In a way, it’s cosmically appropriate that Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) came out on the same day as a Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. (R. Kelly’s 12 Play also came out on that day, but I only have so many of these 20th-anniversary posts in me.) In retrospect, Enter The Wu-Tang feels, in some ways, like the beginning of a different era in New York rap. At that point, the city’s rap music was dealing with a massive creative and commercial challenge from the West Coast, from Dr. Dre and the ascendant G-funk sound. It responded by going raw and visceral and dark. Enter The Wu-Tang sounded like an eruption of chaos. In their videos, Wu-Tang made Staten Island look like an apocalyptic wasteland, its members like the wraiths stalking the wreckage. The music was heavy, harsh, messy, uncontained. And in different ways, the NY rappers who arose in its wake absorbed pieces of its worldview: Biggie’s fatalism, Nas’s density, Mobb Deep’s thousand-yard stares. This was the end of the city’s warm, sophisticated, politically engaged African-medallion era, the era perhaps best represented by the Native Tongues crew, of which Tribe was a part. And with Midnight Marauders, Tribe made an album that was, to my ears, the pinnacle of the entire Native Tongues moment, the album where the crew had stopped trying to change the world and settled into just being. It’s a warm, humanistic, gorgeous album. But if you listen to the principals involved, Midnight Marauders was also, in its own way, a reaction to The Chronic and to the G-funk ascension.
A few years ago, I interviewed Q-Tip, still charming and irascible, and he offered a narrative that I’d never considered: “When we put out Low End Theory, I saw Dre, and Dre was like, ’I just did this thing called The Chronic, and I did it when I heard your joint. That made me make my joint.’… And when I heard The Chronic, I was like, ’Aaaah!’ And when I heard The Chronic is when we made Midnight Marauders. And then he put out Snoop and I heard Wu-Tang, I was like, ’I’m going to go home and eat pie.’” Now, the snarling tough-talk on The Chronic is light-years removed from Tribe’s conversational smoothness, and Tip is quick to point out that the connection was sonic, not lyrical. But I love that story, partly because it reminds me of the moment when the Beatles and Beach Boys and Rolling Stones were all pushing each other to new heights and partly because it connects dots that I wouldn’t have ever thought to connect myself. As different as Dre and Tribe’s musical braintrust (of which Tip was a big part) might’ve been, they had similar things going on: Fluidity of vision, attention to detail, exquisite crate-digging sensibilities, a deep knowledge of how to get the absolute most out of each snare sound. Midnight Marauders and The Chronic are both, in their own ways, deeply immersive sonic masterworks. And if you hear them in the car on the right sunny days, the entire world seems to respond to the sounds that those two albums contain.
Some context: The Native Tongues movement, which snared an unprecedented level of critical love in the late ’80s and carved out a place to expansive middle-class goofiness within rap, seemed to be coming apart by fall 1993. Earlier that year, crew standard-bearers the Jungle Brothers had released the jangled, nervous, experimental J. Beez Wit The Remedy, and bricked hard commercially. A month earlier, De La Soul, the crew’s biggest group in its early years, had released Buhloone Mindstate, their last album with producer Prince Paul, and they hadn’t exactly set the world on fire with it either. That’s my favorite De La album, a rich and quirky and wise piece of work, and it’s got a lot of talk about how the crew isn’t really together anymore and those guys never see each other anymore. And indeed, Midnight Marauders is maybe the first Tribe album that seems less like a Native Tongues product and more like something that belongs entirely to Tribe themselves. De La’s Trugoy shows up on the “Award Tour” hook, and the faces of all three De La members appear in the rich Sergeant Pepper’s-inspired headphones-collage Midnight Marauders cover art, but that old antic Native Tongues spirit isn’t really what you hear on Midnight Marauders.
Tribe’s previous two albums, 1990′s People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm and 1991′s The Low End Theory, were intentionally twisty and giddily exploratory pieces of work, happily drawing lines between rap and jazz history and so buoyant that their goofiest experiments resonated as pop. You could convincingly argue that either one is Tribe’s best album. But on Midnight Marauders, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg sounded slicker and more comfortable than they ever had before, more at ease with themselves, and the music thumped and rippled with more laid-back panache than they’d ever managed. It’s an impossibly listenable album, a glowing 51-miute reverie that doesn’t lack for energy. The concerns are everyday stuff, stuff about living in New York and all the tiny delights and hassles that make up the typical day there. The references come fast and loose, but they were perfectly legible for anyone who paid the slightest attention to pop culture in 1993: Kay-Bee Toys, Mad Cobra, Mr. Belvedere, Dawn from En Vogue. Phife’s solo turn “8 Million Stories” is just a laundry-list of mundane annoyances, rendered with such emphasis, over such a lushly ominous bassline, that they register as something more. And even when the group gets deep — as on “Sucka Nigga,’ Tip’s pointed and thoughtful dissection of the N-word — he still ends up throwing in the occasional goofy line about how his style is kinda phat, reminiscent of a whale. That give and take is there in the music, too — the shimmering horns on “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” that incandescent Fender Rhodes on “Award Tour,” that quick perfect burst of beatboxing on the “Oh My God” intro. The whole album feels like a magic trick, something that sounds so calm and casual and friendly that you almost can’t believe the studio hours that these guys must’ve put in. In New York rap’s post-Wu-Tang moment, an album this joyous and bubbly and smart might’ve been overlooked. But coming out just before the world took note of Wu-Tang, it made perfect sense.
Of course, this narrative that I’ve drawn is all full of holes. Onyx were doing screamy violent dystopia-rap before Wu-Tang, and Phife shouts them out on Midnight Marauders. And Tribe stayed vital after the album’s release, putting out one more very good album and one more OK album before calling it a day in 1998. They weren’t so far removed from the stark music that arose in Wu-Tang’s wake, either; Tip contributed to Nas’s Illmatic and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous. And their spirit remained strong in rap in the years after, too; it’s hard to imagine OutKast or the Fugees happening without their influence. Still, rap music would change quickly and irrevocably soon after Midnight Marauders came out, and we’re just lucky that they were able to make an album as perfect as this when the era they represented was just about to end.
20 years after its release, what about Midnight Marauders sticks with you the most? What was your favorite song on the album? Favorite beat? Favorite moment? How much cooler did you feel when it was playing? Leave word in the comments section. And now, some videos: