Kinda lost the plot there for a moment, didn’t I? To be fair, this was planned and partially written before the one week deadline was up, I just got entangled in other commitments. So unprofesh.
Is it true? Could I really be wrapping this celebration of all things Tribe without devoting any time to Midnight Marauders? Their masterpiece! Their most fully realized work! The album I’ve cited numerous times as my favourite!
Midnight Marauders is an undeniable classic, there is no doubt of this. But it’s a classic because it perfected an idea. You can argue that there’s nothing new on MM, it’s just the moment the execution was perfect from wall to wall. Midnight Marauders is the PhD Dissertation after the Master’s Thesis of The Low End Theory. In fact, nothing on MM explored any new territory, even the name had emerged before the album did. Which brings us to our final examination.
This song first appeared on the 1992 rarities collection Revised Quest for the Seasoned Traveler, but didn’t hit a lot of people’s radars until it showed up on a bonus disc packaged with the group’s final album in 1998.
What fascinates me most about the song is its aggression. The confines of hip-hop’s traditional views of what defines the masculine is something rappers continue to rub up against, [Drake addressed it in a recent Complex cover story, B.O.B. came harder than anyone would have expected when Odd Future dissed him last winter, Common still flexes like has something to prove]. It’s de rigeur in hip-hop that you can show your sensitive side, as long as you make sure to puff your chest out once in a while to show potential haters you’re not to be trifled with. Such was the hard lesson groups like Tribe and De La had to learn when they dropped their debuts in the late 80’s wearing tie-dye and dashikis. On the one hand, they were celebrated for their creativity, yet on the other, well, NWA and Ice Cube were out at the same time. De La took it the hardest, so much they ‘killed’ themselves on their second album. Tribe might have started wearing jerseys and Starter hats, but judging by this record we’re looking at, they still felt they had to prove something to someone.
While titled as a ‘re-recording’ of their ‘Low End’ single ‘Jazz (We Got)’, the two songs could not be more different. The original is a mellow, meditative journey composed of traditional jazz samples [a first for rap], the remix is a street banger from the moment that industrial sounding drum loop comes in and Q-Tip let’s out a self-satisfied ‘whooooo!‘ as Ali Shaheed scratches his ass off over a sample of a primal ‘Yeah!’
Those drums and that ‘yeah’ are lifted from a song called ‘Long Red’ by the band Mountain, they of ‘Mississippi Queen’ fame.
While Eric B and Rakim and EPMD got to the drum break before Tribe [indeed, the first 20 seconds of this recording is probably the most versatile hip-hop sample since Funky Drummer], Q-Tip once again displays his genius by finding something in it that creates a completely different mood. That first second or two, something resonates in the mics, or feedbacks to create that metallic whine that coats the recording. It’s gone in an instant, within the first two seconds, but Tip’s ear can spot the best part of the song, and that’s what he flipped. Every beat in the Re-Recording comes from those first two seconds. You hope they had an MPC at that point, cause if they didn’t, looping that by hand would have been murder. The other samples, the horn break from Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Sing a Simple Song’ and the keys buried seven minutes into Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Suite Sioux’ provide the requisite jazz component but get buried under the weight of that machine-gun beat.
Lyrically, the song is unlike anything else Tribe had done previously, in the sense that it’s straight battle. Here’s Tip:
I refuse to catch an ‘L’ in a battle
Cause yo, I got the jazz, and I’ll whup a rapper’s ass
into little next to nothing, test me if I’m fronting.
Phife of course brings his usual street swag, coming in hard from the outset:
No need for introductions cause you know who I be.
[The Phife Dawg] Yep, the one who loves to slaughter MCs.
Those first two lines might be my favourite in Tribe’s whole catalogue, because I think it shows Tip and Phife at their most unified. After delivering the hook, Tip introduces his partner with an excited, ‘Come on, Phife!’ It’s a moment of complete confidence in his partner’s abilities, Tip knows Phife’s in his element and has doesn’t doubt for a second that mic’s about to get torn to bits. And even after Phife claims who needs no introduction, it’s Tip who drops that drawly, ‘The Phife Daaaaawg’, playing a rare role of support. Look, I know the two of them have had numerous moments of stellar wordplay over the years, usually on equal footing, or more commonly with Phife playing support to Tip. Those first lines in the second verse are the only time I’ve ever felt Tip really sat back and marveled at the talents of his partner. There’s a moment after Phife asserts he’ll crack a sucker MC in the jaw, you hear Tip whistle in one of those, ‘damn, son!’ moments.
That’s why I love the song so much, it’s not about each of them asserting they’re the best as individuals but as a group. Two stellar verses by the MCs, followed by the most scratching I think Ali Shaheed’s ever done on a Tribe record: he chews that ‘Yeah!’ up to euphoric levels, inciting the listener to shout it out with them.
To my mind, though, the best moment of the song might not even exist. During the chorus, as Tip asks ‘Who got the jazz?’ he clearly says ‘We got the jazz,’ but there are certain moments where, to my ear, it sounds like he says, ‘You got the jazz,’ shifting the ‘we’ of the title from not just including the band, but the listener as well, a way of acknowledging that we understood what they were doing, and welcoming us to walk with them for as long as those instinctive travels along the paths of rhythm would last.
As it turned out, we reached that destination long before we were ready, but they say the journey’s the thing.