We fans of A Tribe Called Quest often debate which is the group’s greatest achievement, 1993’s Midnight Marauders or its 1991 predecessor Low End Theory. But I think putting Midnight Marauders (which recently celebrated its 20th birthday) in its proper perspective is probably best achieved by considering its place within those first three classic LPs that commenced ATCQ’s recording career.
Q-Tip has said in the past that Tribe’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm, was the group’s attempt to do something that was the hip-hop musical equivalent of The Beatles or EW&F. By contrast, the stripped down Low End Theory was directly inspired by Dr. Dre’s groundbreaking production work with N.W.A. So if People’s was meant to exude optimism, and Low End Theory a more aggressive energy, then Marauders is really almost a merging of both – the best of both of these sonic worlds.
By all accounts, Midnight Marauders was intended to sound state of the art. Production-wise it packs that same punch that Tribe got on Low End Theory, but with additional layers and nuances to it. In the lead up to us listening to the album today I’ve played a lot of records that were sampled for Midnight Marauders – and they range from everything from traditional break-beat stuff like James Brown, Bob James and the Meters to a lot of ’70s jazz – Michael Urbaniak, Milt Jackson, Weldon Irvine, Lee Morgan, Ronnie Foster etc. And hearing these records really gives you a window into how Tribe created these amazing collages of sound on some of the tracks (“Award Tour,” “God Lives Through,” “Lyrics to Go”) while others are constructed in a perfectly economic way (“Electric Relaxation”).
Like People’s there are these recurring interludes throughout the whole LP, which give it this playfulness and cohesion. I think it’s also noteworthy that one of the main themes of the album is unity. That’s kind of borne out of the whole Native Tongues ethos, but it’s also consciously established here as its own thing. This is probably best reflected in the LP’s classic cover design, which features as many hip-hop luminaries as the group could wrangle wearing headphones, listening to music together as one big community. So in their own way, from the artwork down to the subject matter of some of the songs (the topical “Sucka N*gga”; the everyman comedy of errors that composes “8 Million Stories’” narrative), Tribe are saying, we have this thing (hip-hop) that bonds us yet we’re all just people, no one’s infallible and we’re all in this together.
One of the things about classic recordings is that everyone has their own indelible personal memory of experiencing them. It may or may not be the first time you heard it. But there’s usually something pretty specific – the person or people you’re with, a particular time in one’s life. And as you’re listening to the album and thinking about your own personal history and experience with this music I’ll share with you a story from mine.
I had just gotten into music journalism when this album was about to come out in 1993. And at the time, a friend of mine who was also a writer had gone up to the record label to hear it in order to write a review. So he’s sitting in the conference room listening to the tape and for whatever reason the publicist leaves. And so while she’s away without anyone noticing he leaves the building with the advance cassette still in his Walkman. He gets home and the publicist calls him: “Did you take the Tribe tape?” And he’s playing dumb: “Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to leave it when I was done.” Meanwhile, as he’s on the phone with her he’s actually dubbing the tape on his dual cassette deck. So he dubs the tape, goes back to the label and drops off their copy, and then comes right over to my apartment to play it for me. We’re probably the only people besides the group and the label who have it. And I remember while listening just being so excited and grateful. Excited because the album wasn’t just good but showed such growth, which is exactly what you want your favorite artists to do. And grateful to have had the chance to experience it the way that I did. It’s kind of the ideal way you’re supposed to experience great art – without any preconceived notions of what it’ll be like. For a while I think I kept my dub of that cassette with me wherever I went. I’d bring it around to play at parties for friends, watch people bug out when they realized what it was, and see my own initial experience with the album reflected in their expressions as they listened for the first time.
So going back to the question of, is this their best album? Q-Tip will tell you it’s like choosing a favorite between your children – you can’t, you just love them equally for what they are. But what we can all probably agree upon, as the computerized voice of the album’s intro says, is as a listening experience unto itself Midnight Marauders is, “precise, bass heavy & just right.” So thanks for coming today, and please enjoy Midnight Marauders.