Look, you’ve got a lot of content coming your way, so I’m gonna spare you the long-winded introduction this time around. A Tribe Called Quest. Midnight Marauders. Ready. Set. Go!
A Tribe Called Quest, to hip-hop fans during the 90s, were our Beatles, and Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were our Lennon & McCartney. It was more than just music to us – hip-hop was our escape from family and school, and despite our parents thinking it would get us into trouble (and we did get into trouble), hip-hop gave us a collective identity. A Tribe Called Quest, and Midnight Marauders in particular, was the soundtrack to our youth.
I had Midnight Marauders on a 60-minute cassette that I’d ripped off a friend. The first side cut out 30 minutes into the record, right in the middle of “Clap Your Hands”. I listened to that tape so much that when I hear it now, I expect it to cut out at that moment every time. I wish it would.
November 9, 1993 was historic for hip-hop. Two of the genre’s greatest albums were released that day: The Wu-Tang Clan’s debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. At the time, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were occupying the airwaves with G-Funk from the West Coast, and the East Coast, which had dominated hip-hop since its inception, was falling by the wayside. In hindsight, that day was a changing of the guard: 36 Chambers felt like New York’s response to what was happening on the West Coast; it was loud and street-hardened, and it changed the trajectory of the NY scene. Soon we would have The Notorious BIG, Nas, and Jay-Z, and hip-hop was headed for the mainstream. Midnight Marauders then was the last great album of the Golden Age.
Midnight Marauders neither helped start a movement like A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, nor was it ground-breaking in the way that their jazz-rap pioneering The Low End Theory from 1991 was. Rather, it is the sound of A Tribe Called Quest perfecting their craft: a jazz-rap masterpiece with head-nodding beats and two MCs with peerless chemistry.
On the intro, the digitized voice of your tour guide promises to deliver a presentation that is ‘precise, base heavy, and just right’, and that’s exactly what you get. From the opening Woody Shaw sample on “Steve Biko” to the end of “God Lives Through”, you’re treated to a treasure trove of intricately layered samples and lush beats.
Q-Tip shared production credits with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, but it was Tip who was the mastermind behind the sound. He’s a relentless crate-digger with an ear for obscure samples. Take the slowed-down sample of the “MC Battle” between BusyBee and Rodney Cee on “Sucka N***a” for example, or the barely recognizable Minnie Riperton sample on “Lyrics to Go”, which gives the track that sustained drone. These are samples you’d never notice, and yet the songs wouldn’t be the same without them. On other standouts, Tip samples Milt Jackson’s “Olga” on “Award Tour”, “Red Clay” by Jack Wilkins on “Sucka N***a”; Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” on “Electric Relaxation”, and “The Handclapping Song” by The Meters on “Clap Your Hands”. The list goes on, and the beats on lesser-known deep cuts are just as groovy.
Over this soundscape, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg spit a litany of rhymes with cadences perfectly matched to the beats. Phife’s high-pitched hype is always counterbalanced by Tip’s unwavering cool. Throughout the record, they finish each other’s sentences, banter between verses, and trade bars effortlessly. On the classic “Electric Relaxation” they apparently wrote each other’s rhymes, only deciding to trade once they got to the studio.
For all of their laid-back charm though, Tribe were acutely aware of the influence they had on their listeners. As founding members of The Native Tongues, they took their dedication to positivity seriously. Phife addresses it directly on “We Can Get Down”:
‘We rap about what we see, meaning reality
From people busting caps and like Mandela being free
Not every MC be with the negativity
We have a slew of rappers pushing positivity
Hip hop will never die yo, it’s all about the rap
So Mayor Barry smoking crack, let’s preach about that‘
Even within their battle rhymes, they’d sprinkle socially conscious references throughout, from the Black Consciousness Movement in “Steve Biko” to Tip’s emphasis on independence and self-awareness on “Award Tour”. And the most celebrated theme on the album is Q-Tip’s thesis on the reclamation of the N-word on “Sucka N***a”, still an oft-cited reference in any serious discussion on the use of the word in hip-hop and beyond.
But the charm of Midnight Marauders was in the lighter moments. Q-Tip and Phife sounded like high-school buddies rapping in a park on their way home from school. They had battle rhymes to burn, and they were always fun. On “Steve Biko” Phife raps:
‘Did not know that my styles are top-dollar
The Five-Foot Assassin knocking fleas off his collar
Hip Hop scholar since being knee high to a duck
The height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck
You better ask somebody on how we flip the script
Come to a Tribe show and watch the three kids rip’
On Award Tour, Q-Tip boasts, ‘See, lyrically I’m Mario Andretti on the MOMO / Ludicrously speedy, or infectious with the slow-mo’, actually speeding up and slowing down his tempo mid-bar to accentuate the point before moving on without missing a step.
