Tribute: Malik B Was the Quiet Heart of the Roots in the Nineties
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.”
Their paths diverged on the albums that followed, and Malik was increasingly absent at the live shows that grew the Roots’ renown. By 1999’s breakthrough Things Fall Apart, Black Thought was clearly the frontman — but Malik B remained formidable. “People wanna know where Malik? He right next to me,” Black Thought defiantly offered on the fan favorite “100% Dundee.” Malik gave one of his best verses ever to that song, nimbly narrating a rhythmic robbery: “Smash ’n’ grab, snatch the ice, crush your mental device/Thought twice, shoulda thought once, got played for the dunce.” He shone on “Adrenaline,” too, rhyming “Knots Landing” with “Ralph Kramden.” On his solo showcase “The Spark,” Malik spoke movingly about his devout Muslim faith and his struggles to stay on the straight and narrow: “Might act up, but I can still pass Da’wah…I didn’t make Hajj yet, but that’s my next project.”
Those struggles led him to leave the group before 2002’s Phrenology. Black Thought dedicated a full song, “Water,” to Malik, recounting their history from meeting as students at Millersville University circa 1991 to their first tastes of success to the drug problems that increasingly consumed him. “You gotta walk straight, master your high/Son, you’re missing out on what’s passing you by,” Black Thought pleads in the chorus. Later, he makes his feelings even clearer: “I’m far from a hater/And I don’t say I love you, ‘cause the way I feel is greater/M-illa, you a poet, son, a born creator.” It’s a masterpiece of grieving for a lost bandmate, every bit as powerful as Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
Malik B came back into the fold around the time the Roots signed to Def Jam and restarted their career with 2006’s Game Theory, but he was credited as a featured artist on his handful of appearances. Even so, fans loved hearing him trade lyrics with Black Thought again. Some of us hoped that, should the Roots make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some day — they’ve been eligible since 2018 — we’d see the two old friends perform together. Instead, we can listen to the records Malik B made with the Roots and remember the humble power of his voice.