An New Video Shows The Rise Of The Soulquarians & Why Things Fell Apart

During the week of special engagements leading up to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards, The Roots held a four-day residency at The Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan. During the day, the three-time Grammy-winners programmed events that included the first live taping of Questlove Supreme with guest Common, as well as a Black Thought-hosted screening of School Daze. In the evenings, the collective revived a long tradition of jam-session concerts with unannounced special guests. The acts who shared the stage with the Philadelphia native group included Dave Chappelle, Big K.R.I.T., Wyclef Jean, Roxanne Shanté, Gary Clark, Jr., and Mtume, in addition to Common.

In Questlove’s Thursday afternoon (January 25) conversation with Comm’, the two discussed history relating to the late ’90s creative collective of The Soulquarians. Highlights included the QLS host recalling his brokering a J Dilla beat trade between D’Angelo and Common, of “Chicken Grease” for “Dooinit,” along with memories of the squad recording Electric Circus in Prince’s Paisley Park, and trips to Dilla’s Detroit home.

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With the Soulquarians spirit very much alive in the last week, Pitchfork created an animated video that captures the history, formation, and fallout of the creative Voltron.

The video examines some important facts that fans may often overlook, including the significance of Jimi Hendrix’s Greenwich Village recording lab, Electric Lady Studios. After Jimi’s 1970 death (three weeks after the opening party), the 8th Street Manhattan creative space was used by Stevie Wonder (for 1972’s incredible double-dose: Music Of My Mind and Talking Book), David Bowie, and The Clash. By 1998, the studio was no longer a bustling space with artist occupancy. In gearing up for Voodoo in the boom of the “Neo-Soul movement,” D’Angelo declared Jimi’s (with manager Michael Jeffery) lab as his next creative home. In other interviews, Questlove has noted that the movement and sessions launched in spring of 1996.

With Questlove as D’Angelo’s “co-pilot” for the sophomore album, the two ritualized the sessions, reportedly buying thousands of dollars in records for inspiration. The pair closely studied the works of “three Yodas”: Reverend Al Green, Joni Mitchell, and Prince. D’Angelo also tickled the same electric keyboard ivories that Stevie used for those early ’70s benchmark LPs. Also, as the studio became an enclave for D’Angelo and Questlove, The Roots moved their Things Fall Apart recording from Illadelph to New York City for proximity. The common thread between the first two Soulquarians was “a love for sickness in [our] work,” as the video quotes from Questlove. The reference was to their preference for imperfect analog sounds in a world that was fast becoming digital. The name also pulled from D’Angelo and Quest’s mutual belonging to the Aquarius zodiac sign.

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The next two members were also Aquariuses. James Poyser (a onetime understudy of Philly powerhouse Gamble & Huff) became the in-house composer and keyboardist. Jay Dee (aka J Dilla) joined the group, with his sampler and an uncanny knack for extracting found sonic sources (as well as some drumming). Joining D’Angelo and Quest’, they became the four founding members of the Soulquarians, per the video. An expanded family included Common, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip (who already had an outfit with Dilla as The Ummah), as well as Raphael Saadiq, DJ Premier, Bilal, Method Man, Redman, Black Star, and the other members of The Roots crew. Everybody worked in the three studio rooms, simultaneously—leading to creation first, and assignment of songs later, as Questlove and Common recalled last Thursday. This led to some creative competition, complementing the tight-knit family atmosphere.

As Voodoo, Things Fall Apart, Like Water For Chocolate, and Mama’s Gun wrapped and subsequently released, The Soulquarians moved on to work with Jill Scott, Bilal, Talib Kweli, and Jay Dee’s Slum Village. Many of these artists were also MCA Records label-mates to boot. Gold and platinum plaques followed, along with Grammy recognition.

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The video also reveals that The Soulquarians’ unceremonious fade had a lot to do with one magazine story, a September 2000 VIBE issue. Reportedly, Questlove was to be featured in the mag’ on his own. Ahmir suggested the collective be the focal point—leading to the famed photo (featuring the founding four, Common, Badu, Tip, Black Star, and Bilal). However, the quotes of the story from the producer/drummer and Roots band-leader caused some frustrations from others in the collective. The video does not say who, but allegedly others felt that Quest’ assumed credit for the family affair in the corresponding text.

Questlove, Poyser, and Dilla would go on to lead Electric Circus out of that studio and Prince’s Minneapolis compound. D’Angelo returned to his Virginia home and remained largely in hiatus, and out of the public eye during the 2000s.

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Even though “Produced by The Soulquarians” is not something that people have read in liner notes in more than 15 years, the bond remains strong. Unfortunately, the group as we know it changed forever in 2006 when J Dilla died. Following Black Messiah collaborative work between D’Angelo and Questlove, the singer and The Roots performed a 2016 Roots Picnic together, with an appearance by Common the same night. Poyser would become an official Roots member in 2009.

#BonusBeat: Black Thought freestyling over a live Roots’ rendition of De La Soul’s “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” last week:

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