Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, the “funky five footer” whose limber, animated rhymes helped make New York hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest one of the genre’s fundamental groups, died last Tuesday at age 45. By now this isn’t news, and not just because Taylor’s memorial was yesterday—he had such an immeasurable influence over hip-hop and pop that his death was immediately felt. And his work remains immediate too: the collagelike vitality of Tribe’s Afrocentric stomp makes it timeless.
The Low End Theory no doubt reminds some people of the profound change it worked on hip-hop when it dropped in 1991—hell, I barely have any memories from back then, but some part of me remembers how it felt to hear those hits wafting out of car windows. Taylor’s work was and is part of the air. So how do you pay tribute to that life-giving force? By breathing.
For many of us, that’s meant spinning People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm for hours on end. For a crew of graffiti artists in Logan Square, it’s meant honoring Taylor’s memory with a mural centered around a profile of the rapper’s face, rendered in streaks of green and red on a black background—a la the cover art for The Low End Theory. The piece adorns a permission wall maintained by Artistic Bombing Crew graffiti artist FLASH ABC, who documents the wall’s art with a Tumblr called Project Logan. It’s on the south side of Fullerton a half-block west of Milwaukee, just across the street from X-it European Clothing—the roof of which was home to a Frankie Knuckles tribute mural till last summer.
I first saw the bold greens and reds of the Taylor memorial as I rode the Blue Line on Monday evening, and I made plans to come back on foot. This is one of the few ways we can honor a stranger who touched our lives—by taking time out of our day and surrendering it to that person’s memory. Visiting the graffiti mural wasn’t much of a pilgrimage for me, but being able to walk around the larger-than-life rendering of Taylor’s face gave me a sense of the work and affection that went into creating it.
On the right of the right side of the mural it says, “Cuz you and I know you know who I am.” It’s a slightly abridged version of one of Taylor’s lines from “Check the Rhime,” which is today’s 12 O’Clock Track. The mural may be missing a “know” from the lyrics, but the message remains—as long as hip-hop is in the air, so is Taylor.