New York City in the fall of 1993 seems like a simpler time: there were no massive pastry lines on Spring Street, gentrification moved at a glacial pace compared to today, and one could actually (allegedly) afford a Manhattan apartment. Williamsburg was a long way from becoming Williamsburg. It was a world with no smartphones and no stop and frisk.
And yet, the city's hip-hop community was all kinds of complicated. De La Soul had just released Buhloon Mindstate and Digable Planets' Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) continued to garner heavy rotation and respect from head-nodders nationwide, but New York's rightful claim to the hip-hop crown was in serious jeopardy. Dr. Dre's late-1992 bombshell The Chronic still dominated, and breakthrough efforts from then-newcomers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur only strengthened the West Coast's grip on rap.
And then, in a single day, the spotlight was brought back home.
A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders was released on November 9th, 1993, exactly 20 years ago today. The group's third and (in)arguably best album brought their full talents in both beat production and rhyme construction to bear over what remains even today some of the most potent 51 minutes of hip-hop ever made.
If you're old enough to remember actually tearing the plastic wrap off the record, then you probably already know that Tribe was in its prime in 1993. Midnight Marauders took the moody, meticulous jazz-rap style of its predecessor The Low End Theory and transformed it into something even smoother without sacrificing creativity. It's a record that pushed their own techniques forward without ever straying from the jazz, funk, and soul that hip-hop was reared upon. The record's complicated genius rests in the simplicity of the sound itself: "Award Tour" alone is ample proof, mergeing elements of four separate samples into one fluid bounce over which Q-Tip and Phife Dawg effortlessly rhyme with sly smirks. What other song could inspire you to bob your head along to boasts like "The wackest crews try to dis, it makes me laugh / When my track record's longer than a DC-20 aircraft"?
And if you're like me and were born in the late '80s, Midnight Marauders has even more to offer. The record is a codebook of the East Coast scene at the end of hip-hop's adolescence. Digging into Tribe's upright bass samples and downbeat-defying kick drums helps you appreciate the syncopated tradition that surrounds rap. It makes you question the strict quantized sound of today's mainstream. Listening to Midnight Marauders will make you a better hip-hop listener, period.
If you're also like me and came of age outside of the five boroughs, the record is an education in just how important New York City was to those artists who called it home. Twenty years ago, MCs were shaped by their neighborhood stoops and sidewalks; today, it's the Internet and the voice in their own heads. Phife opens up with some solidarity on "God Lives Through":
Now if my partners don't look good, Malik won't look good / If Malik don't look good, then Quest won't look good / If Quest don't look good, then Queens won't look good / But since the sounds are universal, New York won't look good
Think about it the next time you hear "2 CHAINZ!" For ATCQ in 1993 hip-hop was a group check-in; for many today, it's a #selfie.
This anniversary could prove more than just a nice round number: Kanye West has revealed that A Tribe Called Quest will support him on two of the New York dates of his Yeezus tour—November 20th at Barclay's Center and November 24th MSG. Upping the ante, Q-Tip later tweeted that these shows will be Tribe's last ever, and has intimated that a full and final breakup is at hand. Tickets for both shows are still on sale.
A Tribe Called Quest has broken up only to get back together and perform one-off shows and small tours repeatedly since their first parting of ways back in 1998. Still, if it's for real and the upcoming shows will be their last together onstage, the nights will be remembered not for Kanye's bombast but for Tribe's deft, undeniable role in helping to cement New York City as the geographical soul of hip-hop. Then and now, in Queens and the whole city over, Linden Boulevard represent.