Fighting for Life
Phife Dawg shares his diabetes story Lindsey Wahowiak
Can Phife Dawg kick it? Sometimes he can. It depends on the day.
Phife (Malik Isaac Taylor), 42, is part of A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most influential rap groups ever. He’s a producer, a family man, a basketball fan. But three days a week, his dialysis comes first.
Phife Dawg has made no secret of his struggles with type 2 diabetes (sometimes reported as type 1). But it wasn’t his intention to become a diabetes advocate, he says. “It was something I didn’t like talking about,” he says. “I just happened to mention it on one of our records [“Oh My God,” on 1993’s Midnight Marauders]—‘When was the last time you heard a funky diabetic?’ That’s all I said, which was actually enough … but I was just rhyming.”
If Phife sounds casual about opening up, it’s because diabetes has become a central part of his life. In 2008, he had a kidney transplant after renal failure due to diabetes complications. The issues he’s faced with his diabetes were put front and center in the 2012 documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. And for the past year, he says, he’s been back on dialysis—and he’s back on the transplant list. “I haven’t really spoken about being on dialysis again and needing another kidney,” he says in his unmistakable voice. “It’s a strain on me as far as going where I want to go, doing what I want to do. When I was on dialysis the first time, my stepson was playing basketball… . I couldn’t practice with him. I wanted to go out and run with him and things of that nature, but I didn’t feel good.”
But make no mistake: Phife Dawg feels pretty good, day-to-day. It’s not always easy to eat right and get enough exercise—he calls it a job that’s “not even, 24/7, but 25/8!” The self-described “cream soda fanatic” says he can finally resist his favorite treat. And like all people with diabetes, he is sometimes mystified by how, even on his best days, his blood glucose can go out of whack. The good thing, he says, is he hasn’t had an episode of hypoglycemia since Christmas 2012. The more he learns, Phife says, the better things get. “Knowing is half the battle,” he says. “Once you know where you are, you can work on controlling it.”
Phife wants to pass that information on to others. He’s in the early planning stages of starting his own charity foundation, Fight for Life, which will spread awareness of diabetes, renal failure, and lupus. “I definitely want to give back anyway I could,” he says of the planning so far. “Charity basketball games, softball games, even concerts, we have to do what we have to do. If that’s the conduit to help, then let’s go for it.”
If that sounds like a lot to pack in between his Monday-Wednesday-Friday dialysis dates, that’s because it is. But nothing’s too overwhelming for the funky advocate. “I’ve never really been a crybaby, so I just go through it and do what I have to do,” he says. “But I’m going to live. Believe that.”
Phife Dawg is one of several celebrity rap musicians involved in diabetes advocacy.