Phife’s one-liners and punchlines are legendary. On “Award Tour” he takes aim at lesser MCs with ‘You wack-ass crews try to diss, it makes me laugh / When my track record’s longer than a DC-20 aircraft‘. And then there’s the infamously hilarious line on the light-hearted, lust-filled classic “Electric Relaxation”, where he raps: ‘Let me hit it from the back, I won’t catch a hernia / Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s furniture’ – a reference to the cheap furniture store targeting New York’s outer boroughs at the time.
It all culminates in the closer “God Lives Through”, my all-time favourite hip-hop track. With a trumpet hook from Jimmy McGriff’s “Dig on It” and a bassline and tempo from David T. Walker’s “On Love”, it’s relentlessly groovy. Phife Dawg unleashes a barrage of witty brags with pop-culture references and dense rhyme patterns in one of the greatest battle verses of all time, personifying the spirit of hip-hop. And then, as if not to be outdone, Q-Tip jumps on for the second verse, finds the pocket and never skips a beat, switching up his tone and cadence in a dazzling display of lyrical dexterity.
A Tribe Called Quest were a group of talented rappers and producers, but they were always greater than the sum of their parts. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg had a telepathic connection that was irresistible. It’s sad what happened between them later, and while it was a blessing to have them reconcile for 2016’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service before Phife passed, they would never repeat the magic of Midnight Marauders. When I listen to the album now, I hear the sound of five 6-foot plus teenagers squeezing into my ’71 mini with windows down and music turned up to drown out the struggling engine; I hear the sound of half-court basketball on Sunday afternoons, and of having a beer in the sun afterwards. It’s the sound of sharing my new-found freedoms with friends like I’ve never had before or since.
R.I.P. Phife. We miss you.
I can remember it like it was yesterday.
I was around nine, maybe ten years old. I got a Playstation console from my mom’s new live-in boyfriend after separating from my dad. That was a smart-ass move – get something to distract the kid of your girlfriend in order to mitigate being bothered, even though he was barely around thanks to a trucker job. After I played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games and really started to get immersed into skater culture, I had to get my hands on anything modeled after it that I could. One day, this informed me renting Thrasher: Skate and Destroy from a Blockbuster (really dating myself here).
The game was all right, not quite as fluid or fast-paced as THPS could get, but like those games, Thrasher had an amazing soundtrack. Run DMC’s “King of Rock”, Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause”, Gang Starr’s “Just to Get a Rep”, but the first song I remember hearing was a little song called “Award Tour” by A Tribe Called Quest. Hearing that fried piano sample from Weldon Irvine’s “We Gettin’ Down” lead into a drum loop and faded guitars with that hook rapped by Trugoy the Dove (De La Soul):
‘We on a world tour with Muhammad, my man
Going each and every place with the mic in their hand
New York, NJ, NC, VA’
I can still hear the hook as I heard it that day, a little muffled from being compressed to fit on a PS1 data disc; different from as I hear it now on repeat listens. Although I was a bit too young to appreciate the gravity at the time, I’d grow up to eventually learn of A Tribe Called Quest proper. They would soon after become one of my favorite groups of all time, and Midnight Marauders my favorite hip-hop album of all time… depending on the day you ask me.
If you dive into hip-hop at all without much prior knowledge, it’s a little daunting. Like metal, there’s a variety of subgenres, regions, and branches to get into, much with overlap. Trap rap, backpack rap, conscious rap, golden era rap, West Coast rap, East Coast rap, Southern rap, abstract rap, mainstream rap, indie rap, bling rap, hardcore rap, and, to bring those two worlds together, rap metal. Et cetera, et cetera.
One of my favorites is jazz rap – hip-hop that uses either prominent samples from jazz, soul, and r’n’b songs, or live band instrumentation to form the beat that’s rapped on. A Tribe Called Quest are, for my money, the absolute pinnacle of this subgenre and embody what hip-hop is across the entire genre.
With four key people at the core – Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (yes, the one referenced in the hook of “Award Tour”) – they rose from the streets of Queens, New York to prominence starting in 1985 and dropping their debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in 1990, and The Low End Theory in 1991, two genre-defining records that are frequently references as GOATs among old heads and golden era appreciators like myself.
Then came Midnight Marauders in 1993. Now, understand that I didn’t live through this era and approach it with all the hindsight and retrospect in the world (hence this feature), but the distinctiveness of all of these albums cannot be understated and while it’s a matter of preference, I still argue that there’s a matter of objectivity at play when looking at this album.
