Malik B., a Philadelphia rapper whose unpredictable rhymes and staccato cadences elevated early albums by the Roots, helping to make the band a standard-bearer for underground, jazz-infused hip-hop in the 1990s, has died at 47.
Emerging out of a collaboration between two Philadelphia high school students, rapper Tariq Trotter (who became known as Black Thought) and drummer Ahmir Khalib Thompson (Questlove), the Roots have blurred the boundaries between funk, jazz, soul and hip-hop since releasing their studio debut “Organix” in 1993.
The group began recording in the years after Black Thought met Malik Abdul Basit, a fellow Philadelphian who became known as Malik B. or M-illitant, at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. The rappers traded verses over the Roots’ first four albums, including on “Do You Want More?!!!??!” (1995), their major-label debut, and “Illadelph Halflife” (1996), which reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100.
While Black Thought served as the group’s lead MC, Malik B. anchored songs such as “No Great Pretender” (“Your vocal chord is fraudulent, and not the true porcelain / I bring the fire, earth and the source of wind”) and “I Remain Calm” (“I fascinate as I assassinate . . . and my words stampede like herds in the dusk”).
“When I’m in your system like glycerin / Fans listenin’, from Michigan to Switzerland,” he rhymed in “Respond/React,” before boasting of his “street mentality, mixed with the intellect.”
In a Rolling Stone tribute, music journalist Simon Vozick-Levinson called Malik B. “the quiet heart” of the Roots, in the years before they entered the musical mainstream and became the studio band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
“He kept the Roots grounded, giving their jazzy, free-wheeling explorations a firm footing in the Northeastern rap canon of that era,” Vozick-Levinson wrote. “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.”
Unlike hip-hop peers who used drum machines and million-dollar samples, the Roots favored live instrumentation, honing their sound through near-constant touring — sometimes without Malik B. — that paved the way for the success of their breakthrough fourth album, “Things Fall Apart” (1999).
Named for the celebrated novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, the record benefited from contributions from members of the Soulquarians music collective, including Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and featured a more eclectic, even chaotic production style.
“If the Roots’ first three albums mastered the meeting point between jazz and rap, this was the first time the band went psychedelic, opening up new possibilities sonically and lyrically,” wrote Pitchfork reviewer Marcus J. Moore, who credited the album with paving the way for similarly dense, experimental hip-hop records like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
While Malik B. was featured on tracks such as “Step Into the Realm,” he was increasingly frustrated with the group’s musical direction. “With the Roots’ beats — not to take anything away [from us] — but I used to be like, ‘Man, I’m not rappin’ on that,’ ” he told the music website Arena in 2015.
“I feel like I’m in an office; I need to feel like I’m in a basement when I’m rappin,” he said.
He soon left the group and later acknowledged struggles with codeine and other drugs, which Black Thought referenced in the Roots’ follow-up album, “Phrenology” (2002): “It was a couple things, lil’ syrup, lil’ pills / Instead of riding out on the road you’d rather chill . . . You need to walk straight, master your high / Son you missin’ out on what’s passing you by.”
Malik B. later contributed verses to the Roots albums “Game Theory” (2006) and “Rising Down” (2008). He also recorded albums including “Unpredictable” (2015), a collaboration with producer Mr. Green, and the EP “Psychological” (2006), parts of which he wrote while jailed on forgery charges, according to the Philadelphia City Paper.
“As long as I’m busy, I don’t have time to get in trouble,” he told the newspaper. “I got a fear of boredom.”
By all accounts, Malik Abdul Basit was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 14, 1972. His parents often taught at schools in Saudi Arabia, according to an Instagram post by Questlove, who described Malik B. as his “oil guru,” someone who sold fragrances with names like Mecca Musk, Somali Rose and Hug My Neck Aphrodesiac, long before joining the Roots.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In another Instagram post dedicated to Malik B., Black Thought wrote that he had “always felt as if I possessed only a mere fraction of your true gift and potential. Your steel sharpened my steel as I watched you create cadences from the ether and set them free into the universe.”
“I always wanted to change you,” he added, “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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