Tag Archive: A Tribe Called Quest

Last night I attended The Gig Of The Year (for a little town like York at least) when I went to watch The Midnight Hour at The Crescent Community Venue in York. For those of you who don’t live in the UK I should explain that York doesn’t get bands like The Midnight Hour playing even in the town biggest venues. The city of Leeds is just half an hour down the road and when a tour misses out Leeds the next nearest stop is Manchester just over an hour and half to the West of York. There is no need for a band like The Midnight Hour to play York and yet local Promoter Ouroboros pulled off this amazing booking.

The evening began with support act Jack Waterson who had just released his album “Adrian Younge Presents… Jack Waterson” two before hand. The guitarist wasn’t on stage for long but played an explosive slice of psychedelic rock from his album before handing over to an off Adrian Younge’s cohorts Loren Oden who sang an epic long song while playing Fender Rhodes electric piano I picked up on hints of Marvin Gaye in his voice during this song.

After a brief break between sets it was time for the main event, The Midnight Hour took to the stage with a drummer, viola player, violinist, trumpeter, alto saxophonist, Waterson on guitar, Oden would rejoin the fray later in the set. Adrian Younge played the Fender Rhodes with Ali Shaheed Muhammad playing an incredible looking purple Fender Jazz bass. What followed wasn’t at all what I’d expect from the band. I had listened to their self titled debut album for the first time in months earlier in the day and it’s pretty much a smooth Jazz album, that’s no bad thing but it doesn’t prepare you for the live versions of those tracks. What we got instead was what my friend Paul Lowman described on Twitter as “not just the best psychfunkjazz band around, but they did ‘s Excursions, aka maybe the greatest opening of any LP, ever. Anybody who wants Hendrix fuzz & Fender Rhodes funk in their face, catch ’em live” and I couldn’t put it any better myself. The band so tight and were able to segue from song to song and change styles on a six piece all while keeping the vibe Friday night not the reality of a Sunday night. In a lot of ways the live versions of the album tracks were a better representation of the other material Adrian Younge has put out both as a solo artist and in collaboration with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

The other members of the band were equally impressive with the drummer able to switch from delicate Jazz right through to all-out Funk-Rock breakbeats, the horns were both capable of punchy stabs and expressive emotive soloing, the strings add melancholy flourishes and Loren Oden showed not only could he get into Marvin Gaye territory but also could also pull off a Curtis Mayfield style falsetto. The bands talents were acknowledged throughout the set by both Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad who got everyone up at the front of stage to thank them and give a great speech about their family (the band), never giving up on your dream and never forgetting their are no barriers between us and Love is real. All-in-all an incredible experience, I even got to meet Ali Shaheed Muhammad after the band finished. 

You owe to yourself to check out The Midnight Hour’s music, their live show and anything else that the individuals involved our involved now and into the future.  


Ok, so the first thing I should say before I procede with this review is that I have mixed feelings about the album and Danny Brown as a lyricist. On the one hand this album features a lot of tracks backing Brown’s raps and he isn’t your standard street rapper, his lyrics aren’t all about ho’s and drugs. However, he does use the word ‘ho’ and talk about drugs (albeit with a moral bent on the first half of album) and it so I feel I can’t endorse some of the lyrical content of “Old”.

I first heard about Danny Brown his “XXX” album popped up in a lot of end of the year polls in 2011, the way the album was written about gave me the impression that he was a one note “pill-popping, pussy-eating squawk-box” gangsta rapper. Since then there’s been some hints that this was a short sighted evaluation of Brown’s lyrical content and artistic image, his guest spot on ‘Oh Hail No’ on El-P’s “Cancer4Cure” (2012) and “Black & Brown” his collaborative album with Black Milk started to open my mind to what he was all about and “Old” opens it even further as well as confirming his one of the most talented rapper’s currently releasing music.

The album opens with ‘Side A’ which combines an  arching synth drone, head nodding beat and Brown’s tough flow with a deep bass that feels like depth charges in the background. Synths swarm and surround Brown in the hook filled chorus. Next up is ‘The Return’ featuring Freddie Gibbs it brings with crowd noise and deep spoken word, then Brown cuts in shortly followed by deep simple bass guitar line and head nodding drum beat and sitar melody. In second verse a G-Funk style synth riff plays over the top of everything. Gibbs takes the third veres which also features a flute melody and signing female vocal sample. I like the variety of the track a good example of album’s own variety squeezed into a 3 minute song. On ‘Gremlins’ Brown explores his inner demons utilising a urgent delivery atop a funky rhythm below which a cool slippy analogue synth melody slips and slides. The track has a psychedelic yet paranoid feel and great production from Oh No. ‘Torture’ and ‘Lonely’ continue Brown’s exploration of a multitude of emotions and experience’s the former combines a huge beat with very busy hats, huge stabs and what sounds like some sort of Gregorian chant or Gospel choir sample. Brown uses a more considered, slower flow with very dark and filthy lyrics. The latter opens with jangly guitars and spoken word sample that may be in Japanese, then the rolling beat drops and brings Brown’s urgent rap with it. It’s another psychedelic track but is much lighter with hints of A Tribe Called Quest in the production.

