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Malik B., longtime member of the Roots, dies at 47

Malik B, whose real name is Malik Abdul Basit, was a rapper and major contributor to the Roots, appearing on four albums before departing the group in 1999.
Malik B, whose real name is Malik Abdul Basit, was a rapper and major contributor to the Roots, appearing on four albums before departing the group in 1999.James Johnson via Associated Press/James Johnson via AP

Malik B., the elusive emcee best known for his work with the Roots, died Wednesday. He was 47.

His death was confirmed by his cousin Don Champion. Members of the Roots also posted public statements on their Instagram and Twitter accounts, though the statements did not say where he died or specify the cause.

Malik joined the hip-hop group then known as the Square Roots after he met the founders, Questlove (Ahmir Thompson) and Black Thought (Tariq Trotter), in 1991 at Millersville University in rural Millersville, Pa. By 1993, the Roots had dropped “Square” from their name and self-released their debut album, “Organix.” Touring relentlessly, they soon developed a cult following in Europe.

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New members filtered in and out each year. Malik appeared on three more albums — “Do You Want More?!!!??!” (1995), “Illadelph Halflife” (1996), and “Things Fall Apart” (1999) — and then left the band.

Before Malik’s departure, the Roots were churning out critically acclaimed albums and inching further into the hip-hop mainstream. Collaborating with artists like D’Angelo, Common, and Erykah Badu, the Roots made their name merging the seemingly disparate worlds of live jazz and gritty East Coast rap.

Though none of the members ever explicitly said why Malik left, “Water,” a song off the group’s album “Phrenology” (2002), openly referred to his departure. Black Thought recalled meeting Malik — whom he called “Slacks” — and as he rapped about the group’s journey toward mainstream success, he hinted at the ways they grew apart:

“But inside people down with me started to change/It was a couple things, lil’ syrup, lil’ pills/Instead of riding out on the road you’d rather chill.”

“Things Fall Apart” — the title was taken from a 1958 novel by Chinua Achebe — became the group’s breakthrough album, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard chart. “You Got Me,” a song from that album featuring Erykah Badu and Eve, ultimately earned the Roots their first Grammy, in 2000.

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Though Malik left around that time, the other members have continued to acknowledge his influence as the grounded and emotional core of the group.

“I always felt as if I possessed only a mere fraction of your true gift and potential,” Black Thought wrote on Instagram after Malik B.’s death. “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 [expletive].”

Malik released solo music after leaving the Roots, including the EP “Psychological” in 2006, and two studio albums: “Street Assault” (2005) and “Unpredictable” (2015), which was a collaboration with the producer known as Mr. Green.

He also returned as a featured artist on the Roots’ albums “Game Theory” (2006) and “Rising Down” (2008).

Malik Smart Abdul-Basit was born Nov. 14, 1972, in Philadelphia. Information on family and friends he left behind was not immediately available.

Though the Roots toured tirelessly in the mid-1990s, Malik was often absent. He notably didn’t join the band’s 1996 tour, on which the Roots opened for the Beastie Boys. He joked about his absence on the 1999 track “Adrenaline”: “Yeah, Malik B. from the Roots, he ain’t gone/I took the wrong exit, the sign said Langhorne.”

Later in his career, when Malik performed and recorded as a solo artist and became a member of Philadelphia rap collective Beard Gang, he maintained his quiet yet distinctive spirit.

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“I’m a survivor, by any means,” he said in a 2015 interview with Arena magazine. “I’ll work with whatever I have. I’m that type of person. Regardless of the situation, you have your ups and your downs, I’m definitely gonna make it.”