Phife Dawg, co-founder of the influential, pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest, has died at the age of 45.

The rapper — born Malik Isaac Taylor and popularly known by stage nicknames Five Foot Assassin and the Five Footer due to his 5'3" stature — had long struggled with ill health stemming from type-2 diabetes.

He received a kidney transplant in 2008 after suffering renal failure from complications attributed to diabetes.

"Malik was our loving husband, father, brother and friend. We love him dearly. How he impacted all our lives will never be forgotten. His love for music and sports was only surpassed by his love of God and family," his family said in a statement released Wednesday.

His bandmates expressed their sadness and thanked fans for their support.

"Our hearts are heavy. We are devastated," the remaining A Tribe Called Quest members wrote in a statement. "This is something we weren't prepared for although we all know that life is fleeting."

News of his death first emerged online, with hip hop insider, producer and broadcaster DJ Chuck Chillout posting a message about his passing in the early hours of Wednesday morning before it was confirmed by U.S. music media. 

An official statement has yet to be released, but fans, friends and colleagues shared tributes and memories online.

Socially minded lyrics, jazz-influenced sound

Phife and his childhood best friend Q-Tip (Jonathan Davis) co-founded A Tribe Called Quest in Queens, NY in the late 1980s along with schoolmate Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Joined for a time by collaborator Jarobi White, the group was known for a string of acclaimed albums and multiple hits, including Can I Kick It?ScenarioBonita Applebum and I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.

The group released its debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in 1990 and quickly made a name for itself by delivering clever, intelligent, socially minded, philosophical and jazz-infused hip hop — a surprising, welcomed alternative to the aggressive posturing and hardcore gangsta sound more typically associated with rap music.

A Tribe Called Quest cemented its status as hip hop innovators and nimble wordsmiths with subsequent releases The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, considered by many to be among the most influential and enduring rap albums ever.

The follow-ups Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts, but the progressive troupe would eventually dissolve.

His bandmates paid tribute to his talent on Wednesday.

"His music and what he's contributed is seismic and hard to measure," the group's statement read.

"He's affected us as much as he's affected all of you. We're inspired by his daily joy and courage. He wasn't in pain. He was happy. "

77467332

Members of pioneering hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, (from left) Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Jarobi White, are seen performing in New York in 2013. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

Actor-filmmaker Michael Rapaport detailed the group's rise and break-up in the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhyme & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.

Though Phife moved on to new projects (including his single solo album, 2000's Ventilation: Da LP), the group would periodically reunite for highly anticipated performances, with his participation — in part — to help fund his medical costs, he revealed.

"Even though I knew I had [diabetes], I was in denial," he said in the documentary. "You have to accept it. If you don't accept it, it's going to kick your ass."

Most recently, A Tribe Called Quest reunited in November for an appearance on The Tonight Show to mark the 25th anniversary of their debut album — celebrated with a re-issue featuring remixed tracks by hit contemporary producers Pharrell Williams, CeeLo Green and J. Cole. The group's performance of Can I Kick It? was billed as the first televised A Tribe Called Quest show in 15 years.

Phife had been at work on a new album, but released just one single, Dear Dilla, before his death.

With files from The Associated Press