On November 9th, 1993, A Tribe Called Quest released “Midnight Marauders” and Wu Tang Clan released “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” Undoubtedly the best album in each’s careers and two of the best hip hop albums in general, it’s still something of a miracle that they were released simultaneously. The stories of both records couldn’t have been more different.
When A Tribe Called Quest were making Midnight Marauders, they could do no wrong. The Low End Theory released 2 years before was a hit, did great billboard numbers, had little to no swearing which broadened its reach, and most importantly boasted an original sound. No one had ever heard upright bass lines used in that context before and nobody in rap had the diversity and fluid chemistry of Tip and Phife. It was a sound that would be developed further on Midnight Marauders.
Though The Low End Theory made Tribe big, beat maker mastermind Q-Tip still wanted Tribe’s next project to come from the home. The majority of the album was planned and created in Phife’s grandmother’s basement where Tip cited a relaxed atmosphere that contributed to the overall vibe of the record. She gave Q-Tip a key. Phife Dawg was upstairs watching basketball, Q-Tip was figuring out Electric Relaxation. Drums were a central focus with Tip ensuring every kick and snare knocked just right. Recording took place over the course of nine months at three different studios.
Q-Tip’s innovative abilities as a producer had come full circle for Midnight. His ability to find breaks, take rips and reprogram them was scary at this point evolving from the loop stacking methods of The People’s Instinctives… With nothing but an MPC, Midnight Marauders production is ambitious to say the least. On Lyrics to Go, a sample of Minnie Riperton’s whistle register is sustained and then slowed down to create a droning backdrop. Sucka Nigga uses a vocal from movie Wild Style, jazz guitarist Jack Wilkins, the break off Cold Blood and literally nothing else to take down the titular epithet and its use by both Whites and Blacks. While Phife Dawg enjoyed great success in providing looser parallel to Q-Tip’s intellectual MC on their first two, it is here where he truly comes into his own, with dynamic in the pocket performances and memorable quotes on every song he performs.
They called it Midnight Marauders after a line Q-Tip says in Vibes and Stuff. Third Tribe member, the amazing turntablist Ali Shaheed Muhammed, interpreted the title, “(they’re) sound thieves looting for your ears.” Jive secretary Lauren Dann was recorded and digitized to replicate an automated telephone voice and provide cleansing interludes between songs.
Wu-Tang’s album could not have been birthed under more different circumstances.
About five years before, cousins Robert Diggs, Gary Grice, and Russel Jones formed the All in Together Now Crew in their native Staten Island. Each member had an alias. Diggs was known as Prince Rakeem, Grice, The Genius, and Jones, The Specialist. They were never signed, but presumably an effect of Biz Markie giving them recognition, Diggs and Grice were signed to separate imprints. After each releasing flops, their contracts were terminated and they were left without a label. After refocusing their efforts and banding together local MCs to form rap’s true first posse, Diggs and Grice changed their monikers to RZA and GZA and together along with, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon Da Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Jones, now the Ol’ Dirty Bastard formed Wu-Tang Clan. Their ethos would be informed by the streets, Eastern philosophy learned via kung fu movies, watered down Nation of Islam teachings, and other sources of strange pop culture.
Because of an extremely limited budget, the group recorded in a tiny inexpensive studio. Drum breaks were recorded with poor quality cables and gear resulting in heavier bass and lower fidelity. The quarters were frequently crowded, with some songs requiring all 9 members to deliver verses. In order to get the lead single recorded, each member had to pay 100 dollars to finance recording. In other cases, RZA would get members to battle in order to compare and ensure the best MC was utilized per song.
The creativity and originality of the Wu Tang Clan’s parts is staggering, with each voice following another’s with different skill set and personality. While the gravely voiced rhythmic titan Method Man makes the most appearances here with 7 verses and 3 choruses, Inspectah Deck’s tight, fat lipped flow perhaps made for the most consistent performance on the record. With a wide range of sound, RZA creates one of the coolest sonic pictures of the 90s, most tracks taking a dark tone with gritty beats that had bounce, or if mid tempo, snare drums that felt like face slaps.
Unsurprisingly this was going to be difficult to get major label attention.
In 1993, the group released “Proteck Ya Neck.” It is 5 minutes, 8 verses with no breaks in between or chorus and a bootleg shot promotional video to match. After the group started to gain an underground following, they catch the attention of a few record labels including Steve Riffkind, the then 31 year old CEO of LOUD Records. They meet at the label headquarters in New York, where the Wu who had just introduced themselves to Riffkind, rapped the entirety of the song over a mobile cassette player. Noticing the raw talent and originality, Riffkind convinces parent label RCA to give Wu-Tang what no other was willing to offer, non exclusivity. This was the ability for each member to release solo records on other labels as long as LOUD would receive the first right to refusal. They agree and sign with LOUD for $50,000.
The records dropped on November 9th, 1993. Tribe were met with an almost unanimous acclaim on the strength of lead singles Award Tour and Electric Relaxation, going platinum almost a full year after its release and becoming the first Tribe album to do so. Wu-Tang Clan also saw chart success peaking at number 8 on the urban charts while still maintaining the feel of an underground hit. In a genius move of promotion, after the record came out, RZA and Steve Riffkind had MTV play Wu-Tang’s low budget, slice of life music videos masterfully directed by a then-unknown Hype Williams in constant late night rotation.
While Tribe maintained an intellectual, cool aura that would legitimize hip hop in a different route than the gangster rap that dominated the charts, Wu-Tang brought a real as it gets approach to their music and a diversity of character that most groups strive to emulate today. Purchasers of both records on November 9, 1993, surely found satisfaction in that there is literally not a bad song on either album.
Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) represent some of the best work from the second golden age of hip hop, an era that seemingly was turning out classics at a relentless frequency. It is almost a testament to the early 90s New York hip hop scene that Midnight and 36 Chambers, two timeless albums that have changed hip hop in wildly different ways were released on the same day.
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