In the early and mid-2010s, DJ and producer Mr. Green had a documentary series called Live from the Streets. In the series, Green would travel around the country, bringing along a mic, recorder, and camera person, and interview local street musicians. The range of guests were diverse — whether it be a random woman in the street a panpipe band a skateboarder kid or a homeless man. He would ask for short performances and turn the vocals into a hard rap beat. Then he would have a world-class MC rap over the finished product.
One of the earliest episodes of the series featured Malik B., formerly of The Roots. Mr. Green met Malik outside of Roots Picnic in Philadelphia in 2012. With a mic and recorder in hand, Mr. Green got Malik to lay down a verse over a beat that featured chopped up vocals from a homeless man named Kevin Brown. The song would later become “Down in the Streets.“
“He had a microphone, a speaker, a beat machine and everything all in his lap… like a portable setup,” Malik B. told Okayplayer about the experience in 2013. “It was crazy because it kind of reminded me of the way we used to set up on South Street before we got a deal. I was like damn, I need to work with someone like that.”
Malik B.’s episode of Live From the Streets would go viral, picking up hundreds of thousands of views. Vice would pick up the series and Malik B. and Mr. Green sparked a creative relationship.
In 2015, the two released the 15-track album Unpredictable. Although Malik B. had dropped a couple of EPs and mixtapes over the years, it was his first official-sounding album since his days as a member of The Roots in the ’90s. (Malik was not running from his Roots-ties either: the album featured a dark blue cover that was clearly paying homage to Do You Want More?!!!??!) The album became an underground favorite and a return to form for one of Philadelphia’s most naturally gifted MCs.
“That was a real moment in Philly and it had people stopping him on the streets like, ‘Oh Malik, I saw your new video,'” Mr. Green told Okayplayer during a Zoom conversation. “Like he had another wave from 2012 to 2015.”
Unpredictable would also be the last release of Malik B.’s career. On July 29th, Malik B. died at the age of 47 from unconfirmed circumstances. Although he sporadically put out music — he made an appearance on a Last Poets song last year — Malik B. was mostly an obscure figure at the time of his death. Yet, there was an outpouring of love and respect from his peers and his death was widely reported, from the New York Times to NPR. The obits written detailed a clear narrative: Malik B. was an incredibly talented but ultimately tragic figure.
As co-star to Questlove and Black Thought, Malik B. was an important component to some of the greatest rap music of the ’90s. On The Roots’ first three full-length albums — Do You Want More?!!!??!, Illadelph Halflife, and Things Fall Apart — Malik was the Phife Dawg to Black Thought’s Q-tip. He was a tough but graceful rapper, often setting up Black Thought to be the star, even though Malik had the talent to be top billing.
In a tribute released on Instagram, Thought, who probably spent hundreds of hours rapping with Malik B., talked about Malik B. as an MC and the importance he played to his own development:
“I 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 to become poetic law, making the English language your bitch.”
But Malik was also frustrating. Focus was difficult and he struggled with addiction. Malik was often absent from tour dates and studio sessions. After Things Fall Apart, Malik separated from the group. And, on Phrenology’s stunning closer, “Water,” Black Thought told the story of how their professional relationship splintered.
“It was a couple things, lil’ syrup, lil’ pills
Instead of riding out on the road you’d rather chill
I know the way a pleasure feel, I’m not judging
But still I’m on a mission, yo, I’m not buggin’
I got fam that can’t stop druggin’, they can’t sleep
They can’t stick to one subject, they can’t eat
It’s people steady comin’ at me out in the street
Like ‘Riq, yo, what up with your peeps? It gets deep, nigga”
Malik never officially rejoined the group. But he would appear on future Roots albums Game Theory and Rising Down. And he would perform spot shows with the group throughout the years.
Mr. Green, who is from Highland Park, New Jersey, grew up listening to all of those early Roots albums. In fact, he would have Do You Want More?!!!??! in his tapedeck on his way to school. So, as someone who grew up listening to Malik B. and who would then collaborate on an album with him — spending countless hours recording and bullshiting together — we thought it would be right to have him break down the best verses of Malik B.’s career.
One quick note: The verses are all from his time with The Roots. But, Mr. Green also wanted to shout out three honorable mentions he did with Malik.
As told to Dimas Sanfiorenzo
Mr. Green, Malik B. & Kevin Brown — “Down In The Streets”
The “Down In The Streets” song was someone we did for Noisey. We went viral, he was featured on Vice… “Down in the Streets” is like a really personal one because he just killed it and he did it in one take. I could not believe when I recorded those vocals how good it sounded. ‘Cause I was using a little outdoor mic.
Malik B. & Mr. Green — “Rips in the Paper”
“Rips in the Paper” is the one where he came up with a garbage bag full of rhymes and he would just pull different ones up; it looked like a treasure map that was all weathered. He would just spit incredible shit. That was literally his throwaways. I had to tell him not to throw the garbage bag out. I was like, “Yo, do not do that. Save it. What’s the difference?” But I think he was frustrated. I don’t know what he was frustrated about that day, but he almost threw the garbage bag of rhymes out.
