Today marks the 22nd anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders album, which means ideally I'd be writing about how I went to the store on blustery November afternoon in 1993, fought through the seven layers of plastic packaging, finally managed to wrangle the album into my CD player and had my mind blown by a classic album. But that's not what really happened, I didn't actually hear Midnight Marauders until five years later. Here's what really happened.
It must have been 1998, I'm a sophomore at the same high school the worst Karate Kid movie was filmed in and it's lunch time. The actual sequence of events are hazy, odds are I was debating whether I should ask Adriana out (I did, I shouldn't have), but my memory's picture snaps into focus when Andy Bonfilio and Kevin Smiley launch into a completely unprompted and flawless a capella rap routine.
Andy: "You on point Phife?"
Kevin: "All the time, Tip"
Andy: "Well then grab the microphone and let your words rip"
I had no idea what they were singing, but now I had to know. I...had...to...know. What if Andy had turned to me, asked if I was on point, and I was most definitely not on point? What if someone checked my rhime and my rhime was not checked? I wouldn't let that happen, couldn't let that happen. So I went to the record store, bought Low End Theory, fought through the seven layers of plastic packaging and instantly fell in love. For the next month straight Tip and Phife Dawg were the only voices in my ears, I played Low End until I had memorized literally every word. (I dare you to run up on me and challenge me to recite "Scenario," including Busta's verse. I'll nail it.) And then, once I started to feel like I was at least a small part of the Tribe and had started to follow their web of connections to groups like the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, only then did I buy Midnight Marauders and have my mind blown by a classic album.
I'll always love Low End Theory more because that was my gateway drug, my first real hit of ATCQ's brilliance, but even to my newbie ears it was clear that Midnight Marauders was the next step in their evolution. It had some of the same jazz-roots as Low End but built those samples into a cleaner and sharper sound. Where Low End was largely the chronicle of young men doing their best to live a carefree life on Linden Blvd. - primarily concerned with having pagers, meeting girls and generally being completely fresh at all times - Midnight Marauders built on that same lighthearted base by subtly introducing some heavier topics, in particular the album's opening set of songs, "Steve Biko," "Sucka Nigga" and "8 Million Stories" come to mind. The Tribe were still a good time, but they were no longer young men, they were men. They were funky, but also diabetic. Some darkness was creeping into the corners of their music.
23 years later the echoes of Midnight Marauders can still be heard if you know what to listen for. J. Cole's "Forbidden Fruit" off Born Sinner is essentially just a remix of Tribe's "Electric Relaxation," which Cole acknowledges. The computerized woman who guided listeners through Logic's Under Pressure album? Logic is either borrowing or paying tribute to Midnight Marauders with that idea, depending on where you draw the line between borrowing and paying homage. Or to take it back a little bit, you wouldn't have Kanye's "Jesus Walks" without Tribe's "Keep It Rollin." Why do you think Kanye signed Q-Tip to G.O.O.D. Music?
I wanted to make those connections to show how Midnight Marauders continues to influence artists today, you can't fully understand the music of young rappers like Cole and Logic without understanding Midnight Marauders, but I want to be careful not to get caught in comparing eras, not here, not now. That's the beautiful thing about hip-hop. More than any other genre it's interconnected, overflowing with guest verses and reference and samples, and that interconnectivity allows for exploration. One minute you're listening to J. Cole and the next you're going back to listen to "Electrix Relaxation" and then the next you're listening to Midnight Marauders and oh shit, that's a young Busta Rhymes, and so now you're listening to Leaders of the New School which of course leads you full circle right back to Tribe and now that Curren$y song makes much more sense. What a beautiful thing.
One minute you're eating lunch and then the next you're standing in line at Newbury Comics with $12 in your pocket and Midnight Marauders in your hand and the next minute it's somehow your job to write about music and you're hoping you can be Andy and Kevin's lunchtime rap routine for someone else. If you're that someone else, happy discovering. Sky's the limit, you got to believe up in Quest.
[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]