So while the Wu-Tang Clan was just making a name for themselves in 1993, A Tribe Called Quest had already established themselves as a respected hip-hop force. Their 1991 sophomore effort The Low End Theory, was a critical success, and slowly would become a commercial success as well. Their common man philosophies and jazz loops fused with rough drums, proved to be a winning combination for the foursome (shoutout to Jarobi). They would return in 1993 with their third release, Midnight Marauders.
Midnight Marauders picks up where The Low End Theory leaves off, as the Queens (and Brooklyn) natives would continue to move forward with their signature jazz infused brand of hip-hop. Oh yeah, and remember that colorful virtual honey on the cover of The Low End Theory? She’s back with a voice this time around, and serves as the Tour Guide throughout Midnight Marauders, dropping in from time to time to share random factoids and stats. The album’s artwork serves as a shoutout to Tribe’s hip-hop peeps, as it shows the faces (with headphones on) of some of hip-hop’s most respected emcees, deejays and hip-hop moguls with the sexy Tour Guide standing alone in front of them (I still don’t understand how the three greatest emcees of that era, in KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, didn’t make the cover, but whatever). It’s easily one of hip-hop’s greatest album covers, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s got that TimeIsIllmatic award on lock for 1993. Midnight Marauders was a commercial and critical darling that would help the foursome earn their first platinum plaque (The Low End Theory wouldn’t reach the platinum level until a few months after Midnight Marauders did).
Even if you’re not a fan of ATCQ’s music, you at least have to give them props for the creative artwork and basically inventing Siri. Apple needs to cut these boys a check.
RIP, Phife Dawg.
Midnight Marauders Tour Guide – The album opens with the Tour Guide welcoming the listener to Midnight Marauders.
Steve Biko (Stir It Up) – The song title is dedicated to the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Q-Tip and Phife pick up where they left off at on The Low End Theory’s most endearing songs (i.e. “Check The Rhime” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, as they take turns rocking the mic and complimenting each others strengths over a funky instrumental. I wouldn’t mind waking up every morning to the beautiful trumpet loop that this song opens with and comes back in during the hook.
Award Tour – This was the lead single from Midnight Marauders and it still sounds as yummy today as it did back in 1993. Phife (“niggas know the time when the Phife is in the jam, I never let a statue tell me how nice I am”) and Tip (“who can drop it on the angle, acute at that, so do dat do dat, do dat dat dat”) each spit a quality verse over a slick instrumental (I love the rough drums and the xylophone loop that comes in during the break), while Trugoy stops by to lay down a memorable hook. This is a hip-hop classic, folks.
8 Million Stories – This is Phife’s lone solo joint on Midnight Marauders. Skeff Anselm gets the production credit for the moody backdrop that is definitely suitable for midnight marauding. Phife’s rhymes are cool, as he lays out all the problems that life brings him, but I don’t like his delivery on this one; it sounds like he’s reverting back to his People’s Instinctive Travels days.
Sucka Nigga – This is the first of two Q-Tip solo joints on Midnight Marauders, and he uses this one to dissect the history and complexity of the N-word. I’m normally not a fan of songs that the rapper says the same verse multiple times, but for this song it helps drive Tip’s point home. The sick Jack Wilkins loop and infectious bass line compliment Tip’s rhymes, beautifully.
Midnight – This is easily the hardest song on the album. Over a callous backdrop Q-Tip is in poetic mode, as he paints a vivid picture of the things that go on in the inner city after hours. The song ends with some soothing Elevator Music playing while the Tour Guide gives some scary statistics about AIDS in the Black and Hispanic community.
We Can Get Down – Over a severely soulful soundscape (tongue twister muchers!) Tip and Phife continue to display their lyrical proficiency. Tip spills vintage bars with lines likes “hit the city streets to enhance my soul, I can kick a rhyme over ill drum rolls, with the kick, snare, the kick and high hat, skilled in the trade of that old boom bap”. This is a dope song that often goes unsung due to the rest of the power packed track list on Midnight Marauders.
Electric Relaxation – This was the second single from Midnight Marauders, and in my opinion, one of the ten greatest hip-hop songs of all-time (and I’m sticking to my story). I don’t know if I would call this a love song, but lust has never sounded as good as Tip and Phife’s on this one (“honey check it out you got me mesmerized, with your black hair and your fat ass thighs, street poetry is my everyday, but hun I got to stop when you trot my way”). Tip and company hook up yet another hypnotic bass line and lovely jazz loop, courtesy of a Ronnie Foster record, and turn it into one of hip-hop’s greatest instrumentals. Fine wine.
Clap Your Hand – More of Tip and Phife vibin’ over a quality instrumental. Like “We Can Get Down” this one also gets lost in the shuffle of all the great material on Midnight Marauders.
Oh My God – This was the third single and is the only song on Midnight Marauders that I could do with out. It’s not terrible, it just doesn’t have the same energy as the rest of the album’s songs. The remix for this song is sick, though!
Keep It Rollin’ – Extra P relieves Tip and company from production duties for this one, but maintains the quality level of music that ATCQ has given us up to this point with this smooth instrumental. Phife and Tip continue their microphone mastery as they match each other bar for bar, and Extra P spits a pretty solid verse as well.
The Chase Part II – Part 1 of this song was actually the B-side to the “Award Tour” single that featured Consequence spitting one long verse over the same instrumental that’s used on this mix. Tip and Phife sound comfortable, confident, and conscious of the fact that they’ve reached their emcee peak, as they rap circles around the beautifully breezy instrumental. Even Tip’s playful shoutouts (which includes a hi-lariously shout to McDonalds) let you know these boys know they’ve won. The Tour Guide makes her last appearance of the evening informing the listener that the proper portion of Midnight Marauders is complete. But have no fear, we’re not done.
Lyrics To Go – Tip samples a classic Minnie Riperton record for the pretty backdrop, and he and Phife pirouette with grace all over it. The Tumblin’ Dice remix is worth checking out too.
God Lives Through – The fellas brings back the Busta Rhymes soundbite that was used on “Oh My God”, but the instrumental for this one is stratospheres better than the former; it’s the audio equivalent of manna from heaven. Phife and Tip are in battle mode, spitting razor-sharp rhymes over the beautiful backdrop (and I think Phife may have edged out Tip on this one, for the first time in ATCQ’s storied catalog). Of all the great songs in the ATCQ catalog, this one matches up with any of them, pound for pound. Yeah, I said it.
Over the years I’ve often debated with people about which Tribe album was better: The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders? Both are classic albums, but I’ve always felt that Midnight Marauders is a fine tuned version of TLET. I see it this way: TLET is ATCQ reaching the mountain top. Midnight Marauders is the celebration after completing the climb. This go round, Phife is more involved and his rhymes have vastly improved since TLET, and the chemistry he and Tip gave us small dosages of on songs like “Check The Rhime” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, reaches its full potential on Midnight Marauders, as the two emcees get almost equal mic time and show and prove they can each hold their own weight. From a production standpoint, Tip and company’s jazzy soundscapes are sharper, crisper and cleaner than TLET’s. And even though “Oh My God” is a bit of a sour spot for me, the rest of the track list on Midnight Marauders is so impressive that their good vibes and love, blot out that minor mishap.
It’s bittersweet listening to Midnight Marauders today, as it finds my favorite hip-hop group at their pinnacle, and even though they would continue to put out quality music over the next three albums (well, The Love Movement was a mixed bag, but we’ll dig into that at a later date), they would never recapture the magic that made Midnight Marauders magical. Midnight Marauders is an undeniable classic and easily one of my top five albums of all time.