Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders

We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back through to the musical Golden Era of 90’s music to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Greatest Time in Hip Hop history. Back in November 1993, three iconic albums were released within a span of fourteen days that forever changed the landscape of hip hop music. A Tribe Called Quest’s 3rd album, Midnight Marauders & Wu-Tang Clan’s debut release Enter Da 36 Chambers were both released on Nov 9th to massive fanfare & acclaim. Two weeks later, they were both bested sales-wise by the release of Doggystyle, Snoop Dogg’s debut album off of Death Row Records that turned Snoop into a full-fledged mega superstar. This week, we’ll be taking a look back at each album, reminisce over our favorite tracks & the impact it made on the music industry. Today on The Baseline Blog, with the help of my friend Phil N. DeBlanc, we will take you back and review our favorite songs from ATCQ’s Midnight Marauders LP. Hold on to your seats…

Award Tour

“Lyrically I’m Mario Andretti on the MoMo/Ludicrously speedy or infectious with the slo-mo/Heard me in the eighties, J.B.’s on “The Promo”/In my never-ending quest to get the paper or the caper.” – Q-Tip

Me: Not sure where to start here Phil.  Do we touch on the infectious chorus done by Trugoy from De La Soul? The all-out, xylophone-flavored production from Tribe itself? Or the fact that Montreal or Toronto didn’t get a shout out on the chorus? Is that too much to ask? I mean, Montreal DID win the Stanley Cup that year & the Blue Jays DID win back-to-back World Series right before the LP dropped.  Phife’s a sports nut, he couldn’t get clearance for Canada to represent on the hook too???  Ok, maybe I’m being a little selfish here. In any event though, this was the official first song released off of Midnight Marauders. What I loved about this song more than anything else is that it raised the bar even higher from their other work. I love Check The Rhyme, Bonita Applebum, Jazz (We Got It), & everything that came from Tribe, but this was the 1st example of how they now had their craft mastered from top to bottom in every sense. This still remains as their most popular & highest charting song believe it or not. 

Phil: “Doo dat – doo dat – doo doo dat dat dat “ – Still more memorable than most stuff out now…with an xylophone no less!

I thought I was the only one wanting some Canadian love from NY hip hop. Didn’t BDK (Taste of Chocolate intro) and ATCQ ( Award Tour) know how hard it was for us to support them? Waiting weekly for CKUT to stumble their way into playing some rap on the radio? Did they not know how heavy Walkman’s and Discman’s were? How many times did your rinky dink headphones with the metal band dent your high top, but you didn’t care cause the tracks were tight? How much allowance money did I spend on batteries and tapes to support the cause? Yet Paris and Tokyo got the love? Are you kidding me? Eh?

I think this was the track where they announced that they had arrived. This was their James Harden track. Allow me to explain the similarities. A bit of buzz when they first declared they were eligible for the draft. Some heads knew but they weren’t front page headline worthy….Had to bide their time on the bench while Durant and Westbrook (Native Tongues) got more shine. 6th man status nonetheless….Learned the playbook and how to master their craft and when it was time to blow…enter 2012 James Harden. Fear the Beard!…now everyone wants to sign on for the ride.

I was always more partial to Phife’s verse because he had came off like a lyrical Napoleon. Though he was small in stature he could hold his own with his words. Until my pituitary gland kicked in, this guy was my idol…

Me: First of all, you spent a lot of money on batteries? You didn’t keep them in the fridge in the same slot where you kept the stick of margarine & the cheese? You had to stretch out the life span of everything back then. Waste not, want not! Either you did that or you found the special on the economy-sized red Eveready batteries & just kept them in your knapsack until you got down to the last pair. The things we had to do to listen to music.

Phife does a great job of finishing off the track, but man, Q-Tip kinda just wowed you lyrically here. An underrated exercise in lyricism that often goes unnoticed at times, because of the chorus & the infamous “Do Dat” part of the song. But that “Do Dat” line did two things for his verse: It dumbed down his verse just enough for the average listener to hold on to while also making it catchy & fun enough to be remembered forever. Seriously, even if you’re not totally familiar with Tribe’s work, if you tell someone in our generation “Do Dat Do Dat…”, almost 100% of the time, they finish the sentence for you while nodding their heads. This is partly what I meant by them having their style & craft mastered. Having the skills to appeal to the hip hop heads who hungered for the verbal wordplay, to the average person who just wanted to have a good time & dance to your work, while keeping everyone happy AND making a memorable classic in an effortless manner. Not as easy as it sounds or looks.

INTERESTING FACT: Q-Tip was inspired by & then used Jade’s “Don’t Walk Away” bass line to make this track.

Sucka Ni**a

What you figure, rhyme-wise I do the figure eight so concisely/Musically we are the herb so sit back and light me/Inhale….. My style is kinda fat reminiscent of a whale” – Q-Tip

Me: This song probably represented the many times in hip hop that the word “Nigga” sparked a controversy. In this case Q-Tip took it upon himself here to show us his views on the topic. Tip weaves through each topic in the track seamlessly: how he feels about brothers acting as something that they’re not, to the origins of the word, to the position that he & his generation feel about the word, to the simple fact that he just can’t stop saying it. Two things about this track I’ll address right off the top of my head: 1) Probably one of the most underrated tracks on this album; & 2) This is probably one of the first times that I believed that even back then, Q-Tip was probably headed towards a solo career at some point.

Don’t get me wrong, Tip & Phife Dawg play off their skills & styles like few rappers did before them or since. Those two together were like soulful medicine, & that greatness stuck out like a sore thumb even with all the great rappers & groups in the Golden Era of Hip Hop that Tribe lived in, but Q-Tip really owned that track. You didn’t need Phife on that track nor did you want him to be on it. Just a beautifully cohesive marriage between lyrical substance, social content, simplicity, production & rare groove sampling. It’s one of the many, many reasons why I miss 90’s hip hop, especially when you turn on the radio & hear the songs that are being played now. I mean, will you ever see platinum selling group that raps about good times, focus on musical substance & doesn’t pop molly/sip lean/smoke kush/shoot people in the face again?

Phil: I never played this song too loud at home because it had “foul language” peppered generously in the chorus. If my Tribe was confiscated…maaaaaan…I shudder at the thought. I don’t think I would have been able to successfully explain to my parents that a man named “Q-Tip” was trying to teach me something.

Thanks to the total degeneration of my once beloved and misunderstood hip hop, I barely listen to these new so called artists. One particular reason is because their songs do not have much of a message. Sucka Nigga however, is the opposite.  As a matter of fact, this song could be deemed prophetic;

“Now the little shorties say it all of the time/And a whole bunch of ni**as throw the word in they rhyme”

Insert almost any modern day artist into that list. It seems like anytime an artist has a brain cramp, they call on the N-word like Mighty Mouse to save the day (Busta Rhymes’ ears must be ringing). Anyway, back to the track. In my opinion it was lyrically ingenious. The song possesses an educational and sociocultural aspect that can often be overlooked. I figure ATCQ had tons of notepads and loose leaf of brainstormed rhymes. By no means were they low on creative juices. So how brilliant is it that the second verse isn’t that different from the first? Apparently, there was a message we were intended to absorb over that Freddie Hubbard sample…

“It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy/Other 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”

Could that be it? I think so. The use of the N-word and those who try to justify it is a topic of discussion for another time. But I will raise this question: How many other artists could have pulled off this title and track 20 years ago and made it a classic?

Me: Back in 1993, over that production? Not too many guys to be honest. Ice Cube possibly, because every now & again he would rap about something social, but with the content & this beat it wouldn’t have been as smooth, & it definitely would have been edgier. I’d like to think that Tupac would have done a really good job on this track actually, his vocals & emotion would have worked fine here, plus he’s taken stabs at socially conscious & uplifting music (like “Keep Your Head Up” for example) around these times. Chuck D would have sounded too aggressive, & as much as I loved Guru, he wasn’t lyrical enough to make it a classic (although the production from DJ Premier would have been incredible). We can pretty much forget about groups like EPMD & Onyx. If Redman did it, it may have been an interlude called “Sucka Niggaz & Bitches” & it would have had so much weed talk on the record we would have gotten high from just listening to it. I think Nas, Common, Andre 3000, & Lauryn Hill could have done well with it too, but they were still a year away from changing the game.

I agree that the N-word topic is a discussion for another time, but it just goes to show you after the whole civil rights movement in the 1960’s & the changing of black culture since that period, that it’s still very much a hot button topic then as it was in the 1990s, as it still is today. When Nas wanted to named his LP the “Ni**er Album” back in 2008, it raised so many debates & controversy at the time that it almost ostracized him altogether. Even though his career was still intact after that situation, you did think at that point with all the backlash that this might be the beginning of the end for him. At least I did. As we also learned through the negative sides of social media & Joel Ward’s 2012 playoff experience, we still have a long way to go as a society when it comes to the use of this word & the history that continues to be built upon it.