I know that’s not how it works, but it’s so tight, almost impossibly so. Each bar delivered by Tip and Phife is crystal clear (Jarobi left the group as a vocalist after The Low End Theory to pursue culinary dreams, but was a spiritual part of ATCQ still). Muhammad’s scratching coupled with production credited to the whole group (and some guests like Large Professor) was masterful, effortlessly melding samples together from an array of influences and gems from record crates. You could literally point to any of the album’s 14 tracks as a textbook example of how to make a hip-hop song, at least one that emulates this particular era.
Lyrically, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were un-fucking-touchable. They had such a way with words, wise to the ire of the New York streets, unflinching in the face of adversity, with more flow than the Hudson River. Some lines were engineered to stop you in your tracks like an MTA delay. One of my favorite songs ever, but definitely the favorite on this album is “Midnight”, on which Q-Tip flies solo to tell a story of survival and amusement in the New York night (‘There’s activities aplenty in the nighttime/For the ghetto child it seem to be the right time’). Dice games, bodega visits, trying to pull a lady, starting a cypher, and ducking police that would love nothing more than to fuck with young Black kids are all part of the game.
‘Saw his man Stan with the blunt in his hand
You know the transaction
Brothers gettin’ lost in the weed satisfaction
Coming down the block, man, loud as…
You would swear Redman was inside the truck
As the night seemed darker, cops is on a hunt
They interrupt your cipher and crush your blunt
See, you left your work at home so they pat you down for nothin’
Why in the hell does 10-4 keep frontin’?
You push to the park even though it’s still dark
The kid is nice on the hoop, he said ‘I’ll spot you, troop’
It’s Tip and ATCQ as a whole at their best. The vibrant city sleeze of the picture painted is ethereal for someone that’s never been to NYC. You can hear the train brakes grind on the tracks, car horns honking, see the blunt and cigarette smoke permeate the air from passers-by minding their own damn business, walking past countless stores and boutiques with beaming signage that pierce your corneas if glanced at for too long. Production has some boom bap flavor and a rugged psychedelic guitar sampled from George Duke’s “North Beach” turned ominous to match the sense of danger always present. Not very many songs in their catalog are as poetically strong as “Midnight”, most leaning on the lighter side of things, but there are some.
For instance, Phife got his own solo joint as well with “8 Million Stories”, a tale of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in the life of a man just trying to live. Backed by a warm bass sample and terse drums, the Five-Foot Assassin embodies the stress anyone would be succumbed to in his situation with a side of self-deprecation which he was known for.
‘Yo Tip, I tell you man, the devil’s tryin’ it
But I’m gonna stay strong ‘cause I ain’t buyin’ it
Tonight I’m taking Sherry out, I don’t have jack to wear
You know I gots to look dipped in the fresh new gear
Cool, I found something so I ironed it
I then got caught up on the phone, oh shit, I’m frying it
Will someone tell me what did I do to deserve this?
I think I’ll pull out my suit for Sunday service
My little brother wants Barney, cool, I’m gettin’ it
Took him down to Kay Bee, they ain’t sellin’ it
Here we go with the crying, yo he’s throwing fits
My blood pressure’s blowing up, I can’t take the shit’
Slice of life was a running theme for ATCQ, with a bevy of songs about living. Trying to hook up, dunking on wack rappers, dropping little tidbits of knowledge, and persevering – nothing seems fake or even exaggerated, even if every story or line wasn’t based in a lived reality for the MCs of the group. Of course, there’s the undying art of talking wild shit which Phife and Tip do in abundance and with a playful demeanor. In “Steve Biko (Stir it Up)”, Phife skates effortlessly between shouting his peers out, threatening to bust someone’s shit, then peppering the track with cheeky braggadocio:
‘Tip and Sha they all that, Phife Dawg ditto
Honey tell your man to chill, or else you’ll be a widow
Did not you know that my styles are top dollar?
The Five-Foot Assassin knocking fleas off his collar
Hip hop scholar since being knee high to a duck
The height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck
You better ask somebody on how we flip the script
Come to a Tribe show and watch the three kids rip’
Just like the anti-Apartheid revolutionary the track was named after, ATCQ were leading a charge to change things up in hip-hop, especially on the East Coast where they hailed from. If you remember our ASIR on Wu-Tang Clan, you saw me tirelessly go over how that collective was making rap harder and grimier in the ‘90s. Well, 36 Chambers dropped in the same year as Midnight Marauders, a decidedly calmer album, so what gives? New York hip-hop was getting hardcore, but here was Tribe staying the course, preaching positivity without ignoring the negativity, uplifting with socially aware proclivities (one only needs to look at prior songs like “Skypager” and “Infamous Date Rape” from The Low End Theory to see this) and one-liners that speak more truth than some entire hip-hop joints of the time (not a critique of others, just an observation – I like Onyx too).
