’s contributions to health rap may have been limited to several scattered lyrics, a few interviews, and a video over the course of almost three decades. However, he also gave voice to a complex struggle — one often hidden from those of us who do not suffer from diabetes.

Further Reading

Charnas, Dan. The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. New York: New American Library, 2010.

Coleman, Brian. “Check The Technique: The Story of A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Low End Theory,’Medium, March 23, 2016.

McCoy, Austin. “Eating to Live: A Short History of Health Rap,” Nursing Clio, January 2014.

Touré, “The Legacy of A Tribe Called Quest,” New York Times, March 24, 2016.

Notes

  1. Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. DVD. Directed by Michael Rappaport (United States: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2011) & “Phife Dawg’s dLife,” dLife.com, accessed 25 March 2016. Return to text.
  2. Beats Rhymes and Life. Return to text.
  3. A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders (New York: Jive Records, 1993). Return to text.
  4. Beats Rhymes and Life. Return to text.
  5. Beats Rhymes and Life Return to text.
  6. A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders (New York: Jive Records, 1993). Return to text.

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