To bring it back full circle though, if this song came out right now, it would still be relevant today. We still use the word as a term of endearment amongst our friends, it’s still sprinkled up & down in our favorite hip hop songs, it’s still an uncomfortable topic to discuss publicly, & Busta would still make love to this word if it were a woman. A part of me still wonders if he makes another song one day that tops “Break Your Neck”. The amount of times he dropped the N-Word in that song, was like the hip hop equivalent of dropping 70 points in a game. It was almost kind of amazing actually.

Electric Relaxation 

“Let me hit it from the back, girl I won’t catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch now you’ve got Seamens furniture” – Phife

Phil: ” I am speechless…I am without speech!” – Elaine Benes (Seinfeld)

Bonita Applebum Part 2 for the guys who wanted to get it in but didn’t know how to express themselves. Whoever she was back then, she couldn’t relate. Songs like these are why my batteries were in the fridge and my wacky high top had dents in it. No, its not because my barber was subpar, its because this track had me vibing. There are a handful of instruments that can resonate well with me: pianos, horns (only because I was a victim of the Pete Rock production) and bass.  I can envision this song being performed in a jazz bar on the down low with an older bassist just strumming along laying it down. Sometimes there are songs that are so perfectly timeless that nobody should ever touch them again. You can admire them…but from a distance. This, to me, belongs in that category (see MJ or Stevie’s catalogue).

Me: If I had to pick two timeless records off this album that might still be played 50 years from now, Award Tour would be one, &  Electric Relaxation would be the other. Just the way it starts off, it sounds so smooth but you’re not 100% sure what to expect just yet. Then the strum of the guitar comes in from that Mystic Brew sample & Tribe’s already in a chick’s ear trying to get the draws like Tommy from Martin. That in itself would have been it in terms of the track, but then Q-Tip passes it off to Phife Dawg & he utters the words:

“I like ’em Brown, Yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian/Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation…”

The song went from good, to great, to legendary in 4.7 seconds. That line took the song to a whole other level. This song might be the pre-cursor to the Ice Cream hook that Method Man cooked up 2 years later on Raekwon’s classic, “Only Built for Cuban Linx” album. Plus the fact that Phife flashes his West Indian love & roots on wax, I mean, for a teenager of Trini descent in ’93? Mind blowing. It was like Phife was one of us.  It made him more relatable. You’re right about one thing though, if this song came out as an instrumental from Tribe like Marvin Gaye did with “T Plays it Cool”, it might have still been a hit. Production on this record is incredible.

INTERESTING FACT: Kanye and Consequence tried to do something to this beat a few years ago. Yikes. It was as if someone Botoxed the Mona Lisa.

Lyrics to Go

” I’m Jordan with the mic (uh), wanna gamble?” – Phife

Phil: Aside from the fact that it has the best 4-second intro in my Tribe memory bank, there’s something hypnotic about this song. It’s a kaleidoscope beat which again, forces you to rely on the lyrics to navigate through. Another ATCQ beat that only they could have pulled off successfully. You know what? Sometimes when we feel certain artists, we grant them creative leeway. The experimental “one off” examples:

I don’t even feel like they worked that hard on this one, it flowed like a freestyle. What are the odds that they banged this one out in one take? And talk about hypnotic beats, this was on loop 4x straight while I wrote this segment. Cruise control music at its finest….

Me: Did you really have to bring up the Electric Circus album, you bastard?? I mean, we already cremated that album as hip hop listeners & Common fans.  We even sprinkled the ashes & knitted cloth into the ocean while wiping away tears. Shit, even Common has his copies of that album in his storage unit. He already apologized by giving us “Be” & “Finding Forever”. I feel like that’s a low blow dude, even if he isn’t reading this.

The back & forth between Phife & Tip on this was on pre-Jadakiss & Styles P levels, the verbal sparring mixed with the never ending Mimmie Ripperton sample. Both of them were at their best, it’s actually debatable if we’ve heard any better lyrically from them. You say it comes off as a freestyle, it’s as if they were in a cypher in front of an A&R trying to sign their first deal. It’s almost like you can feel the hunger in each word. That’s actually pretty remarkable that they still sounded like that even though they came off the success of Low End Theory. This was the 2nd to last track on the album & they were still trying to make our heads spin.

I’m still not over that Electric Circus low blow by the way.

