Revisiting A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders: A 30-Year Retrospective

Only their third album, the Queens natives defied the odds with another bona fide classic project.

By 1993, A Tribe Called Quest had established itself as one of the most innovative acts in rap music. The crew from Queens comprised of Q-Tip, aka The Abstract,  the late Phife Dawg,  Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White, arrived on the hip-hop scene as founding members of the eclectic, Afrocentric collective the Native Tongues, which was formed in 1988. As artists, their music canon was already revered with their critically acclaimed debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, which earned them the first five mic rating from .

ATCQ’s sophomore LP, The Low End Theory, was their commercial breakthrough and showcase for the emergence of Phife as a formidable MC. Its jazz-infused sonic renderings became a blueprint for alternative hip-hop and garnered the group its second five-mic rating from

After changing their sound and approach on two impeccable albums, how would ATCQ respond with their third LP amidst the changing terrain of hip hop?  They responded with Midnight Marauders (Maraud means to steal or attack. Ali would later explain that "ATCQ were like sound thieves looting for your ears”), a masterpiece of an album that expanded upon their winning formula with songwriting prowess and an adroit musicality that still reverberates today.

Released on November 9, 1993, the majority of the production was helmed by Q-Tip in the basement of Phife’s grandmother’s home in Queens with contributions from Skeff Anselm, Large Professor, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Unlike their previous work, Midnight Marauders takes the group in a funkier direction with an intricate sampling of soul, jazz, and R&B records by the likes of Minne Ripperton, Milt Jackson, and Ronnie Foster with bass-heavy rhythms and head-snapping drums. Also, they pushed the boundaries of the art of sampling by including tracks from Billy Squier, Malcolm McLaren, and other obscure jewels into the tapestry of the project.

The album opens with a digitized voice of Laurel Dann, a secretary at Jive Records, saying, “Hello. This is your Midnight Marauder program.” Throughout the LP, the listener is accompanied by the narration of Midnight Marauder Tour Guide, segueing between cuts with pertinent information that might be “beneficial.” With that short intro alone, Midnight Marauders was destined to be a one-of-a-kind album.

The album's first single, “Award Tour,” featuring Trugoy of De La Soul on the chorus, was an immediate classic upon hearing the exquisite sample of Weldon Irvine’s “We Gettin Down.” The ultimate reintroduction of the group’s musical vision, “Award Tour,” would peak at 47 on the Billboard Hot 100, the group’s highest charting song, and went to number one on the Dance Singles Chart.

A personal favorite of Tip,  he shared what inspired him to create one of the group’s signature songs.

“I love the drums on 'Award Tour.' And then there's the sample I used from Jade's 'Don't Walk Away.' It's all about that bassline,” Q-Tip said in an interview with .  “I just wanted to flip it, so I went through some more records and I got that Rhodes to counter the melody in the bassline. I wanted some drums that would smack that sh*t out tof the park.”

“Electric Relaxation” is a seductive track about navigating relationships and all the complexities that come with it.  Tip starts the masterfully produced track by saying, “Relax yourself, girl, please settle down,” Phife Dawg is at his absolute best with some of his most memorable punchlines on the group’s second single.

Phife raps, “I like 'em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian/Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation/Told you in the jam that we can get down/Now let's knock the boots like the group H-Town/You got BBD all on your bedroom wall/But I'm above the rim and this is how I ball/A gritty little something on the New York street/This is how I represent over this here beat.”

The back-and-forth flows between Tip and Phife is further evidence of their undeniable chemistry that made them one of the most heralded duos of all time.

After having his coming out party with a legendary anchor verse on “Scenario,” the animated Busta Rhymes makes his presence known as only he can with only four words on “Oh My God,” the third and final single.  The layering of the production is subtle but displays the musical brilliance of the ATCQ by raising the standards and possibilities of what rap music could be.

Other standout tracks from the album include the fan favorite “Sucka Ni**a”, the spiritual influence of “God Lives Through,” the raw hip hopes of “Keep It Rollin” featuring Large Professor, and the dexterous wordplay of “Lyrics to Go” all add to an album that is as concise as any project that’s dropped 30 years ago.

Midnight Marauders was a commercial success upon its release, debuting at number eight on the Billboard 200 and number one on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The LP went platinum two months after the album hit stores, selling over one million copies. Years later, the album landed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

With Midnight Marauders, ATCQ accomplished a significant feat by creating another genre-defining album immediately hailed as a classic and capped off a three-album run that you would be hard-pressed to find an equivalent of musical excellence by an artist (On top of that, the album cover with all the heads is phenomenal).

Until the end of time, ATCQ fans will always debate which album is better,  Low-End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Wherever you land, the brilliance of Midnight Marauders should not be minimized.

From their early embrace of technology to the seamless sequencing and lack of filler, Midnight Marauders is a project where the ATCQ were at the zenith of their creative powers. Midnight Marauders is a classic that’s on par with any album in the discography and anyone else’s.

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