“Sucka Ni**a” stands out in this regard, a song that discusses at length the many interpretations of purposes of the N-word in the Black community, something I’m clearly not qualified to tackle, so I’ll let Tip to the talking:
‘See, ‘ni**a’ first was used back in the Deep South
Falling out between the dome of the white man’s mouth
It means that we will never grow, you know the word, dummy
Upper ni**as in the community think it’s crummy
But I don’t, neither does the youth cause we em-
Brace adversity, it goes right with the race
And being that we use it as a term of endearment
Ni**as start to bug, to the dome is where the fear went
Now the little shorties say it all of the time
And a whole buncha ni**as throw the word in they rhyme
Yo, I start to flinch as I try not to say it
But my lips is like an oowop as I start to spray it’
Around this time especially, hip-hop was an Afrocentric art with various groups (musical and otherwise) preaching racial unity, Black liberation, and nationalism – some peaceful, some militant, take your pick. Zulu Nation is referenced many times on Midnight Marauders alone, with Tip and Phife allying themselves with the organization for years prior and since. A big reason I became intent on dismantling the racist conditioning and learning I had growing up by virtue of living in the US is because of hip-hop, because of albums like this. Wu-Tang may have been for the children, but Tribe was about the truth.
There was even a narrator on the album. From the intro track, you’re introduced to a robotic ‘tour guide’, a disembodied feminine voice (provided by Laurel Dann, A&R for a number of big record labels like Koch, RCA, and Jive) that greets you with the following:
‘Hello, this is your Midnight Marauder program. I am on the front of your cover. I will be enhancing your cassettes and CDs with certain facts that you may find beneficial. The average bounce meter for your Midnight Marauder program will be in the area of 95 BPM. We hope that you will find our presentation precise, bass heavy, and just right. Thanks.’
Just right, indeed. Throughout the whole album, you’ll hear her doing as directed: providing certain facts that you may find beneficial, ranging from trivial to hard knowledge.
‘Seven times out of ten, we listen to our music at night, thus spawned the title of this program. The word ‘maraud’ means to loot. In this case, we maraud for ears.’ –end of “Award Tour”
‘Did you know that the rate of AIDS in the Black and Hispanic community is rising at an alarming rate? Education is proper means for slowing it down.’ –end of “Midnight”
‘A Tribe Called Quest consists of four members: Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, and Jarobi. AEIOU, and sometimes Y.’ –end of “We Can Get Down”
That’s a big defining characteristic of golden era rap, and to an extent jazz rap as well – the knowledge and truth evident in the rhymes, the skill to spit those rhymes with water-like flow that would impress even Bruce Lee, and someone behind the boards and turntables to make it all come together, revolutionizing the artform one record at a time. As such, Midnight Marauders represented an apex of this style, and while not all golden era hip-hop was created with the same goals or intentions, it all had its place. What you don’t get from Tribe, you can get from Wu-Tang or Nas. Before this, you had Rakim, NWA, Beastie Boys, Ice T, LL Cool J, and the aforementioned Run DMC and Public Enemy. It all coalesces, forming up like motherfucking Voltron to bring forth a reality you’re unaware of if you were a suburban kid like myself. Tribe knew this and acknowledged it themselves from the references in their rhymes to the cover of this very album which has the face of almost every important hip-hop figure up to that point, from Afrika Bambaataa to Whodini’s Grandmaster Dee.
As I near 2200 words on this feature, I could go on and on – more quotables, additional samples that stand out, the vibes contained within, the picture painted by the sonics, etc. Phife Dawg would have been 50 years old this year, this month, had he not passed to diabetes-related illness in 2016 (I’ve gone long enough without saying it – rest in power, Trini Gladiator). Suffice it to say, and kudos to you if you read this far, I love A Tribe Called Quest, and I love Midnight Marauders. It’s not a stretch to say I wouldn’t be quite the person I am today if I hadn’t heard “Award Tour” 20 years ago on a skateboarding video game. Still, I can remember it like it was yesterday – ironic, since I can’t even remember my actual yesterday. I wouldn’t be the same had I not learned about the group and taken their knowledge to heart. It’s music like this that enriches on every level, transformative and educational as it is entertaining and refreshing.
I’ll leave y’all with just a few more bars from Q-Tip, ones that help put some words to the feeling I and others get from their music.
‘It’s the time we get down, yo son, you know the sound
The flavas on the top with the rugged beat to back it
The night makes the aura and the Jake can’t hack it
The way the moon dangles in the midnight sky
And the stars dance around, ayo I think it’s fly
Intensity, most rappers don’t see it
Spirit wise, musically, you gotta be it
Serenity and silence of the sounds and emotions
In the concrete jungle when the sun don’t bungle’