The Third Best Album of the 1990s

My third-favorite album of the 1990s is the one that made me realize that American rap music was one of the most exciting things happening on earth.

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3. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)

Sometimes things align in just such a way. You encounter a work of art at the perfect moment, when the context of your reality leaves you especially open to its aesthetic. There’s a grand interlocking of gears. And this creation forever becomes a part of you.

A Tribe Called Quest’s third album, Midnight Marauders, was the first rap CD I ever bought. Up till that point I had been thoroughly ignorant of any genre that wasn’t rock, thinking Led Zeppelin and Metallica were all I would ever need. Luckily, some new friends with better taste entered my life. One of them played Tribe’s deliriously fun crew single “Scenario” for me, and in that moment I was given permission to pursue so much more in my BMG Music Service orders – artists that put rhythm first, that interpolated the history of jazz and funk and R&B and rap into something exhilaratingly new, that put an absolute premium on cleverness.

So Midnight Marauders arrived at the precise moment where I was ready to expand my definition of what music, and friendship, could be. It featured two rappers, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, who had been BFFs since they were two years old, and had the chemistry to prove it. Tip’s smooth-talking philosophy gelled with Phife’s raspy underdog humor in a goosebump-raising way – the energy they created on tape together transcended mere artistic talent. These guys loved and needed each other, and they never sounded happier to be trading bars together than they did on this album. Factor in the panoramic, viscerally funky productions from Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and you’ve got music that hums with powerful, positive vibrations. It was the lightning bolt that knocked me off my rockist donkey for good.

And this record doesn’t just loom large in the context of my mundane life story. It holds a place in the history of rap as a beacon of brotherhood, shining brightly at a time when the battle lines between East and West Coast hip hop were being drawn. For the album cover, Tribe reached out to rap artists across the country, asking for a headshot of them wearing headphones. Dr. Dre is on there, along with Sean Combs, Chuck D, Ice T, the Beastie Boys, Souls of Mischief, MC Lyte, and dozens of others. It’s a testament to the unifying power of good music, and the perfect visual accompaniment to the infectious camaraderie that takes these particular songs over the top.

Midnight Marauders begins with two songs that celebrate how much fun it is to make music with friends, and then share those creations with the world. The first, “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” shouts out the trio’s Queens roots over a fluttering Woody Shaw sample. Phife fully embraces his “Five Foot Assassin” persona for the first time here, “knocking fleas off his collar” with wise-cracking ease. Tip ends the track on a beautifully introspective tear:

Ok, I am recognizing that the voice inside my head
Is urging me to be myself but never follow someone else
Because opinions are like voices, we all have a different kind
So just clean out all of your ears, these are my views and you will find

That we revolutionize over the kick and the snare
The ghetto vocalist is on a state-wide tear

Then comes “Award Tour,” a laid-back chronicle of the bonds formed by travel, where guest rapper Trugoy of De La Soul uses each chorus to check off cities around the world that have been lucky enough to watch Tribe represent. As Weldon Irvine’s irresistible electric piano loop takes the track airborne, Phife provides some ballast with one of his greatest verses – outlining the superior nature of his skills, the philosophy of Tribe’s music, and the bone-deep quality of his friendships, all with a wink and a smile:

So Shaheed come in with the sugar cuts
Phife Dawg’s my name, but on stage, call me Dynomutt
When was the last time you heard the Phife sloppy
Lyrics anonymous, you’ll never hear me copy
Top notch baby, never coming less
Sky’s the limit, you gots to believe up in Quest
Sit back, relax, get up out the path
If not that, here’s a dance floor, come move that ass
Non-believers, you can check the stats
I roll with Shaheed and the brother Abstract

This same formula is perfected across every track of Midnight Marauders. Even the short skits (one of the few things about ’90s rap that I don’t miss) support the album’s refreshingly unpretentious, all-you-need-is-a-dance-floor philosophy. In a spoof of humorless robocall voices, the album’s electronic narrator interrupts the proceedings from time to time, to deliver various messages: She tells us the names of the band members, suggests that education is the best way to combat the AIDS crisis, and lets us know what BPM levels to expect. Perhaps most appropriately, she pops in at the end of the drum-heavy classic “Clap Your Hands” with some advice that could very well be this album’s mission statement: “Keep bouncing.”