The rapper, who has died at age 47, was a formidable presence on the Philadelphia hip-hop group’s first four albums
Before the late-night show and the household fame, the Roots were the pride of Philadelphia’s underground hip-hop scene. The quiet heart of that version of the Roots — an unforgettable part of the lineup that put them on the map, won countless devoted fans, and enabled all the success to come — was Malik B, who died this week at age 47.
Malik wasn’t the flashiest verbal technician in the Roots; that was always Tariq Trotter, a.k.a. Black Thought, a boundless lyrical dynamo whose freestyle abilities were legendary from Day One. Nor was he the group’s most magnetic public personality; that was often drummer Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove. But Malik brought something crucial to the group on their first four albums in the Nineties. He kept the Roots grounded, giving their jazzy, free-wheeling explorations a firm footing in the Northeastern rap canon of that era. He was the member of the Roots you could most easily imagine running into on any city block, the guy whose warm, human presence balanced out his friends’ musical chops.
He and Black Thought had an easygoing bond on those early Roots albums, trading verses with an obvious affection for each other. “Mellow My Man,” one of the smoothest grooves from the Roots’ 1995 major-label debut, Do You Want More?!!!?!, begins with an invocation of their friendship: “Yes, the Roots laying back, relaxin’/Cooling out with my man, Malik B, we call him Slaxon,” Black Thought raps. The rest of the song is almost entirely about their laid-back connection, with some classic Nineties-rap punchlines from Malik thrown in (“Change my name to Saran or Reynolds, then I wrap ‘em”). Malik holds his own on the whole album, his verses standing out as much as those of Black Thought. “I Remain Calm” (rhymes with “lyrically, I got the bomb”) includes some of his coolest talk: “I write an anthem, throw a tantrum, and remain handsome/Mysterious vibes, like I was the Phantom.”
The two MCs were brothers-in-arms, with a spirit of friendly competition that wasn’t unlike what you saw between Q-Tip and Phife in A Tribe Called Quest, and they were as charming to listen to as any other hip-hop tag-team of that era. “Your steel sharpened my steel as I watched you create cadences from the ether and set them free into the universe to become poetic law, making the English language your bitch,” Black Thought wrote today in a heartfelt tribute to Malik. “I always wanted to change you, to somehow sophisticate your outlook and make you see that there were far more options than the streets, only to realize that you and the streets were one… and there was no way to separate a man from his true self.”
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