A Tribe Called Quest, to me, is my favorite hip-hop group of all time. If I’m being honest, they’re my favorite “band” ever. If we’re talking bands, in the common term, there’s… Radiohead, Talking Heads, Rage Against the Machine, etc. But A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite.
The first time I ever heard them was a song from the 1998 album The Love Movement, called “Find a Way”. This was also the first time I heard Dilla so this was retrospectively a life-changing moment. Seeing the video on Rap City: Tha Basement threw me in a trance at 4 years old. Tribe, along with Little Brother, Clipse, Slum Village, and others, are instrumental at making the HARDEST, RAWEST records in a beautiful way. Pretty samples or sounds over hard, sparse percussion are the best. Tyler, the Creator is a disciple at doing that, tapping in the chord progressions with the bottomless drums. Nevertheless, the Tribe are the ones who started it, in my eyes.
Every album in Tribe’s catalogue is super good. The standard of A Tribe Called Quest is like no other and each album has a theme or aura around it. The debut, People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm, is the happy, wonderful ways of the Native Tongues, completely enthralled in the Daisy Age and packed with expression and potential. In hopes to overcome the “sophomore slump”, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and engineer Bob Power decided to use the “low end” frequencies for their next effort, The Low End Theory. With songs like “Check the Rhime” (the bottom is crazy), “Butter” (the Gary Bartz sample is so pretty) and the posse cut “Scenario” (Busta’s impactful verse was like Lupe’s verse on “Touch the Sky”), the Brooklyn-Queens stalwarts made it known that they were here to stay. The third album, though… The third album is where they took the templates of Theory and ELEVATED it to a higher, jazzier, more polished plateau.
Midnight Marauders is the name of the album, which was released November 9th, 1993 (the same day as Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, the monumental debut album by NYC hip-hop legends Wu-Tang Clan). Recorded in Platinum Sound Studios, Sorcerer Sound & the classic Battery Studios in New York, Quest implemented samples from far & wide and created a hip-hop album that, in my eyes, is truly cohesive and impeccable. From the percussion to the improved cadences of Tip & Phife to the iconic voicemail-esque interludes from Bonita Applebum (the naked painted lady & mascot of the group), the love for A Tribe Called Quest increases greatly every single time I play this album. Being that 25 years have passed, and many things have changed since then (RIP Phife), I decided to write a review for each song. One thing about this album is the samples, which is a tenet in Tribe albums (and Native Tongues-related albums, in general). I’ma drop each sample from the album on this review just so you can dive into rabbit holes. That’s why I love samples. By the way, Midnight is my favorite Tribe album, as you can see.
The first thing you hear is Bonita Applebum telling you that we’re in for a wonderful trip through the wee hours in the morning. The average bounce meter is around 95 beats per minute and she will also tell us things that may be beneficial in our world of black culture, music, and entertainment. Just from the loop of “Aquarius” by Cal Tjader, the usual Tribe stan is disconnecting the phone, closing the door, turning the speakers up, and preparing calmly. To me, it’s the perfect intro. It’s nothing extreme and everything spectacular. Just from the intro, you are tapped into the Midnight Marauders Program.
RATING: 10 out of 10
The album officially opens with this alarming horn, taken from “Blackstone Legacy” by jazz trumpeter (and Jersey native, juheard) Woody Shaw off the eponymous album, released in 1971. After being swallowed by the horn, you hear Phife start the verse (and the album) ever so beautiful with a shout to the motherland, “Linden Boulevard, represent, represent.” One thing about Phife is he starts his verses the best. The opening lines of his verses are the absolute best. The only one that can touch him when it comes to that is fellow Queens rapper (and fallen angel) Prodigy of the Infamous Mobb Deep, but other than that, it’s Phife. All day, every day. Throughout the song, Quest are sending nothing but smooth, solid rhymes over instrumentation that has nothing but structure. My favorite thing about the beat is the Michal Urbaniak sample (the “growl” on the snare). It’s a great way to open the album, not to mention they are paying dues to South African activist Steve Biko, who passed away in 1977.
