Mama Phife lets readers into Phife Dawg’s world with new book
The collection of poems written by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, ‘Mama Phife Represents,’ is slated for release in Jan. 2021.
“Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am / Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram,” rapped Phife Dawg to kick off his classic verse on “Check The Rhime.” Now four years after the A Tribe Called Quest star’s passing, his mother is the one telling her stories and preserving her son’s legacy.
Author Cheryl Boyce-Taylor wrote “Mama Phife Represents” in honor of her son, known to the world as the five-foot assassin. Born Malik Taylor, Phife Dawg co-founded A Tribe Called Quest in 1985 along with Q–Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and former member Jarobi White. The group evolved to become one of hip-hop’s most revered rap collectives with multiple platinum albums, career accolades, and immeasurable cultural impact.
As theGrio reported on March 23, 2016, Phife Dawg died of complications from diabetes at age 45. He battled the illness for decades with the support of friends, family, and fans. In the 1993 song, “Oh My God,” he called himself “a funky diabetic.”
According to BBC, the rapper’s health took a turn in 2008. He suffered renal failure and received a kidney transplant from his wife Deisha Head Taylor but four years later Phife was back on the waiting list for another kidney. In the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life on ATCQ, he opened up about his experience with diabetes and his never-ending craving for sweets.
“It’s really a sickness,” he said according to the report. “Like straight-up drugs. I’m just addicted to sugar.”
The intimate stanzas printed in “Mama Phife Represents” due out next year, are a continued part of the grieving process. Boyce-Taylor highlights a deep love between a mother and son who empowered each other.
In the book, she shares how the rapper became Phife Dawg and how he chose his many clever nicknames. Published by Haymarket Books, the collection of poems and short stories, along with Phife’s own hand-written notes, sketches, lyrics, and writings build the story of the man behind the rhymes. Boyce-Taylor offers a full look at Phife Dawg – the creative child, inquisitive son, loving husband and father, and iconic rap artist.
theGrio spoke with Boyce-Taylor about the process behind her work, raising a world-class rapper, dealing with grief, and more. In the conversation, she shared an unreleased album, Phife Forever is also due next year. Read the interview below:
theGrio: Your son was an iconic hip-hop artist. How did his fans help you with the grieving process?
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor: I have to take a deep breath for that one. I have to tell you that this was one of the most stinging blows I’ve ever experienced in my life losing my son. It was very hard to be grieving and grieving in public. But I have to tell you, that the fans supported us so immensely. People from all around the world [sent] notes and cards. There were murals all over Paris, South Africa, Trinidad. It was so positive. The fans were beautiful. They supported us. There were days when my heart would break and I felt like I can’t go on. And then I may go on the internet or something and see a story or go on his page and his Instagram and see what people were saying, and that really helped us.
tG: Was there anything specific that you think contributed to him being able to become a revered artist?
CBT: There were several things. We’re from Trinidad originally, and in Trinidad, one of the academic cultures was poetry. It was a very large part of the school curriculum. My mother loved poetry. She never wrote her own, but she and her classmates were given these long poems. Of course, they were British [poems], however, they had to study and memorize, and then recite [them] before the class. I remember my own education. On Tuesdays, my teacher would take our class out under the tree, and we all had poems that we had to memorize, then recite. My mom read poems to me at bedtime and we actually brought that into Malik’s life.
We were also part of a Seventh Day Adventist Church and I would say that our church family also had a lot to do with his growing up loving spoken word. When he was about six, my mother worked with him on the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech. There was a cotillion a number of weeks later, and Malik had to recite this in front of the whole church. He got a kick out of it, and he really did well. He got a lot of response from that, and so he began learning that this was a good thing for him.
tG: How do you think religion and his upbringing shaped him as an artist?
CBT: When we moved him from public school, we put him in the Seventh Day Adventist School, which my heart was not fully into doing because I didn’t feel like their education was up to standards. My husband and I talked it over and we decided that’s where his family church is. It will be the same people he sees on the weekends. Whatever he doesn’t get there, we will just have to teach him at home. A lot of what we did at home was we listened to the Black Panthers, we listened to Dick Gregory, The Last Poets. That was what my household was like. We [played] Caribbean music, Calypso, reggae. Bob Marley was our guru. We surrounded [Malik] with art. I would say that that’s probably is what helped him in that way. My mother would pray with him, read his Sabbath School lessons with him. She was the co-parent.
tG: Can you talk about when Malik became Phife Dawg and you became Mama Phife?
CBT: He had a lot of girlfriends, I don’t mean romantic, and a lot of guys. The guys were always over at the house, especially when they started delving into the music and so they would all come in and say “Hey mama.” Q Tip lived around the corner from us, and he and Malik went to the same school. They were friends since they were two years old. His dad told the story that he was in the garage, and he saw Malik’s bookbag in there. He looked in the bag, and he saw a notebook full of rhymes. He called over Malik and he said, ‘Whose bag is this,’ and Malik said, ‘I don’t know.’ It wasn’t our goal for him to be a rapper. [We wanted him to] go to college and do something else, so he was hiding it by that point. He finally said ‘Mine’ and his father said, “What’s this notebook?’ and he said, ‘Rap I’m writing.’ His father took it out and checked it over and it was OK, and I was OK with it. We really encouraged him and that is how he became Phife.
tG: Was there anything different about the process writing this book?
CBT: As an artist, I knew it was necessary. As a mother grieving, it almost broke me down. This is my sixth book, so I know from writing other books that they’re healing in a way. It was so painful because I was writing it during the first one to three years after Malik’s death. There were a lot of things that I held back because I felt ‘that’s my secret with Malik,’ that I would probably write down now. In the wake of that first year, I wanted to keep everything that related to him as a secret and I’ve never had that experience with a book before.
“Mama Phife Represents” is available for pre-order and is slated for release on Jan. 5, 2021.
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