Over 20 Years Later, “Midnight Marauders” Still Bangs
By Jessica Passione-Sanchez
“Midnight Marauders” released by A Tribe Called Quest in 1993 is the perfect combination of instrumentals, lyricism, and content, making it a timeless classic of old school hip-hop.
Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Kamaal “Q- Tip” Fareed formed the group in the late 1980s and their third studio album showcases their innovative creativity.
It isn’t possible to articulate the eloquence of the album without mentioning the style of the late great Phife Dawg, whose recent death at the tender age of 45 garnered homages from artists and producers across the music industry. His unmistakable high voice compliments the sound of 95 beats per minute in a way that connects you to the socially conscious rap A Tribe Called Quest delivers on the album.
The iconic cover art for the album features a woman’s silhouette in black, red, green, and yellow. The black and white backdrop is decorated with headshots of every rapper from Ice-T to the Beastie boys.
“We tried to get everybody that we can to get on this album cover,” said Phife Dawg in an interview with ‘Yo! MTV Raps.’ “Tryna promote hip- hop unity.”
The woman whose silhouette is on the album cover identifies herself as “The Midnight Marauders Tour Guide” in the opening track. Her robotic and choppy voice is outdated for today’s standard but the messages she delivers between each track hold as much weight today as they did back then.
“I will be enhancing your cassettes and CDs with certain facts that you may find beneficial,” she said against the mellow Cal Tjader “Aquarius” sample. “We hope that you will find our presentation precise, bass heavy, and just right.”
‘Just right’ are the perfect words to describe the jazzy horn introduction of “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)”. The album’s first song, named after an apartheid activist, sets the tone for the album when Phife’s voice starts with the bass as he spews the words “Linden Boulevard represent, represent” and the combination of jazz and hip hop consumes you.
“Award Tour” comes next with no pause in between the tracks making the musical attack even more appealing. It’s one of A Tribe Called Quest’s most iconic songs and reached number one on the U.S. Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales Chart.
In the conclusion of the song, the tour guide explains the name of the album.
“Seven times out of 10, we listen to our music at night,” she said. “The word maraud means to loot, in this case we maraud for ears.”
One of her most thought-inducing facts comes when she said, “Did you know the rate of AIDS in the black and Hispanic community is rising at an alarming rate? Education is proper means for slowing it down.”
The track that’s most relevant today would undoubtedly be “Sucka n____” where Q-tip, “The Abstract Poetic”, in his distinct low voice, presents an argument about the use of the controversial word as he declares that the youth “embraces adversity.”
“You’re not any less of a man if you don’t pull the trigger, you’re not necessarily a man if you do,” the tour guide urges at end of the song, making the album memorable for so much more than catchy hits.
As serious and refreshingly enlightening as the album is at times, it’s also filled with sexually explicit lyrics that you can’t help but smirk at because of the clever wordplay.
“Electric Relaxation,” another enticing jazz/hip-hop combo, is the highlight of the album when it comes to perverted wordplay.
“Let me hit it from the back, girl I won’t catch a hernia / Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture,” said Phife.
You’ll never look at Seaman’s the same again.
The unique voices on the album are instruments of their own. When the instrumentals play, you’re left waiting to hear one of their voices again.
This isn’t only because you’re waiting to hear what they’re going to say next but because the sound of their voices are so rhythmic, fluidly adjusting to however they wanted, that if you cut the instrumentals, their tones would become the only music you need.
Lyrics can lack substance but that isn’t the case here. In “Midnight Marauders”, A Tribe Called Quest rhymed about everything from Phife Dawg getting an ice cream cone in “8 Million Stories” to political and social dilemmas. The content of the album is what makes it a classic.
They stood out because at the time, gangsta-rap was booming on the west coast but they chose to present a melodic and thought-provoking album to their listeners. Phife Dawg stood true to his platform in an interview with MTV in 2000.
“That’s all this music is: a youth movement. If we fill they head with nothing but B.S., they gonna go out like that. Let’s get it together.”