Oh My God

“Jalick…Jalick ya wind up ya hip/Drafting of the poets, I’m the #7 pick/Licks licks licks boy, ‘pon ya backside (x2)” – Q-Tip

Phil: No matter where you are or what you’re doing, I guarantee you sing along. Admit it. Thought so. Here’s another song with a classic intro and solid sample, right? Just add it to their list. Sampling really is an art and why I loved hip hop so much. You know that feeling when you hear an old track from the 60’s – 70’s and then it hits you like, “Hey! Wait a minute! They sampled this to make _____!” Then you have that proud MacGwyver moment because you figured it out. But then you realize you could never turn an umbrella & lawn mower (samples) into a getaway helicopter (beat) like they did?

There’s that jazzy base again. Phife gets my vote on this one. He only had one verse and he made the most of it. That’s an art that Vinny (Naughty By Nature) never mastered. It isn’t because he was the weakest of the two by any means either.

“Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue/It’s not like honey dip would want to get with me/but just in case I own more condoms than TLC” 

Interesting excerpt, right? Well, anyone ever think that this verse might have influenced Biggie to pen “Dreams”? I don’t have the timeline, but wouldn’t it be cool if it did? Can’t you just see something like this happening?

Q-Tip gave him one of the best lead-ins ever and once he took off with “Trini Gladiator” and culminated with “Funky Diabetic” it was a wrap. They could have faded to the outro and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I ask you this, was Q-Tip’s verse really necessary? Why did he get two anyway? Make-up verses?

Me: That was the beauty of these two guys. You can say that Q-Tip was the “lead” out of the two & Phife was the 1A if we had to technically label their positions, but when Phife was ready to get into a beat’s ass, Q-Tip more than willingly stepped to the side & let Phife go do his thing. To answer your question though, I don’t think Q-Tip’s 2nd verse was needed really other than to make the song long enough to be usable for radio airplay. This is the one song off Marauders where the video is forever imprinted into my head. Tip & Phife running after Shaheed’s float with the little kids & Busta Rhymes in his “Guest spot, rah-rah, yellow raincoat & matching hat, pre-Guiness Book of World Record for N-Word mentioning” glory screaming the Lord’s good name on top of the convenient store. Great times!

It always seemed as though they were having so much fun together, be it recording, doing videos & shows. It’s that quality that makes them the most relatable, unlike some of these other groups that were larger than life at the time (ie. Public Enemy, Naughty, Cypress Hill), Tribe made you feel as if they were your boys that you hung with, even if they were superstars at the time themselves.

Although I don’t think Phife’s TLC lyric predated Biggie’s Dreams, I’m pretty sure that when Biggie heard this track, he smiled & nodded.

Album Cover and Closing Thoughts

Phil: Never to be replicated or duplicated. One of the greatest covers in hip hop, if not the music industry. A guess who or who’s who of the golden years…. and Sean Combs managed to slide his way in there (bottom left corner of the rear). Who let Verbal Kint (Keiser Sose) in the photo shoot? Imagine that he probably grossed more than Tribe and everyone else on the cover combined. Where’s the justice? Based on their facial reactions, maybe that’s what they were all told before their portrait was taken (look at them)!

You know how Chris Webber probably regrets not taking part of that Fab Five documentary (man, how great are those ESPN Docs)? Who do you think might have passed on being part of the shoot? Or missed the call? Gang Starr? Naughty by Nature? LL Cool J? Where was Biggie? Grand Puba? Hmmm….

I am lucky to have an older brother who was my gatekeeper into music. Some of the music he brought home wasn’t even worth puncturing the holes at the top of a blank cassette. Other times everything works and we are blessed with a masterpiece. Vinyl turned to tapes, tapes to CDs and CDs to data. No matter the format, this album should be immortalized in that pantheon of hip hop lore. Also remember that Hot Sex was on the European version. Damn man!!!!!

I’ll say this, as good as Phife was on all these albums we should acknowledge that Q-Tip was the mastermind of the beats. I would compare Q-Tip to Erick Sermon and Phife was Parrish Smith. You never knew how bad one would miss the other until it actually happened. That’s when we got Amplified and uhh…Ventilation. There must still be enough slices of that humble pie in Phife’s freezer.

Tribe beats were jazzy, experimental, easy going and non threatening. Essentially, that was the recipe for success. Somehow, the game changed and the fun loving message got lost. Don’t believe me? How many times did they ever rhyme about getting or having money? Exactly.

Me: The Marauders album cover is the official time capsule for hip hop. The hottest DJ’s,  artists, producers, movers & shakers in the industry represented on the cover of that time. Never seen anything like that before or since, & I think it adds to the mystique of this album. When I first spent my lunch money on the tape (yes, I said tape), I remember not even listening to it right away cuz I spent so much time trying to figure out the faces on this album. Whenever I look back on it as time goes on, I still get surprised by the faces that made this cover. Dr. Dre? Too Short? Puffy???? Actually, the Puffy one makes sense for that time though. He was the hottest thing going at Uptown Records, helped to make Jodeci & Mary J. Blige superstars, & had already started a buzz on the streets with Biggie Smalls earlier that summer.

