Today is the first day of 2013. What’s a better way to begin it than by reviewing my favorite A Tribe Called Quest album and one of my favorite music albums ever, Midnight Marauders? I previously reviewed Tribe’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and their follow-up effort, The Low End Theory. Both were instrumental in bringing a new face to the genre of hip-hop, both in name and style. The eclectic, eccentric, jazzy music that the group virtually perfected left its mark on many a hip-hop fan, and is still extremely popular today.
Midnight Maruaders was released on November 9, 1993, on Jive Records. The album was a success, commercially, and while some have opined that the positive reception played a part in Tribe’s downfall, there can be no denying that the release was the group at its best. An even more confident Phife Dawg and lyrically and socially inclined Q-Tip gave this album a sound that simply wasn’t present on Tribe’s first two albums. To an extent, this work combined themes of both their first and second album, while going a step further in terms of sound and lyrical content. Midnight Marauders peaked at #8 on 1993’s Billboard 200 and was certified platinum on January 11, 1995.
Surprisingly, Midnight Marauders begins with what sounds like 1970s elevator music and a woman’s robotic voice. That voice, belonging to Laurel Dann, informs us that she will be our guide through the Midnight Maruader program. Our “Midnight Marauders Tour Guide”, to be exact. “I will be enhancing your cassettes and CDs with certain facts that you may find beneficial,” Dann adds before signing off.
Do not be confused by “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)”, as the title may cause you to believe this is an ode to the deceased anti-apartheid activist. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful way to kick things off, musically, with Phife rapping “Rude boy composer/Step to me, you’re over/Brothers wanna flex/You’re not Mad Cobra”. He and Tip trade bars after a rather unconventional start to the album.
The first single from Midnight Marauders was “Award Tour”, featuring Trugoy of Native Tongues co-founder De La Soul, another hip-hop trio that embodied many of the things that Tribe did. A sample of Weldon Irvine’s “We Gettin’ Down” and “Hobo Scratch” by Malcolm McLaren make this one of my favorite beats. We even get an explanation of the album’s title from Ms. Dann: “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.”
One thing Tribe did very well was tell stories, and that is apparent on “8 Million Stories.” Nothing more than a common man, Phife regales us with tales of going to get a milk shake, getting robbed by a woman, not having anything to wear on a date, going through it with his girlfriend, and being benched by his basketball coach. Admittedly, I use the word “nigga.” I don’t use it nearly as much as I did a decade ago, and am slowly attempting to remove it from my lexicon, but for now, it’s here. Q-Tip sets out to deconstruct the word, its meaning and how it’s used on “Sucka Nigga.” “See, nigga was first used in the Deep South/Fallin’ out between the dome of the White man’s mouth,” rapped Tip before trying to shine some positivity on the word when he spit: “And being that we use it as a term of endearment/Niggas start to bug to the dome is where the fear went…” Despite his own use of the word, Q-Tip tells the listener that he does feel conflicted about it: “Yo I start to flinch, as I try not to say it…”
Track six should be enshrined in the White House. All who visit the home of our president should be made aware of the samples, Albino Gorilla’s “Psychadelic Shack” and the great George Duke’s “North Beach.” Q-Tip’s covered police brutality: “See, Jake be gettin’ illy when the sun get dark/They be comin’ out their heads, but shit don’t let me start…” Nocturnal happenings were a topic, too, as evident in the hook: “The night is on my mind/The sun’ll still shine”. I would argue that “Sucka Nigga” and “Midnight” are two of Q-Tip’s best lyrical efforts.
Never shy to resort to boasting, Tribe’s “We Can Get Down” is almost flawless. The bass and drums are definitely present, but don’t take away from Phife and Tip’s verses. Phife Dawg is “not your average MC with the Joe Schmoe flow”, folks.
If “Midnight” is worthy of White House status, then so was Midnight Marauders’ “Electric Relaxation,” an ode to sexcapades. While the former is my favorite Tribe song, the latter has my favorite production…of any song I have ever heard. Samples of Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”, Brethren’s “Outside Love” and Chicago jazz pianist and keyboardist Ramsey Lewis’ “Dreams” are blended perfectly, set to mellow bars by both Tip and Phife, which they traded back and forth in typical ATCQ fashion. The visuals were even better, as the video starts with Tip and Phife dropping their bars in the back of a cab with fellow member Ali Shaheed vibing between them. Many debate the actual content of the hook, and once again, Phife spit one of hip-hop’s more memorable lines: “Lemme hit it from the back, girl, I won’t catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch, now you got Seamans Furniture.”
What distinguished Midnight Marauders most from Tribe’s first two albums was the increased role of Phife. I couldn’t help but see their first release as an introductory course to the lyrics of Q-Tip, and the same applies to Phife with this album. Once I heard Phife rap “And if I ever went solo, my favorite rapper would be me” on “Clap Your Hands,” I knew from that point on, he would be a lyrical force to be reckoned with. Tribe associate Busta Rhymes’ “Oh my God, yes, oh my God” could be found on, you guessed it, “Oh My God.” Keeping up with his penchant for dropping lyrical jewels, Phife gifted us with “Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic/When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” Once again, Tribe presented a dope video. For the album’s third single, we got the shoot’s moving stage driving away with Ali Shaheed still on it, children chasing after a rapping Tip and Phife, and Busta absolutely going nuts for the last 45 seconds.
For some reason, “Keep It Rollin'” doesn’t quite sound like a Midnight Marauders track. It approaches campy status, both in lyrical content and sound. However, a Roy Ayers’ “Feel Like Making Love” sample and verse from DJ/MC/producer Large Professor saved this joint from being forgotten. Getting back on track with “The Chase Pt. II,” aided by a Biz Markie and Steve Arrington sample, Phife and Tip got back to their boastful ways. “Run and tell your dad Abstract’s the bag,” Q-Tip rapped over smooth drums and keyboard.
Ms. Dann tells us after “The Chase Pt. II” that the Midnight Marauders program is over, but luckily, she is mistaken. Not only are we rewarded with two more tracks, but the first of those two is “Lyrics To Go.” Anyone remotely familiar with singer/songwriter Minnie Riperton will instantly recognize the “Inside My Love” sample featured on “Lyrics To Go.” Adding to the composed fray are the iconic Clyde McPhatter’s “Mixed Up Cup” and legendary James Brown’s “Just Enough Room For Storage.” It’s fitting that both Tip and Phife showed their asses on this record, with bars like Tip’s “When I speak of nation please don’t make the deviation/Rebels of the party who create the jump sensation” and Phife’s “The mic is in effect, so you know I’m never stallin’/Walked through the door and all them suckers started haulin'”.
Midnight Marauders finishes with “God Lives Through,” thought by some to be a song about faith, when it’s just a showcasing finale to the album. There are chops of Busta Rhymes’ “Oh my God!” on the hook, a sample of Tribe’s “Oh My God,” and we get dope bars from Phife and Tip, along with shout outs to different areas, from Queens to Oaktown. How dope is it that the last lyric spit on Midnight Marauders was Tip’s “It’s hemp, like Betsy Ross, lemme tell you who’s the boss”?!
My favorite A Tribe Called Quest album is Midnight Marauders, largely because of the further incorporation of Phife Dawg’s lyrical ability and style into the group’s scheme. Phife’s voice emanates confidence and his rapping prowess only added to the allure of Tribe. Not to be outdone, Q-Tip stepped his game up, but I never got the sense that one was trying to outshine the other. Healthy competition was in the air, I’m sure, but even when trading bars and verses, I felt they were more complementary than anything else. Something else that I love about this album is the cover art. Hip-hop artists from Afrika Bambaataa to Whodini can be found on it, and it’s reminiscent of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album cover, in that it served as a “Who’s Who” of hip-hoppers who were popular in that era. This was Tribe at their peak, across the entire board. The first hip-hop album I was actually consumed by, the title did what it set out to do, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad made sure to once again clarify: “We decided to call the album ‘Midnight Marauders’ because A Tribe Called Quest are like sound thieves looting for your ears.”