'We Maraud Your Ears': In 1993, A Tribe Called Quest's 'Midnight Marauders' Charted a New Course For Rap and R&B

A Tribe Called Quest
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A Tribe Called Quest photographed in September 1993.

By 1993, A Tribe Called Quest had already dropped two of the best albums of the 1990s. Q-Tip was the group’s mercurial leader, Phife Dawg the spirited everyman that countered Tip’s idiosyncrasies, co-producer/DJ Ali Shaheed was the glue keeping it together and now-estranged member Jarobi White seemed to embody the group’s freewheeling spirit--even from a distance. Tribe was on a roll as hip-hop’s most critically-fawned over act. However, hip-hop was undergoing a significant shift in 1993; the massive success of Dr. Dre’s 1992 G-funk opus The Chronic had sent mainstream rap’s spotlight to the West Coast, and gritty tales of gunplay had taken over hip-hop’s image. But those quirky kids from Queens were set to drop a project that was of a different energy.

That isn’t to say there was nothing but gangsta rap on the radio in 1993. The year was interesting, in that some of the alt-rap acts of the day were enjoying unprecedented crossover visibility; Digable Planets’ had one of the year’s biggest hits in “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” and Arrested Development won a Grammy for their 1992 smash 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In the Life of…, a bohemian conscious rap album that owed more than a little to late-'80s Native Tongues imagery -- and one that crossed over to college rock kids and critics, spawning Top 40 hits like “People Everyday” and “Mr. Wendel” and topping the '92 Pazz & Jop year-end critics poll.

But Tribe’s Native Tongues compadres, despite having blazed the trail for hip-hop’s suddenly-trendy esoteric acts, weren’t doing so well in the wake of the gangsta rap revolution. The Jungle Brothers dropped a flop that summer in J.Beez Wit Da Remedy; and De La Soul released their third album Buhloone Mindstate in fall 1993 and it barely made a commercial dent. As West Coast G-funk hits like “It Was A Good Day” and “Nuthin But A G Thing” stormed pop radio, the East Coast responded with its own brand of gun-toting griminess, as stick’em up rhymes from acts like Onyx made a deliberate effort to remind fans that NYC wasn’t just home for offbeat Afrocentricism. Wu-Tang Clan’s much-anticipated debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) would also drop in November -- in fact, on the same day that Tribe were scheduled to drop their third album, Midnight Marauders -- charting a new course for raw, hardcore hip-hop in New York City. Maybe the boho jazz-rap of the Native Tongues was now passe.

Also for Tribe, there were inner uncertainties. Despite the great artistic leap forward of The Low End Theory, there was always a mercurial dynamic between Tip and Phife. The latter had finally come to the fore on Low End, after an admittedly aimless attitude towards their acclaimed debut, 1990s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. But Tribe’s fourth member Jarobi had departed the group after that first album, and the specifics of that exit were still murky to the public in 1993. And Phife admitted at the time that he hadn’t always enjoyed these instinctive travels with his people.

“There was mad times when I wanted to quit,” Phife told The Source in 1993. “Everybody was frustrated and beefin’ and like ‘Fuck it.’” Tip was exasperated in his role as self-appointed leader of the Tribe. “This n---a [Phife] and Jarobi, you are two you gotta stay on -- they both like to wander off into their own stuff but at least Phife has a pager,” Tip added. “I just page him and page him and page him. When Jarobi breaks out, you just have to wait for him to show back up.”

Tip was becoming more recognized as a celebrity. He’d been Tribe’s mouthpiece and had done high profile guest appearances since the group’s early days, and was now becoming an in-demand producer outside the group, and even dabbling in acting, making  his film debut in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice in summer 1993. Q-Tip’s rising star sometimes obscured his bandmates. And being the most high-profile member of A Tribe Called Quest led to unwanted provocation: In early 1993, Q-Tip had been involved in an altercation with Wreckx-N-Effect, whose hit “Rump Shaker” was one of the biggest pop rap hits of 1992. Phife’s relatively innocuous declaration of “strictly hardcore tracks -- not a new jack swing” from Low End Theory’s “Jazz (We Got)” was taken by WNE as a shot (the Teddy Riley-produced trio had a 1989 hit with “New Jack Swing”); and they jumped Tip at a Run-DMC concert in New York City. The bad blood between both parties had to be settled by the Zulu Nation, with Min. Conrad Muhammad brokering a truce at the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque #7 in Harlem.  

“I kind of like it this way, know what I’m sayin’?” Phife admitted in that same 1993 interview. “‘Cause he feels so pressured to the point sometimes that he doesn’t go out. It’s too in my blood to go out and have fun. But then he’d probably be chillin’ home regardless, even if I was in the limelight and he wasn’t.”

The Low End Theory is often hailed as Tribe’s artistic high water mark -- and it’s more than justified; that album typifies an inspired creativity and uniquely minimalist brilliance that has never been bettered in hip-hop. But with their third album, the crew from Queens perfected their songcraft and studio polish, and delivered an album whose influence would reverberate for the remainder of the decade and beyond. Q-Tip and Ali were simpatico here; from their inspired use of Minnie Riperton’s “whistle register” (“Lyrics To Go”) to the slowed down sample of Rodney Cee from Wild Style (“Sucka N---a”) -- these guys were endlessly inventive.

