I used to listen to hip-hop radio when I was young and growing up just outside D.C. The Beatles hadn’t changed my life quite yet, and I was still the sort of kid that played Doggystyle way too much without knowing half of what Snoop was talking about. And if you were listening to WPGC in 1994, you could not get away from “Award Tour,” the massive hit single from A Tribe Called Quest‘s Midnight Marauders. I remember buying and wearing out the cassingle, as a matter of fact. However, one thing I never did was actually listen to Midnight Marauders — at least until I got to college, heard The Low End Theory, and scrambled to fill in that missing piece of my hip-hop education.
One criticism (if you can call it that) often levied at A Tribe Called Quest is that they’re a “rap group for white people,” which I suppose I understand on some levels. Their beats are rooted in jazz samples, which makes them easier to digest; their rapping, while often sophisticated and culturally aware, isn’t militant like PE or hardcore like NWA. The Low End Theory, a great album, is often cited as the kind of album that hip-hop fans wouldn’t listen to. To those fans, all I can say is that they’re missing out.
Midnight Marauders is cited as being “the commercial ATCQ album,” and it certainly makes more overtures to radio than the preceding albums. Songs like “Award Tour” and “Electric Relaxation” (with its memorable hook, backed by calming electric guitar and muted rhythms—it really is a soothing listen, to be honest) seem tailor-made to be played every hour by Top 40 stations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; what is Peter Gabriel’s So if not an album specifically made of hit singles, and who has ever had a problem with that? Still, songs like “Sucka Niggas” (a thoughtful rumination on that offensive word) and “Midnight” (a tale of night-life and its adult consequences, tagged with a PSA about AIDS in minority populations) show that ATCQ haven’t given up rapping about serious issues for more airplay. Q-Tip and Phife (both underrated lyricists) have brains, and aren’t afraid to use them.
One thing that is often neglected in reviews about Midnight Marauders is that, for all the jazz-infused mellowness of the album, plenty of the tracks are downright fun to listen to. I trust everybody’s heard “Award Tour” by now, and we all know what a great song it is. However, some of the best songs on the album find the two MCs just showing off their skills, reveling in their abilities and the strong production backing them up. “We Can Get Down,” my personal favorite track, utilizes a dance-ready beat and a catchy bass line, along with blaring trumpets, to give Phife and Q-Tip an avenue to rap about positivism in hip-hop and a need to end African-American violence (sadly, a message not heeded, then or now). “Oh My God,” with Busta Rhymes’ indelible chorus, is a stripped down bass-and-drums production that allows them to diss their lesser peers. Throughout the whole album, both MCs don’t hesitate to indulge in old-school mic-passing, smoothly transitioning without breaking the flow of the songs. That super-cool smoothness, along with really strong beats, is A Tribe Called Quest’s great strength.
Up until a recent reunion, A Tribe Called Quest had been long disbanded; Phife is more or less retired, while Q-Tip’s solo career has been disappointing from day one. Their legacy, however, has remained unsullied, and even their lesser albums have truly great moments. And their great albums show us that rap doesn’t always have to be dirty, gritty or violent. I can put on “Award Tour” and be brought back to a younger time, when I was too young to know what Snoop was talking about, but old enough to know A Tribe Called Quest was a great hip-hop group.