RATING: 9 out of 10
David Jolicoeur, better known as Trugoy the Dove (of Amityville hip-hop nerds of the Native Tongues, De La Soul), tells the world that The Tongues are on “award tour”, where they paint the town red (or the world, in this case) with their clever rhymes, ice-cold demeanor, and jazzy aesthetic. Under the pretty keys of “We Gettin’ Down” by Weldon Irvine & that BASS LINE (we’ll talk further in a second), Tip & Phife takes off, hitting a pace that we know and love as ATCQ fans. The tandem is basically Mr. Wiggles & Crazy Legs (of the legendary B-boy group The Rock Steady Crew), as they’re showing (and telling you) that there’s a reason why they’re traveling the world, selling out shows and pushing hip-hop to higher levels. Halfway through the verse, a loop of “Olinga” by Detroit vibraphonist Milt Jackson plays, setting the tone perfectly. The third sample, “Lowdown” by Charles Earland, plays during the chorus, thus becoming a perfect example of songwriting & composition. Tip definitely knew what he was doing with these samples. I considered him one of the best at picking the best music for his own respective sound. A true visionary, indeed.
Now, this bass line is a testament to the influence of The Low End Theory. The bass on that album is so LOW and it’s all the way down bottom, so when played with good speakers, they rattle everything in vicinity. The bass line on “Award Tour” is solely inspired by Chicago girl group Jade’s 1992 smash “Don’t Walk Away”. Tip spoke about it with Vibe Magazine:
There you have it.
RATING: 10 out of 10
The 5-foot assassin, Malik Izaak “Phife Dawg” Taylor, started story number one like this: “Went to Carvel to get a milkshake.” In the simplest way, Phife begins to dive deeper into the burlap bag that’s filled with “8 million stories”, expounding upon street tales of New York City from all facets & perspectives of life. At the time, NYC was 8 million people (now, it’s like fifty-leven people, now). Malik decided to tap in, wear a hat only the vivid & talented of storytellers donned, and became a voice of a city that is known for developing each story with not much shut-eye to begin with. One of only 2 beats that’s not produced by ATCQ, the “8 Million Stories” beat boasts a sample by Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete, serving as the main riff. Baby Phife jumps from story to story, ranging from taking a girl to the Knicks game (only to get played), getting robbed (he had cigarettes and $1.50), getting pulled over by the cops (with marijuana on him), and ending up in Boston instead of New York (all the while, John Starks was ejected).
The song serves as the window into the world of New York City, from the basketball courts of Dyckman, to the hustling streets of Manhattan, to the grimy, graffiti-laden area of Queens to the murky denizens of Brooklyn. The song definitely holds a religious undertone (“Jesus Christ, I’m having problems”, “Just lay your burdens down by the riverside”…) and Q-Tip cements the idea with a wailing outro, just to make it weird (and oddly amazing). I’ve always looked at A Tribe Called Quest as a perfect example of contrast, which is something you need in a rap group with two rappers. You need someone to take you to the moon and someone to take you back to tell you, in colloquial terms, what the f**k just happened. Tip is the esoteric, whirling dervish kinda character… and Phife is his best friend, in a St. John’s jersey, letting the people know that everything is alright. “We’re good. He’s not weird. We’re jazz artists in the hip-hop industry. We’re just different.” UGK, OutKast & Clipse (another awesome example of contrast. Push & Malice are God & Satan if they were drug dealers) are some of the best rap duo in the world because they speak about both sides of the coin. Tribe is one of the forefathers of that.