Malik B., Mr. Green & Nate Green — “We Gonna Make It”
“We Gonna Make It” is this extremely positive song that we made because we had a lot of dark shit, and I was like, “Let’s do something happy, man. Your life is better now. Let’s just end on a positive note.” Shout out to Nate Green, the guy who sang on the hook. I talked to him when I found out about the Malik. He was the head of the halfway house Malik was staying at and he sang R&B. He was like an authority figure in his life. Malik was just so cool. Like that was the type of person he was — just like singing with the guy he met at the halfway house.
10. The Roots, Malik B. & Dice Raw — “Here I Come”
[“Here I Come” is] not my favorite song. Not that it’s not dope, it’s just not exactly my vibe. I’m just including it because I remember Malik used to talk about it a lot, and say how it was the theme song to [The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.] He was a co-writer, and he would get good publishing from it. And it was just cool also to know that he was six, seven years removed from The Roots and they were still kind of bettering his life. It was still good to be the guy who used to be in The Roots. It wasn’t like he stopped working with them and support stopped coming; they kept supporting him. So I know that it made Malik happy, and then for me, it was goals.
It’s one thing to know it’s possible to co-write a big TV theme song, it’s another when you’re riding in the car with the guy and he’s talking about the day in the studio, like, “I think I actually came up with ‘Here I Come’ because in my verse, I started off, ‘Here I come.’ And then they did the hook.” I don’t really remember him talking that much about Roots songs. So, that’s one I remember specifically. It would come up, mostly because he would be like, “I got my check, got my check.” And he’d be a happy guy. I mean, passive income brings joy to people.
9. The Roots — “The Spark”
I think it should be pointed out how smooth he was — to be able to go back and forth from talking about praying to talking about hiding in the bushes to get your enemy. It’s very different worlds. It’s like we went from church to war, and it just seemed like he probably knows a little bit about both of those things. Those are both parts of his personality. I think that that’s high-level rapping. If you can switch from praying to hiding in the bushes to get your enemy in one line, you’ve got to be really special to be able to pull that off and have them both be believable.
He was of a lot of different things. He had the religious side, he had the rap side, and he had his street side. And he was legit in all of them.
8. The Roots — “Respond/ React”
It’s just classic Malik on his street shit, unapologetic. Just, like, “This is what it is.”
7. The Roots — “I Remain Calm”
This is quintessential Malik. It’s another one that might not be on everyone’s list, but I just love it. I used to listen to it on the bus to school when I was a kid.
“Cream of all crops, topics I drop with Trotter.” [Black Thought’s] last name is Trotter. That sounds like Malik wasn’t even thinking. He was rapping for his homies in school. That’s something the teacher would be like, “Trotter you’re late to class. Trotter get out of the hall, take those headphones off” and Malik’s like rapping, like it’s his high school buddy. That’s fire. It shows the personal connection.
[“I Remain Calm”] just feels kind of personal, effortless, and covers a lot of bases without trying. It’s just like, “I’m going to rap about all these different subjects. I’m going to do it in a smooth way.” I mean his role in the group — he was kind of like supporting character. A lot of times he wasn’t on the cover; he’s third place. It’s like Black Thought first, Questlove second, then him third. He’s just playing his position. Like he’s really commanding it and being the boss and showing he’s dope, but then also kind of like doing it a bit of an alley open dish it off to Black Thought. I like Malik more on that record. He’s the third-place guy, but he’s a force in his own to the point where you’re almost not looking at the lead singer the whole time and you’re like, “that the backup singer is killing it right now.”
6. The Roots — “Proceed”
I’m partial to Do You Want More?!!!??!. Some people might not include this song on the list but it’s just so smooth. I like how Malik has these really descriptive rhymes:
I make a whole lake of fish start to splash
I make Conan and the Titans clash
I’ll make Metallica and Guns N’ Roses thrash.”
He’s not saying it in a complicated way. Actually, it’s almost juvenile. But he went from football to a whole lake of fish starting to splash, which, for some reason, I picture it. He’s performing and then a whole bunch of fish start splashing like they’re giving an applause. Then he goes to the Titans and Conan [the Barbarian,] so he’s on some sci-fi, historic [shit].
5. The Roots — “Distortion To Static”
I just feel like it’s quintessential Malik being really smooth, but aggressive and competitive at the same time. When he’s like, “People there’s no equal, but no sequel.” I always had that line stuck in my head since I was a kid. It’s like jazz music, but kind of gangster. The shit that he’s talking about is a little bit gangster and combative. Kind of combining two different worlds, which I feel like was a big thing that he did. He was the gangster style rapper in a jazz band. Not that Black Thought was soft, but Black Thought’s subject matter was a little bit more life driven. And then Malik was more towards street life. He was spiritual, but his experiences were a little bit aggressive. So he would rap about aggressive stuff like that.
It’s a sign of how talented he was to be able to talk about not smooth, rugged gritty subjects in a smooth way. I don’t think most people could pull that off. Most people would probably want to talk about stuff like that on a different beat. They wouldn’t know how to approach it. I’m trying to think of who has done stuff like that, and only the greats come to mind, like Nas rapping on a Michael Jackson loop or Kool G Rap. He would have sometimes not the hardest beat, but those are the greats. Malik was at that level. I don’t know if he was as focused, but I think his abilities were up there. He was up with the greats.
4. The Roots — “Mellow My Man”
This is so jazzy. It’s not the most hip-hop beat. It might not be on everyone’s list, but it was just the perfect example of Malik and Black Thought’s chemistry, the way they would go back and forth. And I actually think it’s about Malik. It’s mainly a Black Thought song rapping about “mellow my man,” Malik. I don’t know if there’s another person who it would be, but I kind of think that’s a song about each other, a song where they give props to each other.
They don’t usually back each other’s vocals up. But on that one, you actually hear them like finish lines for each other a little bit. If I had a time machine, I would go back…to see “Mellow My Man” with them two onstage together. That’s the kind of shit that I would want to see. Because I can just imagine there was a crazy energy in the room whenever they performed it.
Tariq is a little bit more sing-songy. He has more vocal inflections and he enunciates stuff more to make it sound cool. Malik is just more straight forward and aggressive. They make each other better. They feed off each other. They’re kind of similar, but they’re very different also. And, yeah, when you put them together, it’s just like, “Yes, we’ve got something here.”
3. The Roots — “100% Dundee”
That’s not an easy beat to rap to. It’s fast, there’s a lot of percussion going on and the way he flows on is just perfect, effortless. It’s nothing to him. I can hear when a rapper’s trying and they have to move their words around to be in the pocket or when they’re just riding the beat perfectly, and he was just on it, like riding a bike. It’s supernatural — like Kool G Rap, Nas, Black Thought-level ability just to ride the beat. And I don’t even know if he said anything that crazy on it or if he just kept you nodding your head and kind of weaving in and out of it. That’s high-level art to me.
If you listen to the drum pattern, there’s a lot of drum hits. So, for rappers, often the more times the drum hits, the more you have to adjust your vocals to be right on that drum. If it’s just a couple of drum sounds, you’ve got a lot of room to move around in between, and it wasn’t a stiff rhythm but there are pockets. And the more drums, the smaller the pocket gets.
Plus the beat is like 100 BPM. People hardly even rap to shit that fast anymore, people are in the 80s and 90s these days. They don’t make them like they used to.
2. The Roots, Dice Raw, & M.A.R.S — “Clones”
“Clones” is the ultimate Roots song from the ’90s, and Malik goes last and it’s just something really incredibly raw and live about his presence. It’s a park jam, and he just grabbed the mic from someone and just goes. Malik was always smooth and effortless. It never seemed like he was trying too hard to come off how he came off. He just did it. You’re not listening to a guy trying to rap, you’re listening to a guy rapping.
It’s like being a cleanup hitter in baseball. You’re going to put the guy who you know is going to hit the home run last. So I think for them to put Malik last on a song like that shows that he was one of the heavy hitters. Obviously, Black Thought is the one who raps most, but Malik is not like some weak link in the chain. He would have been buried somewhere in the middle if he was not a really, really dangerous dude.
1. The Roots, Dice Raw & Beanie Sigel — “Adrenaline!”
When he said, “I took the wrong exit, the sign said Langhorne.” That’s just one of the most famous rap lines about Pennsylvania of all time. Langhorne is a street in Philly, but there’s also a town outside of the city called Langhorne. I think he was talking about a time when he missed a show. So he was saying, “Oh no, I just took the wrong exit. I went to Langhorne.” It was like him just telling the world what happened and why he left the group. It’s just like really hip-hop to just mention some shit from your city. I like when people mention street signs.
I think sometimes when Malik was writing, he didn’t realize he was an international person. People from all over the world are going to hear this. He was just thinking like, “I’m a guy from Philly. My people in Philly will love this shit.” So, now you got kids in Germany like the sign said Malik and they don’t know what Langhorne is. It’s something that otherwise just wouldn’t like, make it, wouldn’t be something that people talk about.
I want to point out that Malik is able to easily keep up with Philly icons. Like the fucking Mount Rushmore of Philly rap would probably be Will Smith, Beanie Sigel, Black Thought, and maybe Freeway. These are like the kings of his city. Then he’s just like riding between nonchalantly, just killing it. It doesn’t seem like he was trying to do anything different then what he already can do. That goes to show his skill level. Maybe not focus-wise or career-wise but skill-level-wise he was actually one of the greats; he was neck-and-neck with people like Black Thought and Beanie Sigel. When it comes to Philly, those are the guys. And Malik is just effortlessly rapping in between them. He doesn’t sound like, “What’s he doing there?” He fits right in.
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