You do bring up a funny point though. Can you imagine how some of those cats felt that either ignored the call, or worse, didn’t even get called for this? How awkward must those conversations have been afterward, especially when the album was flying off the shelves?

Neglected Artist: Yo Tip? What’s happening man! Congrats on the successful album homie. Yo man, um…how come you didn’t call me for the cover shoot man??? I live 10 minutes away from the spot!

Tip: You mean you didn’t get the message??? Nah son, I left you a message on your answering machine! What’s your number again man?

N.A: Come on Tip, it’s 555-718-1234!

Tip: Ahhhhh shit dawg, I have 555-718-123…5 man! Oh man, my bad…my bad……yo, I can call you back though?

N.A: Come on son……sigh…….aieet man, I guess that’s cool. I know I was having trouble with my answering machi…………hello? Hello???

****sound of dial tone on the other end****

I said this before, but it bears mentioning again: When will you ever see a group like this again, especially in today’s musical landscape? A group who just rhymed mostly about good times.  Their songs didn’t involve drugs, maiming or murdering people, made you dance & have a good time, and yet, still managed to sell millions of records? The formula’s been tried since, but always failed. Slum Village has some success, but Jay Dee left before they had a chance to make a real impact. Little Brother came after them & had a nice little buzz, but it died once they tried to go major with their The Minstrel Show LP & flopped miserably on the charts (even though that album was really good). Of course, their producer 9th Wonder left them too shortly afterward. Then the group Strange Fruit came out a few years ago, but I bet you the first time you heard of them was at the beginning of this sentence. We’ve been waiting for someone to replace that void Tribe left in music, but we have to accept the fact that they’re simply irreplaceable. We just have to continue listening to this album along with all their other work whenever we need that fix; & pray that they do a reunion concert in our city so that we can see them in person. It’s for this reason why they’re part of the Golden Era of hip hop music. However, like any great era in any type of genre, once it ends, it ends & that’s it. That’s why we remember those times as fondly as we do.

Last question: You know whenever we discuss the greatest producers in hip hop history (ie. Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Timbaland, RZA, The Neptunes, Kanye West), is there any reason why Q-Tip never gets mentioned? If this is one of the greatest hip hop groups ever, & he was the man behind their classic songs, shouldn’t he at the very least get an honorable mention? He worked outside of the group too & made classic songs with Nas (One Love), Mobb Deep (Temperature’s Rising, Give Up the Goods, and Drink Away The Pain), & Janet Jackson (Got Til It’s Gone) just for starters, yet gets ignored to some extent historically.

The List of Faces on the Midnight Marauders album cover:

Afrika Bambaataa /AMG/Ant Banks/Awesome Two/Beastie Boys (Mike D, Adrock, MCA)/Black Moon/Busta Rhymes/Casual/Chi Ali/Chuck D/The Cold Crush Brothers (Almighty KG, Charlie Chase,Easy AD, Grandmaster Caz, DJ Tony Tone)/Daddy-O (of Stetsasonic)/Dallas Austin/Del Tha Funkee Homosapien/Diamond D/Doug E. Fresh/De La Soul (Posdnuos, Dave & Mase)/DJ Jazzy Joyce/Kool DJ Red Alert/DJ Ron G/DJ Silver D/DJ Teddy Ted/Dr. Dre/Grandmaster Flash/Heavy D/Ice-T/Jazzy Jay/Jungle Brothers (Afrika Baby Bam, Mike G)/DJ Kid Capri/Kool Moe Dee/Large Professor/ Lords of the Underground/MC Lyte/MC Serch/Neek the Exotic/Organized Konfusion/The Pharcyde (Fat Lip, Imani, Romye, Slim Kid Tre’)/Pete Nice/Rashad Smith/Rock Steady Crew (Crazy Legs, Mr. Wiggles, Pee Wee Dance, Ruel)/Sean Combs/Skeff Anselm/Souls of Mischief/Special Ed/Sweet Tee/Too Short/Whodini (Grandmaster Dee) /Zulu Nation Supreme Council (Zulu King Muhammad, Unknown)

Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

Follow me on Twitter or email me at southshoreave@gmail.com

To catch up my previous posts, click here.

Very special thanks to Phil N. DeBlanc for his contributions to this article/blog posting.

5 thoughts on “Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders

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