Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor’s spirit was palpable between the four walls of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco, California on Friday (May 17).
The sold-out crowd was gathered to watch over 100 Bay Area musicians recreate A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 classic, Midnight Marauders, and honor the life of the late Tribe luminary as part of the A Tribute To A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders event.
Spearheaded by non-profit UnderCover Presents, the tribute event seamlessly weaved together a cornucopia of musical genres — from Colombian and Indian to New Orleans brass and straight up rock-n-roll. Of course, the thread tying it all together was firmly rooted in Hip Hop.
Phife Dawg’s mother, esteemed poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, and Phife’s widow, Deisha Head-Taylor, were on hand to witness the City of Oakland proclaim May 17 “Phife Dawg Day” as well as revel in the entire performance.
Speaking with HipHopDX, Deisha made it clear the pain of losing Phife is still raw and when the grief is all too consuming, that’s when she’ll visit his Instagram account or old text messages.
“I laugh,” she told DX. “Yeah, it warms my heart to see and remember who he was and what he represented. His antics and just his whole character was just amazing and just funny at times. I smile.”
But there are days when it feels like she’s living in the Twilight Zone. Phife was only 45 when he passed away on March 22, 2016 and nothing could’ve prepared Deisha for the profound loss.
“To be honest, it’s still hard,” she admitted. “It’s still surreal, unreal, and I still have moments where I have emotional outbursts. The pain just never leaves. It’s a huge chunk of your heart that just … it feels like it’s gone, and it’s empty now. Sometimes I’ll look at pictures. I’ll go on his Instagram account. He stayed on Instagram [laughs].
“I am the Phifer, right? Sometimes I’ll go to those, and I’ll look at those, and then I’ll start smiling. When I have certain moments, sometimes I’ll go to text messages of things he would send me. I just reminisce to get through the healing.”
Deisha also looks for strength in Phife’s mother. Before Cheryl joined the conversation, she explained, “I’ll call Cheryl and we get through it together. When I hear her voice sometimes, it lifts me up. Because I’m like, ‘OK, she’s the closest to him.’
“I hold on to her sometimes for strength. Sometimes when I’m going through it, I’ll call her. She’s like, ‘Hey, Deish, how you doing?’ That instantly perks me up. But it’s very difficult. It’s still difficult.”
When Cheryl walked in to the green room, her likeness to Phife was almost shocking. There’s no doubt where the Tribe MC came from and where he got his penchant for stringing words together. Her energy instantly set the room at ease while her warm smile brought a sense of peace.
“I haven’t gotten through it,” Cheryl said. “It’s still a day-by-day process, but I know he would want me to continue my work. I am a professional poet and writer, so I withdrew from a lot of my performing and teaching and things like that. That was very helpful. I’ve been in therapy for the last two-and-a-half years and writing.
“I’ve just written a memoir [Mama Phife Represent] about our family and our life together. That has been very helpful in a way but also feels naked because our lives have been like an open book. I know we signed up for that, but still to mourn in public is no joke.”
However hard it may be, Cheryl is eternally grateful for the countless people who recognize what an invaluable contribution and impact her son made on the world. The Tribute To A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders event is a shining example.
“That has been the highlight of some of the healing, the highlight that he was a good man,” Cheryl said. “We knew it — no jail or drugs or 10 baby mommas. This is a man who prayed before he ate his meal and he didn’t care where he was, what restaurant, what high class, it didn’t matter. He was like that.
“This is a guy who kept his childhood friends from grammar school. We have always known that he was doing his best. I mean, he was human, but that he was trying his best to be a good person. To see that acknowledged, that’s been really, really amazing.”
Deisha feels similarly. Phife’s career started to take shape in 1985 when he was only 15, meaning for three decades he was able to live and thrive off his music. In fact, Cheryl laughed when she said he only had one “regular” job — a fast-food position at Stuf’t Potato.
In the Taylor household, you had to either be in school or work, so when Phife approached her and stated he wanted to join Tribe, she had to oblige. Plus, she said it brought him out of a darker period of his life.
“His dad and I were going through a divorce, and that was a really difficult time for him,” Cheryl recalled. “I saw the sadness in him, and I saw his light go out. For the first time, when he told me about rapping with Tribe, I saw a light coming back on in him. When he was six years old, my mother helped him to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. He did it at a cotillion.
“We’ve seen this in him from the very beginning. When that light goes out, you see that, too. You’re helpless as to what to do. You try everything, but it’s up to them how they come out of it. It was the music that brought him out.”
Deisha added, “I look at the fact that he had a complete career because he started so young. I always think to myself, ‘How many people can say that they were in the business for that long?’ He lived a full life. Even though he passed away young, in my eyes, he still lived a full life as far as his career. He earned platinum and gold albums, and he was well-known around the world.
“This [event] keeps us going. Just to say, ‘Wow, this is all for him.’ If he was here and this was going on, he would be performing. That’s just who he was. He didn’t care. He always said ‘I love Hip Hop, it’s culture, and the fans. He loved everything about music.”
When Deisha and Cheryl are together, their bond is instantly recognizable. They both suffered an impossible loss and continue to lift each other up. In the wake of Phife’s passing, Cheryl had endless empathy for her daughter-in-law despite also losing her son.
The event in San Francisco was also further proof just how much The Funky Diabetic meant to Hip Hop, something she feels he didn’t always get credit for during his time on earth.
“I’m honored and lucky,” Cheryl said. “He deserved this so much, and he did not always get this in his career. For those people who thought he didn’t work as hard as Q-Tip, that’s not true. When he was on tour and doing peritoneal dialysis four times a day and jumping onstage, you would never know. For people who say things like that, they don’t have a clue.
“Sometimes Malik would be sick and I would come out. Deisha and David [son] would be in the bed trying to get some sleep with him because it was late at night. She had to go to work the next day. People don’t know the half of what they speak and what Deisha had to go through. I say all the time that, yes, I’m sad. I loved my son. But my biggest pain was for this girl right here [points to Deisha]. I was like, ‘How does this happen?’”
"Malik 'Phife Dawg' Taylor Way" • 1 pm ET, we take it back to where it all began–192 & Linden. @RevoltTV will broadcast live on FB. #phifepic.twitter.com/xM5xwGQ4wy
— ATCQ (@ATCQ) November 19, 2016
We may never have the answers to those questions and Cheryl barely had time to even ponder why her son passed, but there are moments when it’s a little easier to understand. One particular time was during a memorial for Phife at the Apollo Theater in New York City shortly after he made his transition.
“I didn’t have time to get there [to the why] because they had a memorial at the Apollo, and the person who spoke said that some people just come here to do their work,” she said. “You see, like Bob Marley. You see like, Jimi Hendrix. They made this big splash with their work.
“Then I said that night, ‘Oh ok, so that’s what it is.’ He came here to do some work, and he’s done it. With the life he lived and things he’s done, I mean, there are people 95 years old that haven’t done the things he has.”
At one point in the evening, Cheryl read two poems about her revered son, which brought many people in the audience to tears. But despite the heavy context, the overwhelming sense of community and love reverberated everywhere. As Cheryl and Deisha continue on their path to healing, they both understand it’s not a process that makes any sense. Emotions come and go like the tides.
“It varies,” Cheryl said. “Sometimes I’m fine. Last night [during opening night], I was fine until they put up his first grade picture. It was like you never know what will trigger it, but you have to feel that in order for it to pass.”
Mama Phife Represent will hopefully be released next year.
In the meantime, cop the A Tribute To A Tribe Called Quest album here and check out DX in the coming week for Part II of the interview, which details the status on Phife’s posthumous solo album.