Investigative Report: Phife Dawg, Diabetes & Hip-Hop’s Serious Health Issues

On March 23, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor died from complications of diabetes, stripping hip-hop of an integral part of its early influence and leaving A Tribe Called Quest without a momentous part of their living legacy.

Following Phife’s death, there had been the expected condolences and farewells found throughout every corner of the hip-hop community, the customary outpouring of reverence and hat tipping spread in abundance with potency fit for a king. Websites, DJs, MCs, fans—everyone—had come forward to express their appreciation for what the rapper known as the “Five Foot Assassin” had accomplished for the game. But in all of that, there lies an important piece in Phife’s passing that no one is really talking about.

Without a doubt, this has been engraved in hip-hop’s history books as just another unfortunate passing. But the fine footnote print stamped at the bottom of the page has once again become the white ink often overlooked: this is yet another death in hip-hop orchestrated not by a gun or any other form of violence, but by the hands of illness. And this trend is becoming increasingly prevalent in occurring right before—or just at—the middle age stage.

Phife was just 45. And he is only one amongst several other figures in hip-hop that passed away from disease at a relatively young age—many of them only in their 40s at the time of their deaths.

West Coaster Nate Dogg was the go-to hook man for chart toppers such as 1994’s “Regulate” with Warren G, Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” 50 Cent’s #1 hit “21 Questions,” and many others. On March 15, 2011, at just the age of 41, Nate Dogg died after suffering multiple strokes. He had battled health problems in the years leading up to his death.

At 46, Harlem’s DJ EZ Rock—the sidekick of Rob Base with whom he joined forces to create the ’88 classic “It Takes Two”—passed away in April of 2014 after suffering a diabetic seizure.

Two Three 6 Mafia members died at just the age of 40: After surviving a heart attack and a stroke, Lord Infamous subsequently experienced yet another heart attack—this one fatal—on December 20, 2013. And in the fall of last year, Koopsta Nicca perished as a result of a massive stroke.

Guru, the lyricist making up one half of the Gang Starr twosome alongside DJ Premier, died from complications of cancer at age 47 on April 19, 2010. But not long before that, he had suffered a heart attack.

In November 2011, at 44 years old, Heavy D fell victim to a lung blood clot. His long-term obesity is debatably not related to his death. However, being overweight deemed him unhealthy and most likely left him at risk for a wide array of health problems that never surfaced—at least, not publicly.

Unfortunately, the family of the late Big Pun can’t say the same. After the rising rap phenomenon had a stint in a weight loss camp in North Carolina in 1999—an effort that his widow Liza Rios denounced as lousy and a ploy orchestrated by the record label to push along the completion of Pun’s sophomore solo album—he suffered a heart attack. The days he spent in the hospital shed him 100 pounds, but he withdrew from the program prematurely and had quickly gained it all back, and was nearly 700 pounds on the day he went into cardiac arrest in early February of 2000. He was just 28 years old.

If alternate—and less severe—outcomes were possible with any of these cases, it will never be known for sure. But one can only wonder just how many of these deaths could have been prevented. How many of these illnesses could have been better managed?

A potential answer to this question lies in statistical facts. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Stroke and diabetes fall within the top ten.

About 735,000 heart attacks take place every year. Key risks for heart disease, much like for strokes, include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. 47% of Americans—nearly half of the nation—has at least one of these three risks.

Many of this 47% are not aware. Lack of preventative annual doctor visits plays a significant role, and this does not apply only to those with or at risk of heart disease.

The CDC estimates that in 2012, 86 million adults in the US had prediabetes, a serious health condition that encourages heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Only 11% of this group knows of their status. Even worse, 8.1 million people with type 2 diabetes do not know that they have it. The consequences of this ignorance can be—and often has been—disastrous. And even fatal.

Far and wide, people are just not taking care of their health.

“Knowing is half the battle,” Phife Dawg once said to Diabetesforecast in reference to being in tune with his health. “Once you know where you are, you can work on controlling it.”

In Phife Dawg’s case, the battle was long and turbulent. He was diagnosed with diabetes in 1990. Many years of ignoring his condition and refusing treatment—largely due to fear and denial—led him towards the inevitable path to dialysis. Eventually, he decided to take charge of his condition and became an advocate for diabetes. But his efforts, although helpful to others, wasn’t enough to assuage the damage that had already been done to his health. Dialysis, the procedure that filters the blood in place of a failing kidney, was required three days a week. He had a kidney transplant in 2008 due to renal failure, and three years before his passing he found himself in need of yet another kidney.

Had Phife taken proper measures in treating his illness from the initial point of diagnosis, would he, respectfully, still be here today?

On the upside, there are figures in the rap game that are living a lifestyle dedicated to insuring the well being of their health.

Fat Joe, once a close friend and cohort of the late Big Pun, formerly told CNN that he lost 100 pounds after 16 years of being diabetic and watching several of his overweight friends die of heart attacks. The 45-year-old says making some changes with his eating and exercise habits helped him to reverse the disease.

“Diabetes is like a host to the VIP section,” Fat Joe said. “Whatever you thought you were going to die of, it’s the express line. It takes you to heart disease, strokes, or ‘Right this way, let’s lose some toes.’

“Food is like a legal drug,” he continued. “You can take 50 cents and walk into the store and buy a Twinkie and get high. And it’s killing people.

“You know how they say a crackhead or drug addict hits rock bottom? I just hit rock bottom to where I just knew if I didn’t make this lifestyle change, I was going to die.”

Brooklyn MC Masta Ace, 49, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for well over a decade before he made the announcement back in 2013. He said his dedication to a wholesome diet and fitness played a huge role in improving his on-stage stamina and overall level of wellness.

At just three months old, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia. Just decades ago, this illness had a lifespan reaching only into the teen years (with exceptions). Now, life expectancy can reach into—and possibly beyond—the 50s. And at 41, Prodigy is still successfully managing his ailment, but in the past, numerous sickle cell crises sent him on several hospital trips before he finally began to take better care of himself and get the disease under control.

“We would drink a lot of alcohol—do a lot of stuff that… especially I’m not supposed to doing,” Prodigy once told Real Health in regards to his rap star lifestyle. “I didn’t realize until my 20s that I couldn’t really do that.

“I learned through trial and error that diet is a huge part of staying healthy with sickle cell,” he said. “Eating a lot of green vegetables, drinking water like a fish. Being calm. Not being so angry and stressed out. All of that helps. Once I started doing that, I saw a change happen. I saw I wasn’t getting sick as much. I saw I could do more things.”

There is a harrowing scenario that could have consumed both Fat Joe and the Queens MC had they waited too long to take their situations seriously—a scenario that we’ve been seeing play out way too frequently as of late.

The loss of Phife has saddened the rap world, but the above corroborations and statistics say it all: A large portion of America—not just hip-hop—needs to be more proactive in protecting themselves from senseless deaths due to unhealthy lifestyles. Unfortunately, it will take a lot more than open dialogue and awareness to make this happen.