The Perfect Day In Hip-Hop: When Wu-Tang & A Tribe Called Quest Dropped Classic Albums
November 9 may as well be a day of observance for Hip-Hop Heads. With A Tribe Called Quest’s third album Midnight Marauders and Wu-Tang Clan’s debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) both dropping on that day 25 years ago, it’s a date that seems hard to imagine. While many release dates of the last 30-plus years had the most retail-savvy Hip-Hoppers happily leaving stores with great albums in their bags, few had this much potency over time. Not only are both ’93 LPs considered classics, but they are landmark releases for both groups, and blueprints for Rap albums that peers and disciples have been following since. These are the kind of albums that many fans can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard them. They are not only milestones for Rap, but are also recognized as two of the most impactful records of the genre. Period.
While the quartet of Q-Tip, the deeply-missed Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi had already greatly established themselves with Peoples Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm and game-changing follow-up The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders cemented their sound and is the group’s most cohesive album. Although there was a tour guide, none was needed for a seamless journey through clean, crisp drums and eclectic samples with the vinyl pops included. While Low End set a new standard in crate-digging and Jazz application, Tribe’s production (with Q-Tip at the helm) advanced even further on its third LP. On the rhyme side of things, both Tip and Phife came with a delicate balance of humorous punchlines and social commentary on this effort. Like its sounds, the subjects are dynamic. “Award Tour” is braggadocious Rap that refuses to fall flat or be predictable. The Abstract and the 5-Footer come up with drawn-out ways to give themselves a pat on the back for originality and style. “Electric Relaxation” takes a barrage of pick-up lines and makes the art of seduction seem fun, refusing to take itself too seriously. Seaman’s Furniture punchlines and all, the song is a welcomed change of pace from “B*tches Ain’t Sh*t,” “Baby Got Back,” or “F*ck U Man.” A tad juvenile, yes. Misogynistic, not exactly. Danceable, definitely.
Unlike Tribe, Wu-Tang’s album was their collective introduction to the world, and they were out to show and prove. While GZA (fka The Genius) and RZA (fka Prince Rakeem) had released solo projects in 1991 with Cold Chillin’ and Tommy Boy Records, respectively, the music on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was something completely new. As Tribe cultivated a chilled out-but-sophisticated approach, the Clan were lyrical swordsmen decapitating MCs over gritty loops held together with Kung-Fu flick samples. The raw flavor pulled listeners into a whole world that these nine street poets had meticulously created together. Pulling from multiple boroughs across New York City, Wu created a cinematic underbelly in Shaolin. It was as straight-no-chaser world where anything could go wrong—but a band of brothers could form a circle, and attack the conventions of the industry, the sweetness in Rap music, and the listener’s eardrum all at once. The song titles alone describe this uneasy cosmos: “Protect Ya Neck,” “Shame On A Ni**a,” and “Bring Da Ruckus” are menacing contrasts to the pensive “Tearz” and “Can It Be All So Simple.” Although with the two transformed Rap vets, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Masta Killa made the strongest kinds of introductions possible for Rap. At a time when G.F.K.’s face had not been revealed, this assembly of MCs had fans and every record label clamoring for more.
These two groups were—as many Ambrosia For Heads readers predicted—the championship round contenders in this year’s “Finding The GOAT Group” tournament-style election. Wu won, by the tightest of margins. However, beyond any fan debate, these two albums—released on the same day—opened hallways in Hip-Hop that so many have since tried to enter. The colorful, somewhat innocent spirit of Midnight Marauders and all the emphasis on album-making, project-to-project progression, and dedication to sequence has never gone away in 25 years. OutKast, The Roots, Kanye West, Mos Def, and Common are just some of the artists that honor this tradition. Meanwhile, the swarm effect of Enter The Wu-Tang, its skills-over-hype, and nonchalant branding have been emulated by Pro Era, D12, A$AP Mob, Odd Future, Flatbush Zombies, and so many others. Somehow by lumping nine artists together, it made their individual qualities stand out even more. As so many trends suggested that Rap groups were not sustainable, the spirit of the Wu—coming from their first and undeniably best LP—will always prove the industry wrong.
While A Tribe Called Quest had skyrocketed into its first Top 10 charting position on its third LP, Wu-Tang took time. On a new and exciting label, Loud Records, part of Witty Unpredictable’s charm was its mystery. Tribe put the whole industry (including a burgeoning Puff Daddy) on its three different artwork versions for the clique’s award tour album. Wu covered their faces and let a logo do the talking.
I walked into Vancouver’s Track Records store that second Tuesday in November 1993. Holding up two albums that time would prove to be classic was a beautiful experience but a tough task. I only had enough money for one. Tribe, having already proven greatness in the past got my support. Many others seemed to agree, as Wu would trudge to platinum certification over the next year-and-a-half, never breaking into the Top 40. It’s now triple platinum, an album that history demands all Hip-Hop Heads must hear, even if it takes years to understand and fully appreciate. Forever pleased with Midnight Marauders that brisk day 25 Novembers ago, I came back for 36 Chambers two weeks later along with Doggystyle when it arrived. What a time to be alive.
Jordan Commandeur is a freelance writer and photojournalist specializing in music and film. He was the driving force behind Canada’s longest running Hip-Hop publication, Thick Magazine, from its inception in 1994 to its end in 2009. In addition to AFH, he has contriburted to Mass Appeal, Bandcamp, Complex, CBR, SPITGAN, and others. He lives in Vancouver.