RATING: 10 out of 10
This beat is so goddamn good. It’s jazz rap and it’s what I was talking about. Hard drums (“Kissing My Love” by Cold Blood) with the prettiest-sounding jazz sample. “Red Clay” by Jack Wilkins, which is a cover of the song of the same title by Freddie Hubbard, has one of the smoothest riffs ever. Younger generations may know the riff as the base of “Na Na” by Chicago phenom Chance the Rapper (featuring Queens bossman Action Bronson). The music itself is captivating you as is, while this deep voice is screaming to every black man in existence. “HEY, SUCKA NIGGA! WHOEVER YOU ARE!” is simply contradicting (for good reasons) because the white man depicts the black man, or the “nigger”, as less than nothing and a “object”, nonetheless. The “whoever you are” shows that the black man can be someone of stature and recognition. Hearing that phrase, filtered and chopped, is one of the illest things on the album. Also, Tip spits the same verse twice, which is really dope. The next rapper who did that (and was completely inspired by it, according to A&R Dante Ross on his interview with hip-hop DJs Cipha Sounds & Pete Rosenberg) was Brooklyn wunderkind Ol’ Dirty Bastard, on his iconic single “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, on his classic debut Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. The record ends with Ali Shaheed Muhammad doing what he does best, scratching effortlessly, and Bonita mutters, “You’re not any less of a man if you don’t pull the trigger. You’re not necessarily a man if you do”. The quote is a really nice way of saying guns don’t validate anything but a life being lost, a casket in the ground, and another mother with no (or one less) child.
On the song, Kamaal the Abstract rocks the house, waxing poetic on what seems like a soapbox. He talks to the people about the word that stretches from the present time to the days of yesteryear, "nigger” (or “nigga”). Tip raps, “See, nigga first was used back in the Deep South / Falling out between the dome of the white man's mouth”, speaking from a perspective only shared by minorities all across America. He continues the theme of possible contradiction by saying “I start to flinch as I try not to say it / But my lips is like a oo-wop as I start to spray it”, admitting that despite the origins of the word and the damage it has done to millions of black people, he still says the word (in the latter, more common term). In the year of 2018, many blacks use “nigga” as a term of endearment, which was expressed in the song (“Being that we use it as a term of endearment / Niggas start to bug, to the dome is where the fear went”). I must admit that, as a black man, I have used the word and to be honest, it’s part of our vernacular. Some of our parents used it, the music they listened to had the word in it, and it’s in nearly all black entertainment. Most of us have accepted the word and “took the power out of it”, using it to greet our brothers and sisters. Trust and believe… all of us know why we shouldn’t say it, but we don’t care about the negative connotations surrounding it. Some of us have found out that “nigger” is derived from the African term “negus”, which means king. So, in other words, the intentions were always positive and the white man just flipped it on us. Either way, the word will roll off the tongues of many black Americans because when we step in the functions and gatherings and parties, the “friends” will say “Aye! My niggas.” We mean no harm. It’s just a black thing.
RATING: 10 out of 10
So, we’re on track 6 and this album is already REALLY GOOD. We got a ode to a black man, another ode to the Big Apple, a third ode about traveling the world, and a fourth ode about the word we all know and hate (hate is the new love, sometimes). On the dreamy “Midnight”, The Lone Ranger basically makes his own rendition of “8 Million Stories”. Over a codeine-laden sample of “North Beach” by George Duke, he opens a book about a drug dealer who lives for the early hours of the morning, where the Grim Reaper scrapes the concrete with a scythe, and all seven sins are in great amounts, in the cold night air and under millions and millions of stars. Completely engulfed by the lifestyle (the “jewels & fly gimmicks”), he dabbles in various situations. From participating in a dice game (and losing his money in the process), eating bodega cuisine (which is amazing in the late night for some reason), and seeing a woman that fascinated him in the lustiest of ways (only to be turned off by her positive ramblings, which he saw as boring), the youth is going through the night with hopes to accomplish at least one of the facets of the life he admires so much. Through the end of the first verse, he drives through the city with his boy, smoking weed, playing basketball, and ultimately getting stopped by the police (thankfully, he left his drugs at home). The second verse shifts into his sentiments about the nighttime and how he specifically makes his music for people who love the darker side of the day. Certain music sound great in the nighttime, I admit. “Midnight” is essentially another peek into the oasis that is New York City, using the guts of “8 Million Stories” and taking it further, which is second nature for a guy like Q-Tip. Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman (and later on, member of Lucy Pearl) Raphael Saadiq contributes to the production & the “WHA! WHA! WHA!” (“Psychedelic Shack” by Albino Gorilla) is another example of Q-Tip taking splices of obscure 1970’s funk records and making something different with it. Brilliant record.
RATING: 10 out of 10
Halfway through the album, we witness a stunning tribe of New Yorkers scoping the area for people’s attention, to push their classic jazz-rap sound out and forward. In terms of the day, we’re hitting 3am. The tour guide & “Steve Biko” is the first minutes of the day and soon enough the sun will start rising. As for now, we’re just chilling and that’s what “We Can Get Down” is.
Honestly, this song is an intermission… a little break halfway. “We Can Get Down” is Tribe’s unintentional take on “Nuthin’ but a G Thang”. Two of the best rappers of all time are making it happen in the most effortlessly way. The show-stealer is Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who takes the cake with a lesson in turntablism by cutting “My Melody” by Eric B. & Rakim to death. This, to me, is considered the skipper on Midnight Marauders, which is crazy to me because it’s still really good. No signs of filler on this record but it just shows how great this album is.
RATING: 9 out of 10
“Electric Relaxation”, a song for the ladies, is the centerpiece of the album. All three samples are meddled in majestically. The first one is the drums of “Outside Love” by Brethren, which has a really distinct sound to it. “Dreams” by Ramsey Lewis is where the wails are from, which is another small piece of a song that Tip used to make music sound better. The third sample is the meat and potatoes and it teaches the listener a thing about time signature.
Tip used a 3-bar sample for a hip-hop song, which is traditionally in 4-bar increments. “Mystic Brew” by Ronnie Foster is the sample, which is a funky, whimsical, lush-sounding record because of the simple fact that it’s in 3/4 time signature. When used for a song that’s in 4/4 time, it makes the end result weird and really different. The swing of the record is captivating and it makes you like the song more. It sounds better to me because, with the Brethren drums & the Ramsey Lewis wails on top, it’s layered and just has a cooler sound than the usual 4/4 sample on a 4/4 drum pattern. At one point, I’ve stated that “Electric Relaxation” is the best Tribe song of all time. Some may differ, but it’s a really, really, really, really good rap song. It serves its purpose well and shows a versatility that is, most times, uncharted. This song is definitely geared towards the ladies but never loses sight of character.
I consider “Electric” the mature version of “Bonita Applebum”, the shimmery, jovial standout from their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm. The latter was a young Tip (the song was conceived when he was 15) speaking about his carnal (and intimate) desires, bouncing from one side of his mind to the other. This, along with Phife, is what you would call the adult version, where you can hear Tip sound more established, firm, and confident in his adventure with the women he has in mind. The duo’s rhymes are super slick, packed with game that’s par for the course (“But hun, you got the goods like Madelyne Woods”, “Honey, check it out, you got me mesmerized / With your black hair & your fat ass thighs”). Phife expresses his preferences (I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian…) & Tip is clearly shooting the shot with shorty who’s either not buying it or not catching the drift just yet (“But I couldn’t drop dimes ‘cause you couldn’t relate…” All in all, this song is where the album catches a second wind and what better way to restart than this? If you love Tribe, loving this song is automatic. This is one of the greatest rap songs of all time.
RATING: 10 out of 10
The song after “Electric” is the face-cringing number “Clap Your Hands” and both songs serve a chemistry alike to “Bonita” & the crowd favorite “Can I Kick It?” from People’s Instinctive. One is for the ladies and the other is for the homies. Legendary New Orleans funk band The Meters lend their 1970 hit “Hand Clapping Song” and the Tribe pays dues the proper way with this one. “Hands” is just another song that slides with little to no effort and it just shows the chemistry, quality & fun that the 3 kids have when making music. That was one thing that is still prevalent to the music of ATCQ: They didn’t try hard to make classics. You can tell that they knew what they were doing & they’ve been doing this thing for a while, almost to the point they can rhyme in their sleep. From Phife talking like he’s the best in the world (“The worst thing in the world is a sucker MC / Favorite rap group in the world is EPMD / Can't forget the De La, due to originality / And if I ever went solo my favorite MC would be me” to Tip reaffirming the place Tribe holds in rap (“Chemists get confused of my ill composition / This is the third of the new Tribe addition / MCs be swinging, but a lot of them be missing / So shut your bloodclot and listen / Cuz I'm bringin you the ill rendition"'), the two are bragging with style, swagger, and precision, shooting from the 3-point line and walking back without watching the rim. They know it’s cash. All day, every day, any day.
RATING: 9 out of 10
The second single released from Midnight, “Oh My God”, is another piece of proof from the Brooklyn-Queens crew that they’re making the best rap music in the world. The Kool & the Gang sample under Busta’s trademark voice is the hook. Super ill. There’s nothing else you need. Phife is the star of the record, spitting a classic verse with hip-hop quotables all over the place (“I like my beats hard like two day old shit / Steady eating booty MCs like cheese grits”, “Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue” (a ironic line, due to the formation of Lucy Pearl a few years later, which is a R&B group that included Dawn, Raphael Saadiq & Ali Shaheed), “Trini gladiator, anti-hesitator / Shaheed push the fader from here to Grenada”, and the ominous, haunting line “When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”
Phife was diagnosed with diabetes in May 1990, one month after their debut album. His battle was filled with ups and downs, from his wife giving him one of her kidneys for a transplant, to the surgery going unsuccessful and requiring another transplant a few years later. The struggle ultimately ended, when Phife passed away on March 22nd, 2016. Since then, he has been heralded as one of the best rappers ever and Phife justified it when ATCQ released their last album We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service in November 2016. Phife wanted to end it with a bang, and man… he did. He sounded amazing on the album, which is a thing when it comes to anything he raps on. From his solo records on Tribe albums (“Butter”, “8 Million”, “Baby Phife’s Return” & “His Name is Mutty Ranks”) to his show-stealing verses (“Buggin’' Out”, “Award Tour” & “Check the Rhime”, to name a few"), Dynomutt always delivered. To be perfectly honest, his passing has made the records even more special because you hear the gifts he brought to the table. He always came to rhyme. Always. Rest well Phife Diggy.
RATING: 10 out of 10
The second half began with a simple phrase to the human female (“Relax yourself girl, please settle down”), a NYC hip-hop banger that was meant to bring the red out of your hands, and an effortless single with one undeniable chorus. The greatness continues with a “swing-swing-swing” and a “chop-chop-chop”, orchestrated by A Tribe Called Quest & Queens legend (formerly of Main Source) Large Professor. The record, “Keep It Rollin’”, is a fly, fresh, and cool hip-hop song, made for the lounges and cafes across the world. It seems like Phife, Tip & the Extra P share the mic amongst dim lights, cigarette smoke, live instruments, and bar food. Phife sends the usual shots of aggression (“So money watch your mouth, or I'mma have to bust ya / Battling MC's, from JFK to Russia / Back down to London, Sweden and Brazil / Do a U.S. tour for three months and then I chill”) & Tip mellows out (“Check it out, cause my conception is immaculate / A bachelor, looking for a bachlelorette”). The Professor delivers the sole guest verse of the album by continuing the theme of the record, which is flows and cadences that are meant to keep the vibe rolling & rolling for the audience. Lines like “A whip looks complete when the tires say Pirelli” & “Queens represent, buy the album when I drop it” are proof that Queens is in attendance, draped in a yellow Helly Hansen jacket with a blunt behind the ear, ready to go. When it comes to effortless flows and smooth headnods, “Keep It Rollin’” doesn’t disappoint.
RATING: 10 out of 10
“The Chase, Part. 2” starts off with a chop of “Nobody Beats the Biz” by Biz Markie and it’s one of the illest ways to start a record. “I’m bound to wreck your body & say ‘Turn the party out!’” Crazy. Dope. Ill. All of the words in mind will work with the beginning of the record. The record then open with this wavy sample, from Steve Arrington's Hall of Fame (Steve is most known as the lead vocalist of funk giants Slave). Added with the standard, which is hollowed-out kicks (with the lowest of low end) and the hard, piercing snares, the beat tends to do what it usually does. By this point in the album, you’re catching whiplash, because Midnight Marauders simply has some of the best production ever heard on a hip-hop album. Like “We Can Get Down” & “Clap Your Hands”, this number shows the same absence of effort. Tip, Ali & Phife just KNOWS how to make hip-hop. It’s in their DNA. They’ve done their 10,000 hours and it’s evident in records like this. “It’s the Ab, Shaheed & the Dawg for the blend.”
