Music

The Five Things That Make ‘Midnight Marauders’ A Tribe Called Quest’s Best Album At 25 Years Old

Jive

Tuesday, November 9, 1993 was and is one of the biggest days in hip-hop history — it’s pretty much indisputable, thanks to two major releases that landed like bombs, stretching the possibilities of the nascent genre and building foundations for what was to come. One was Wu-Tang Clan’s indelible debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and it brought a gritty but wildly imaginative perspective informed by kung-fu movies and mafioso lingo that redefined East Coast gangsta rap and still has effects reverberating out throughout hip-hop to this day. Uproxx’s own Andre Gee already broke that one down with an excellent piece that deserves some of your time today.

The other was Midnight Marauders, A Tribe Called Quest’s third album and their most commercially successful. Tribe’s bonafides should be well known to any disciple of rap; they offered a jazzy, thoughtful alternative to the hardcore gangsta rap that was beginning to dominate the airwaves at the time, helping to spawn and define the subgenre of alternative hip-hop. At the same time, they shed the cartoonish Afrocentric costume of their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, while sharpening the the bass-heavy aesthetic of their groundbreaking sophomore release, Low End Theory. Marauders also became the subject of controversy among hip-hop heads, many of whom argue that its predecessor represented Tribe’s best work.

So, on the 25th anniversary of Midnight Marauders‘ release, rather than delivering a retrospective of the album’s impact, which plenty of outlets are already doing, we’re going to try something different. I’m going to explain five reasons why Midnight Marauders is unequivocally A Tribe Called Quest’s best album, 25 years later. Buckle up, because we’re going to do like the Guide says and keep bouncing while we maraud for ears.

5. The Guide

It’s time to give the unnamed, robotic lady who leads the way through the dense, bombastic tangle of Tribe’s most potent and cohesive album some damn credit. Performed by Laurel Dann, the then-Jive Records music A&R who worked with Tribe on the completion of Midnight Marauders, the Guide introduces herself over a sample of Cal Tjader’s “Aquarius” and lays out exactly what’s going to take place on the intro, then pops up periodically to elaborate on Tribe’s ethos throughout the album, tying it together in a way few of their other project gel. Her instruction to “keep bouncing” is iconic and her presence is so important to the album and hip-hop at large, that the Tour Guide has been replicated in albums from both current rap stars like Logic on his debut Under Pressure and R&B singers such as TDE’s SiR on November.

4. That Cover

There’s a reason that A Tribe Called Quest has become basically synonymous with credibility within hip-hop culture. Remember when Lupe Fiasco forgot the lyrics forgot the words to “Electric Relaxation” during the Vh1 Hip-Hop Honors for Tribe and the internet pretty much turned on him overnight? That’s because A Tribe Called Quest is hip-hop, a status they likely attained when Midnight Marauders arrived with that spectacular cover featuring a who’s-who of significant hip-hop pioneers from the first two decades of rap’s ascent. By showing love, Tribe received it back tenfold from both other artists and fans who spent months and years poring over the mosaic of faces both famous and obscure. It’s a cover so iconic, that even Marvel Comics paid homage with a variant cover of Amazing Spider-Man, their most popular book featuring faces of characters from the character’s 50-year history. Excelsior!

3. The Singles

When J. Cole borrowed a sample of the bassline from Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” in 2013 for his Born Sinner single “Forbidden Fruit,” rap fans damn near burned him at the stake for heresy. The reason? That sample was made sacred in their minds by Q-Tip’s flip 20 years before on “Electric Relaxation,” which saw Tip and Phife trade back-and-forth rhyme routines like they Vulcan mind-melded in the studio, their chemistry bordering on telepathic communication between the two veteran rappers. The song was so popular, it was used as the theme song to the sitcom The Wayans Bros., which only accelerated its takeover of rap fans’ hearts and minds. Even then, it paled in success to “Award Tour,” which charted nearly 20 spots higher on the Hot 100 at 47 (compared to the No. 65 bow of “Electric Relaxation”). It’s been referenced and used in pop culture ever since, from quotes and interpolations in songs from Wale and Kanye West, to an appearance on the Netflix show Iron Fist.

2. The Chemistry

While Low End Theory is most commonly cited as the moment Phife Dawg stepped up lyrically to match Q-Tip — which, in all fairness, it actually was — much of its praise comes from the simple fact that we didn’t know then that Phife had that in him. It was a surprise. We were all taken aback by the sudden passion with which he met each lyrical challenge from Q-Tip, but that’s the thing: It felt like he was being challenged to step up. On Midnight Marauders, he and Q-Tip finally became equals, like two planetary bodies of equal size, mass, and gravity circling each other in perfect balance, neither gaining the upper hand or playing the sidekick. They became Yin and Yang, so perfectly attuned to one another that the mere addition of a third voice in the form of Tip’s cousin Consequence on their fourth album Beats, Rhymes, And Life was considered a disaster for over a decade after its 1996 release. You just can’t improve on perfection, and on Midnight Marauders, A Tribe Called Quest was perfect.

1. The Debate

Listen, if there’s anything hip-hop heads love more than throwing themselves into new releases with reckless abandon, it’s arguing about classics with just as much. There’s no set of facts which is completely indisputable, and there are no right or wrong answers. Biggie vs. Tupac, Jay-Z vs. Nas, top five, dead or alive — they are the debates rap fans love to have, from street corners to barbershops to online forums and social media comments sections. Without Midnight Marauders, there’d be no debate to have, with Low End Theory standing head-and-shoulders above every other release the iconic trio (or quartet, depending on how you count Jarobi) ever had. Midnight Marauders made it possible to argue which is their best and gave them two game-changing classics, as well as a level of commercial success few other alternative rappers could achieve at the time, opening the door for today’s landscape where the J. Coles, Wales, and Kanyes of the world can flourish. That’s why it’ll always be the best in my book, and hopefully in yours — but if not, we can always argue about it in the comments.

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