This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

A Tribe Called Quest – ‘Midnight Marauders’ (1993, Jive Records)

This month’s selection is a hip-hop classic from the early nineties that in retrospect stands as both one of the last of its kind and a precursor to what was to come in the genre. By the time ‘Midnight Marauders’ was released in 1993, A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) (Q-Tip – rapper/producer, Phife Dawg – rapper and DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad) were a well established conscious rap group that had already released two albums: the brilliant debut “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” and, ‘The Low End Theory’, which established their trademark sound. As members of the Native Tongues posse which also featured De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, Monie Love and Queen Latifah ATCQ pioneered a form of hip-hop that was lyrically and musically opposed to the underground gangsta rap scene and the militant sound of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. A Tribe Called Quest’s style leant heavily on jazz samples and instrumentation such as double bass, Rhodes piano, brass riffs, producing a smooth and distinct sound that was bright without being lightweight. ‘The Low End Theory’ also brought the trio wider attention, setting them up for the more commercial sound of ‘Midnight Maunders’ and its success.

‘Midnight Maunders’ is viewed as their ‘commercial album’ and yielded their biggest hit yet with ‘Award Tour’, propelling the album into the Billboard Top Ten. The release is also their most quality-consistent album. The NME called it their “most complete work to date” and Melody Maker also complimented this new found consistency, “A Tribe Called Quest have expanded their vision with a lyrical gravitas and a musical lightness of touch that has hitherto eluded them across a whole album”. Whereas the two previous albums had consisted of a selection of highlights and the occasional filler ‘Midnight Maunders’ manages an incredible 15 tracks without a single duff moment, a real rarity in hip-hop albums, which often revolve around a few singles and a lot of filler and skits. The use of the ‘album tour guide’ that features throughout is another element that helps tie the album together while never interrupting its flow.

Combing hard drums (they had previously chosen softer sounds to compliment the jazz samples), up-tempo grooves (another new facet to their once laidback sound), jazz instrumentation and catchy hooks imbues the album with a more immediate sound. The MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are on top form trading lyrics back and forth with irrepressible flows. Their near-telepathic chemistry has vastly improved compared to that on previous albums, Lyrically the album flits between socio-political topics such as police harassment and nocturnal activity (‘Midnight’), religious faith (“God Lives Through”) to candid use of the word “nigga” (‘Sucka Nigga’)” and playful braggadocio on ‘Steve Biko (Stir It Up)’ with the lyrics: “Rude boy composer, Step to me you’re over, Brothers wanna flex, You’re not Mad Cobra, MC short and black, There aint no other”, ‘Clap Your Hands’, ‘Oh My God’ (featuring a flourishing Busta Rhymes) and ‘God Lives Through’. There is a real sense of the times in which they lived with lyrics referencing Nelson Mandela being freed and South African human rights activist Steve Biko and problems with African American violence while some lyrics are more general, covering black politics and culture, particularly ‘Sucka Nigga’:

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

Other niggas in the community think its crummy

But I don’t, neither does the youth cause we

Embrace adversity it goes right with the race

And being that we use it as a term of endearment

Niggas start to bug to the dome as where the fear went”

A Tribe Called Quest were not lacking in interesting samples either and they established themselves as fine ‘diggers’ – skilled in the art of finding records to sample for production. They continued to demonstrate this skill with ‘Midnight Marauders’: ‘Award Tour’ sampled obscure jazz session musician Irvine Weldon’s ‘We Gettin’ Down’, ‘Clap Your Hands’ mixed up The Meter’s ‘Handclapping Song’ with jazz from Bob James and Lou Donaldson and Clyde McPhatter’s rock guitar is a surprising choice for ‘Lyrics to Go’. These examples indicate how ATCQ could keep people guessing when it came to their choice of samples. It wasn’t just the trio handling the music on this album either as ‘8 Million Stories’ is produced by Skeff Anselm and ‘Keep It Rollin’ by Large Professor both of whom were up and coming hip-hop producers at the time. ATCQ also gave exposure to a young Raphael Saadiq who contributes to ‘Midnight’ and Busta Rhymes (still three years away from his debut solo single) who appears on ‘Oh My God’. This also bears out the idea that A Tribe Called Quest were great promoters of other hip-hop talent with ‘Midnight Marauders’’s cover featuring headshots of hip-hop artists they respected. De La Soul, the Beastie Boys, MC Lyte and Doug E. Fresh can be spotted.

In many ways ‘Midnight Marauders’ sealed their legacy and still deserves the acclaim it received on release as the last classic of the ‘Golden Age’ of hip-hop and the last great album to be released by a member of the Native Tongues posse. Hip-hop was at a cross roads that split between the positivity of Native Tongues, the emergent forces of macho gangsta rap and the dark, underground sound of Wu Tang Clan. The darker forces would prevail in the short term but A Tribe Called Quest still managed to extend an influence beyond their time together. In the early 2000s a selection of underground hip-hop artists including Mablib, Frank ‘n’ Dank and Little Brother adopted influence from the mellow jazz vibes of ATCQ and in 2008 Kanye West sang ATCQ’s praises as an inspiration that made him want to become a rapper and producer –

“Can you remember the first record you bought?
Yeah, it was, errrr, A Tribe Called Quest ‘Low End Theory’.

Who did you look up to in terms of artists when growing up?
I mean, yeah – A Tribe Called Quest, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, George Michael. I’m thinking about when I was a little kid, LL Cool J…”

The album has featured in many Best Albums lists including The Source’s 100 Best Hip-Hop Albums of All Time, Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1990s and The Guardian’s 100 Albums that Don’t Appear in All Other Top 100 Album Lists amongst others. ‘Midnight Marauders’ transcends its era and lives on as classic album that is well worth rediscovering.

Spotify playlist:

A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders