The shockwaves spread across social media. Malik “Phife Dog” Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest was dead. Complications from type 2 diabetes, which he’d been diagnosed with in 1990, were the cause of his death. His wasn’t the first big name in the hip-hop world to receive such attention—Heavy D, Big Pun and the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch made their transition before him—and it certainly would not be the last. Prodigy of Mobb Deep died in June of complications from sickle cell disease, and 2 Live Crew’s Fresh Kid Ice, who had suffered two strokes in recent years, passed away last week.
But Phife’s death did serve as something of a wake-up call to the community. And his health struggles and death are covered in the new Quincy Jones III and Shawn Ullman hip-hop health documentary “Feel Rich: Health Is the New Wealth,” available on both iTunes and Netflix.
The documentary is an outgrowth of Feel Rich, the duo’s health and entertainment company, founded in 2011.
“We created Feel Rich because we saw there was a void in the marketplace of relatable health and wellness info in the community,” Ullman told Black Health Matters. “I saw that a lot of these hip-hop artists were living a healthy lifestyle, but there was no platform for them to talk about it.”
Quiet as it’s kept, there is a conscious shift happening in hip-hop around health and wellness. “We’ve got Styles P opening up juice bars in the Bronx and Yonkers. The Game, who’s got 60 Days of Fitness. Slim Thug, who’s got Huslfit. stic.man, who’s got RBG Fit Club,” Ullman said. “Hip-hop is actually leading the community to get healthier.
“In the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s, you had all these independent record labels. And now you have all these independent health movements happening, and Feel Rich is just capturing all of it.”
The company has collaborated with the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association and other corporations and brands to help create healthy living campaigns. Feel Rich also has traveled across the country, including to communities in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, in search of health and wellness entrepreneurs who need help pushing out their message of healthier living, particularly through urban gardens. And at the 2017 Super Bowl, the company put on a well received free fitness concert, led by rapper Paul Wall’s wife, Crystal, who has Crystal Wall Fitness, a zumba studio in Houston.
“We came up with the idea of making health fun, sexy, aspirational, so not only does it speak to the the culture, but it also resonates better with people to live a healthier lifestyle,” Ullman said. “We identified several hip-hop artists we believe are living the lifestyle that’s the Feel Rich lifestyle, people promoting mind, body and spirit wellness.”
The documentary, four years in the making, was a natural extension of the company’s philosophy. Though it’s dedicated to the fallen hip-hop heroes, it’s really a salute to the living ones who are taking the necessary steps to lead healthier lives, including Wall, Russell Simmons, stic.man of dead prez, Common and Fat Joe.
“Fat Joe and Paul and Crystal Wall all allowed us to document their weight-loss journey,” Ullman said. “Paul’s story is important because hip-hop promotes a fast life, a life of excess. He was a product of that.”
In fact, Wall, who many say introduced the industry to sippin’ syrup (prescription cough syrup with codeine and soda (plus a Jolly Rancher, depending on the recipe), had so messed up his metabolism with the concoction that when he wanted to get healthy, he couldn’t.
“I wasn’t just overweight,” he said, “I was morbidly obese.” Wall isn’t even sure what he weighed at his heaviest because he stopped getting on the scale once he hit 320 pounds. Gastric bypass surgery was his only option.
“I didn’t just have surgery,” a now-fit Wall said. “It’s a lifestyle change. I go hard in the gym.”
His change inspired his wife, whose studio caters to women. “Together they are empowering the entire city of Houston to get healthier,” Ullman said.
Fat Joe, too, was inspired to get in shape. Big Pun’s death from a heart attack in 2000 (he was reportedly 698 pounds at the time) shook him, but not in the right way at first. “I should’ve learned then, but I was depressed,” Fat Joe said. “I started eating and drinking.”
He came around eventually, however, and throughout “Feel Rich,” he’s seen in the gym, working out, joking that he’ll soon need another moniker. He wants people to know they can get healthier, too. “If I lost weight,” he said, “they can, too. I’m not special.”
Doing the ordinary thing of giving up bad habits and adopting a healthier lifestyle is a recurrent theme in “Feel Rich.” ATCQ’s Ali Shaheed Muhammed no longer eats fried chicken or fried fish. Slim Thug gave up cookies. Dallas Austin let go of stress. And stic.man did a complete 180 after he met his wife. “He hasn’t had a sip of alcohol in probably a decade,” Ullman said. “They’re living a vegan yogi lifestyle. He feels his music and everything has benefited from that.”
The film’s other recurring theme? It’s time.
“The hip-hop community has been through a lot and this is a time for healing,” Ullman said. “Hip-hop has such an influence on the community. These artists are becoming older and realizing their health issues. Now is a great time to put a spotlight on that and show the community a lot of the role models they look up to are living a healthy lifestyle.”
Or as Styles P said, “We need to boast and brag about keeping our body right the same way we brag about the women and the jewels.”