The second half of the album kicks off with ‘Side B (Dope Song)’ which is introduced by “synth strings reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score.” Then high pitched synth stabs and Brown in full nasal mode kick in. There swiftly followed by a a pounding 808 beat. The single ‘Dip’ is another highlight with an 808 beat skidding around under the pitched down vocal samples and hyperactive flow of Brown and a synth arpeggio that seems to move both with an against everything else. ‘Break It (Go)’ begins with a high pitched arpeggio, swiftly followed by marching snare drums, deep gutteral vocal samples and Brown’s adlibs, the tension builds and 808 snare rolls in bringing in the first verse proper. An urgent and hyper Brown rapping over a tough rolling 808 beat. The marching beat is definetly different and something I haven’t heard in a hip-hop track for a long time. The album goes out on a high with ‘Float On’ featuring Charli XCX its opens with an organ figure and bell like synth playing out a melody and an reverb coated beat underpinning Brown’s rap. Charli XCX comes in for the simple almost plainative bridge and chorus. The track feels like a dreamy G-Funk track.

Though it doesn’t quite live up the huge media hype that has lead up to its release “Old” is one still one of the best and most original hip-hop albums of the year.  

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.

MF Doom – “Operation Doomsday” (Fondle ‘Em Records, 1999)

In April 2011 MF Doom’s Metal Face Records (in conjunction with Stones Throw Records) reissued the heralded underground hip-hop classic “Operation Doomsday”. In this month’s Classics Critiqued I will explore the reasons why I believe the album doesn’t deserve its seemingly unchallenged status as a ‘classic’ album. I will consider all the elements of the music including beats, production, lyrical content and Doom’s flow, I will also discuss the album’s legacy and influence on the current hip-hop generation.

Doom (Daniel Dumile – pronounced Doo-ma-lay) started his career in hip-hop in 1988 when he formed the group KMD with younger brother DJ Subroc and an MC called Rodan. At this point Doom was using the stage name Zev Love X. Rodan soon left the group and was replaced by an MC named Onyx the Birthstone Kid, in this incarnation the group signed to Elektra Records. The band released their debut album “Mr. Hood” in 1991 and their singles ‘Peachfuzz’ and ‘Who Me?’ received heavy video play on Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. Everything seemed to be going well then in 1993 Subroc was killed by a car while crossing the Long Island expressway and in the same week the group were dropped by Elektra due to  controversial cover art of their second album “Black Bastards”.

In the aftermath Dumile retreated from the hip-hop scene suffering from disillusionment and depression and relocated from New York to Atlanta. Meanwhile, “Black Bastards” was doing the rounds as a bootleg and Doom’s star was rising on the underground hip-hop circuit. In 1997 Doom began free styling at open-mic events in Manhattan wearing a stocking over his head and developing his new persona MF Doom. The stocking became a mask: the ‘MF’ meaning Metal Face. Finally in 1999 he released his debut album “Operation Doomsday”. Initially the album didn’t cause much of a stir but with Fondle ‘Em Records bankrupcy its classic status seemed to grow due to its unavailability yet I challenge the idea that “Operation Doomsday” is a classic.

“Operation Doomsday” is not a bad album; it’s a very solid debut release from a rapper/producer that would go on to rightly dominate underground rap music in the ‘00s. However, there are a number of reasons it isn’t the classic album it held up as. Firstly the more I listen to it the more I’ve found myself feeling that it had all been done before and better. In the early ’90s, acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr produced similar albums of much higher quality. A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” (1990) and Gang Starr’s “Step In The Arena” (1991) are fine examples of jazz inspired hip-hop music. So it strikes me as strange that this album is so acclaimed, maybe it was simply good timing as hip-hop moved from one era to the next, “Operation Dommsday” provides critics with a neat link between them. Neither do I think it is Doom’s best album; that award should go to “Madvillainy” (2004), the result of his collaboration with producer/drummer Madlib though if we are just considering his solo albums then I would argue that “Vaudeville Villain” under his Viktor Vaughan alias  is better than “Operation Doomsday” on all fronts.

The Doom character isn’t as developed on “Operation Doomsday” and though this may be an unfair criticism as it’s his debut album, he had been performing as MF Doom for two years and had many years in the wilderness to devise and develop this character. The world that Doom attempts to create on “Operation Doomsday” is one that seems to have been created on the fly and the inconsistant lyrical content leaves the listener unsure of what Doom is driving at. This can cause much confusion as Doom introduces the listener to a whole universe of slang vocabulary and obscure reference points that at the time wasn’t just a Google search away and is still difficult to unravel today. The comic book character meshes better with the music of later Doom albums where he further developed his musical style into something that was truly his own.

The traditional song structures employed on “Operation Doomsday” are uninspiring compared to Doom’s later albums. Here he repeats verses where in the future he would just stop the track completely. Some tracks fade out then the backing track is brought back in for another 30-60 seconds, though this was a technique used to highlight the work of the producer it begins to grate after a few plays and doesn’t add anything to Doom’s compositions.

Despite the many holes I’ve found in the critical acclaim given to “Operation Doomsday”, its reissue last year saw many critics reinforcing the idea that it’s a classic album and rightly giving Doom credit as an influential artist whose music and lyrics have had profound effect on contemporary underground hip-hop. As Ian Cohen said in his Pitchfork review of the reissue, “The album goes a long way toward demonstrating Doom’s incalculable influence on some of the leading lights of current underground hip-hop: Lil’ B has dedicated an entire album to Doom, the lurching production style of Odd Future owes him a heavy debt (most obviously shown in “Odd Toddlers” flipping the same sample as 2004’s “One Beer”), and K.M.D.’s referential raps and playful yet incisive deconstructions of racial politics are a clear influence on Das Racist.” Cohen’s assessment perfectly sums up Doom and the legacy of “Operation Doomsday” and demonstrates this album is still very held in high regard by rock and hip-hop critics.

Listen to “Operation Doomsday” via Spotify – MF Doom – OPERATION: DOOMSDAY (Complete)

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts & opinions on “Operation Doomsday” in the comments section or via the Sonic Fiction Twitter.

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

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