20 Years Ago: A Tribe Called Quest Release ‘Midnight Marauders’
The year was 1993. Hip-hop, only about 20 years old, was dipped in gold. It had reached around the world, a long journey from its origins as a culture created by the improvising youth of New York City. On Nov. 9, A Tribe Called Quest — Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (by this point original member Jarobi had become the “sometimes ‘Y’”) — delivered their third studio album, ‘Midnight Marauders,’ a defining moment in rap’s Golden Era.
Formed in the late 1980s, A Tribe Called Quest and its members witnessed the rise of hip-hop first hand. Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Kamaal “Q- Tip” Fareed (born Jonathan Davis) were drawn to the addictive sights, sounds and soul of hip-hop while they grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y. As early 20-somethings during the time of the album’s release, the group was in their creative prime.
With two albums under their collective belt, Tribe had solidified a strong name in hip-hop, but ‘Midnight Marauders’ allowed them to shake up the game. While gangsta rap was on the rise on the West Coast, Tribe operated in a warmer mood — ironically the climate was comparably opposite. Their lyrics weren’t necessarily absent from adversity, but they reminded fans that they had the power to rise above it.
The album’s iconic cover helped set an uplifting tone for the music. Behind the silhouette of a female figure decorated in black, green and red — also presented on their ‘Low End Theory’ and ‘Beats, Rhymes, and Life’ albums — were black-and-white headshots of a reported 71 hip-hop luminaries including everyone from the Beastie Boys to Sean “Diddy” Combs. “We tried to get everybody that we can to get on this album cover. Tryna promote hip-hop unity,” Phife Dawg said in an interview with ‘Yo! MTV Raps.’
Others on the cover included Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, DJ Kid Capri, Doug E. Fresh, Souls of Mischief and Dr. Dre. “And our lady in front of it, we figured the lady is hip-hop,” Tip revealed in an interview with MTV. “We use this lady as a symbol of our music…beautiful woman.”
For the first and only time, she was introduced to hip-hop supporters as the “Midnight Marauders Tour Guide,” one who “enhanced your cassette and CDs with certain facts that you may find beneficial.” From messages of HIV/AIDS awareness (“Did you know the rate of AIDS in the black and Hispanic community is rising at an alarming rate? Education is proper means for slowing it down”) to anti-violence (“You’re not any less of a man, if you don’t pull the trigger / You’re not necessarily a man, if you do”), this gave the opus a conscious spin.
From the jump, the horn-heavy ‘Steve Biko (Stir It Up)’ — a track named after the South African anti-apartheid activist — brings back the jazzy boom bap Tribe pioneered on their first two records. Phife Dawg comes through with the “rude boy” composure, shouting out Linden Blvd., in his native Queens, and running down his stats. “MC short and black, there ain’t no other / Trini-born black like Nia Long’s grandmother,” he raps. Tip closes the track with his abstract poetic wisdom.
Listen to A Tribe Called Quest’s Steve Biko (Stir It Up)’
Our narrator decodes the album’s title in an interlude after ‘Award Tour’: “Seven times out of 10, we listen to our music at night, she explains. “The word maraud means to loot; in this case we maraud for ears.”
The next two tracks are solo venting efforts from Phife and Tip, respectively. On ‘8 Million Stories,’ the devil’s on Phife’s back. In the first few lines, he tries to get a milkshake, realizes he doesn’t have the money, and his car gets robbed. He can’t even get his little brother the toy he wants: “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 s—.”
On ‘Sucka N—,’ Tip goes at the controversial word, delivering an argument that would still be relevant in present times. “And being that we use it as a term of endearment / N—-s start to bug, to the dome is where the fear went,” he raps.
‘Electric Relaxation,’ which samples ‘Mystic Brew’ by jazz fusion legend Ronnie Foster, was a standout on the project. It was also the height of wordplay, with Phife Dawg’s famed sexually explicit double entendre: “Let me hit it from the back, girl I won’t catch a hernia / Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture.”
Watch A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Electric Relaxation’
The overall production was a soul catalog, as Tribe used top-notch samples for the work. The funk-loving ‘Oh My God’ sampled ‘Who’s Gonna Take Weight’ by Kool & the Gang, ‘Why Can’t People Be Colors Too?’ by the Whatnauts, and ‘Absolutions’ by Lee Morgan. The chilled out ‘Keep It Rollin’ took from the introduction of ‘Feel Like Making Love’ by Roy Ayers. And the ringy ‘Lyrics to Go’ combined ‘Just Enough Room for Storage’ by James Brown, ‘Inside My Love’ by Minnie Ripperton, and ‘Mixed Up Cup’ by Clyde McPhatter.
Reception to A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Midnight Marauders’ was well-celebrated — with one surprisingly negative review from Rolling Stone. The publication dissed the crew by giving the album two stars. Regardless, the effort was coveted as a classic in hip-hop circles for years to come.
The jazz-rap sensibilities showcased by the group influenced future hip-hop producers such as Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. As Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Mohammad get ready to perform their last show ever — or so they claim — on the Yeezus tour this month, it will be hard to say goodbye for good. At the very least, Tribe leave behind timeless cuts from this record. There’s no problem pressing “any key to return to the main menu” for years to come.
Watch A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Award Tour’