I’m not quite sure where the first part of “The Chase” stems from. I think the prequel is from the B-side of the first single (“Award Tour”), where future Tribe member (and Q-Tip’s cousin) Consequence wets his feet in the rap game. Oddly enough, that song is called…… “The Chase, Part. 2”. I’m lost just like you. Still, the song has all you need from A Tribe Called Quest. Everything you need. From a shout-out to Africa (and McDonald’s) to a Bob Power appearance (“Bob Power, you there? / ‘Yeah?”), this song is the segue in the last moments of darkness, before sunrise. By the way, engineer & mixer Bob Power is the mad scientist behind the sound of A Tribe Called Quest. He’s the Rick Rubin of the group, for lack of a better term. He (and the Tribe) came up with the big, boombastic sound of The Low End Theory and just polished it wonderfully for this album. Bob Power is the guy for what he brought to the table.
Large Professor told Tip “Don’t say the years” and Tip said “So… this is for eternity.” 25 years later, the Marauders are still here, looting for your ears.
RATING: 10 out of 10
This is my favorite song on the album. It’s the beat, dude. This beat is probably my favorite Q-Tip beat. The main sample is one hell of a record, which is “Inside My Love” by the incomparable Minnie Riperton. Minnie was (and still is) known for that range and for those who know that record, it’s arranged in an extremely nice way. Towards the end, the beat stops and it’s just her cherubic voice over this stunning keyboard riff. The riff repeats in 3/4 time and like “Electric Relaxation”, Q-Tip uses it for a hip-hop beat and it just makes the product wonky and heavenly, in its own right. The James Brown sample pops up at the right times and when it comes to the rhymes, it’s second nature for Kamaal & Malik. An absolute perfect record. Perfect.
RATING: 10 out of 10
The sun is, after 12 illustrious records and nearly 45 minutes, finally rising. We’ve gotten everything, from hitting the ice cream spot for a milkshake, to trekking after beautiful women, to rollin’ and ridin’ with a Queens legend, to expressing the love of the night. Now, we have no choice but to thank the Man Upstairs, as this classic sadly comes to an end. “God Lives Through” feels like the end of something special. Phife’s verse is 100% impeccable. Tip’s production is 100% superb. The sample is amazing. The structure doesn’t cease to excite. It’s the end of the album. It’s around 6am. The sun is almost up, it’s time to start our day, and we’ve realized that after this project, we’ve changed as people.
RATING: 10 out of 10
The three main groups of The Native Tongues matured respectively by their 3rd album. Each album was surrounded by 3 phases: The D.A.I.S.Y. Age, the “sophomore slump”, and the polished phase. The Jungle Brothers’ 3 (the firm Straight Out the Jungle, the smash Done by the Forces of Nature, and the low-profile J Beez Wit the Remedy), De La Soul's 3 (the groundbreaking 3 Feet High & Rising, the zany De La Soul is Dead, and the mature Buhloone Mindstate) & Tribe’s 3 (the funky Peoples’ Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm, the dusty The Low End Theory, and the polished Midnight Marauders) all served a purpose and you can hear black men grow with every release. Out of the three, Tribe became the group that pushed the sound the farthest. The music is classified as jazz rap, which is underground (or mainstream) rap with an alternative, jazzy aesthetic, but their music is forward-thinking, blows past the norm, and turned into something bigger. After 6 albums, solid solo careers, and countless spots on end-of-year (and greatest albums) lists, they’re heralded as the greatest rap group of all time. Some may say Wu-Tang, OutKast, Clipse, Slum Village, or Mobb Deep, but to me, Tribe is the greatest of all time. Period. This album is living proof and will be forever.