Hip-Hop Pioneer Phife Brought Attention to Diabetes

Phife Dawg performs onstage at the 2012 BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta.  (Chris McKay/Getty Images for BET)

Rapper Phife Dawg, of the iconic group Tribe Called Quest, is continuing to raise awareness around diabetes in his death, as he did in life, throughout his music career.

The rapper’s family confirmed Wednesday that Phife died at age 45 at his home near Antioch due to complications resulting from diabetes, sparking a wave of disease-related tributes on social media.

“Rest in peace and poetry, Phife Dawg. We will continue the fight against Diabetes in your honor,” Youth Speaks posted on Twitter.

Phife, born Malik Taylor, was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 19. It was May 1990, just one month after Tribe released its first album. Phife later talked about his struggle with the disease in  interviews, and even rapped about it.

“Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic?/When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” he rhymed in Tribe’s 1993 song “Oh My God.”

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In 2010, Phife told the East Bay Express that he was working on a solo album, "Songs in the Key of Phife," though it was never released. Reporter David MacFadden-Elliott got to hear a few samples in the IHOP parking lot after the interview, including a song about diabetes called “God Send.”

“[It’s] a three-part song that turns from a smooth love joint into a warning from a doctor: 'You got to start dialysis.' The news ushers in a discordant, claustrophobic, pulsing beat that rocks, while voice-mail messages of support play for minutes on end. The song concludes with an emotional verse of thanks: If it wasn't for y'all/Who knows what would have happened?”

It was a couple years after Phife’s initial diagnosis before he opened up about it, or even really took care of himself.

His coming out was in a video interview on dLife, a website devoted to living with diabetes. He described finding out about his diagnosis. He was riding home from a concert in 1990 and kept asking the driver to pull over so he could go to the bathroom. He was really thirsty. When he got home, his grandmother, a nurse, did a test and confirmed he was diabetic.

“I thought it was over,” he told dLife. “I just automatically thought I was done rapping.”

He went into denial.

“I was just an idiot,” he said. “I still thought I was everybody else -- Twinkies, Suzie Qs, potato chips -- junk food anonymous.”

In 1992, Tribe was on "The David Letterman Show" and then immediately had to go to another shoot for "The Dennis Miller Show." Pfife's blood sugar count was almost in the thousands -- normal levels are between 70 and 100.

“Everything was slow motion,” Phife described. “I couldn’t even do the show. I had to get hospitalized.”

Even then, he still struggled to get enough exercise and eat right.

“I’d get on the diet. Wouldn’t stick to the diet. Get back on diet, wouldn’t stick to the diet,” he said. “And it just got to point where I had to be put on dialysis.”

Phife was eventually put on a waiting list for a kidney transplant, and received one from his wife in 2008. By 2013, he was back on dialysis and back on the transplant list. In an interview with NPR earlier this year, he talked about waiting for another kidney.

“I’m doing fine,” he said. “I really, really can’t complain. I could. But I won’t because God is really, really a good God.”

But he also had a message for other young people newly diagnosed with diabetes.

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“It’s not a game. You can lose your life because of this,” he said during the dLife interview. “You need to love yourself, love your life.”

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