Carried by a sublime sample of Weldon Irvine’s “We Gettin’ Down,” the album’s first single “Award Tour” announced that ATCQ’s run as rap’s most inspired crew was far from over. And with an anthemic hook courtesy of De La Soul’s Trugoy, it was perfect for radio. The song would become the group’s highest charting single on the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at No. 47), as well a Top Ten hit on the Rap Songs chart.

While it didn’t see the same radio success as “Award Tour,” Tribe’s “Electric Relaxation” became the most enduring single from Midnight Marauders, and a strong contender for Tribe’s greatest single ever. Built on a flip of “Mystic Brew” by Ronnie Foster, the song was ATCQ jazziness in an even more fluidly melodic context than what they’d achieved on The Low End Theory. The sultry feel is complemented by loverman come-ons (“Honey, check it out, you got me mesmerized...”) from Q-Tip and wisecracking horndog-ism from Phife (“Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman's Furniture…”) -- another example of how perfectly complementary the group’s two lead MCs were throughout this period.

The entire album feels smooth and assured, like A Tribe Called Quest had fully mastered being A Tribe Called Quest. There’s a wealth of great hooks here, and on top of the obvious polish in the production and song structure, Phife and Tip are both more assured as emcees than they had ever been on record up to that point. The outside collaborations are inspired; from Busta Rhymes’ reliably kinetic hook on “Oh My God!” to Large Professor’s production and Nas-announcing guest appearance on “Keep It Rollin’.” There’s uniquely Tribe topicality in “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” (“I'm radical with this like the man this song is after”) and a stellar Phife Dawg showcase in the Bola Sete-sampling “8 Million Stories;” the straightforward narrative making a strong case for Phife as one of hip-hop’s most underrated storytellers. At the height of Death Row’s ascendance, A Tribe Called Quest delivered an album of relatable candor and laid-back brilliance.

However one considers “alternative rap,” it’s hard to deny the artistic and aesthetic impact the Native Tongues had on the development of the subgenre. But when the Tongues debuted in the late 1980s, the sound and image traded heavily in an outsider oddball-ism; songs about talking squirrels, deodorant and breakfast foods were par for the course. By 1991, acts like De La Soul and especially Tribe had begun moving away from those tropes. Wallets were left in El Segundo and they stayed there, as ATCQ traded in quasi-boho dashikis and knitted caps for Starter jackets and sagging jeans. That transition was complete by 1993, and Midnight Marauders is a watershed moment for alt-rap’s maturation -- discarding much of the quirkiness associated with early 90s hits like “Blue Cheese” and “Mistadobalina” for the cerebral auteurism that would define latter-decade works like The Roots’ Do You Want More?!????, the Fugees’ blockbuster The Score and Mos Def’s acclaimed debut, Black On Both Sides.

But it’s also imperative to recognize that Midnight Marauders moved A Tribe Called Quest closer to the East Coast boom-bap that was defining NYC’s early 1990s hardcore hip-hop scene. Producers like Pete Rock, Diamond D, Large Professor, Lord Finesse and DJ Premier were reshaping NYC hip-hop’s sound and Q-Tip was right there in the mix; Marauders has as much head-nod grit as Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother or 1994s Illmatic, the uber-classic debut album from Nas released just months after Marauders that featured Q-Tip among its producers. In melding what had been thought of as “artsy” jazz rap with more hardcore street-hop sensibilities, Midnight Marauders found a middle ground that emphasized the connections between two arms of NYC hip-hop that were never all that disparate in anything but presentation.

Midnight Marauders’ sound and spirit didn’t just re-calibrate the course for what many consider “alternative hip-hop;” it also serves as a touchstone for another burgeoning sound hamstrung by trendy nomenclature. The neo-soul movement would explode on the back of D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar in 1995, but the crux of that sound is essentially classic jazz and soul (a la Roy Ayers), and a hip-hop sensibility born directly of Marauders-era A Tribe Called Quest. It’s not difficult to understand the musical kinship Q-Tip and Ali would share with contemporaries like Erykah Badu and Raphael Saadiq. (Saadiq himself contributed live bass to Marauders album cut “Midnight”: “I always brag to that to people who think they’re real hip-hop junkies,” Saadiq told Billboard in February. “I’ll be like, “Really?! Then let me ask you a question. Who played bass in ‘The Night Is On My Mind’?”)

Marauders has become one of the 1990s’ most celebrated LPs, and rivals The Low End Theory in the Greatest A Tribe Called Quest Album debate. In retrospect, it’s the last undeniable moment from ATCQ, when they were still the standard-bearers for creativity in the game. Soon after, Tribe’s synergy would become famously strained, and the emergence of Bad Boy Records would reshape mainstream East Coast hip-hop’s landscape. The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die would move NYC airwaves away from boom-bap and more towards flossy, R&B-driven sounds, as the forthcoming rise of Mafioso rap and shiny suits pushed Tribe to the rap game’s periphery.

Their late-'90s albums are still noteworthy: the emergence of J. Dilla, the development of The Ummah production team, the debut of affiliate Consequence -- but Phife’s disillusionment and detachment is palpable on both 1996's Beats, Rhymes & Life and 1998s The Love Movement. As such, it’s easy to see why Midnight Marauders is a pinnacle for one of hip-hop’s greatest acts. And it’s also a pinnacle for a sound and era -- that moment in the mid-1990s when boom-bap, jazz and soul were all living in the same place. On this record.

The Thread Shop has launched merchandise in honor of ATCQ's 25th anniversary. For those interested, you can purchase the merch here