The year 1993 was, arguably, one of the most creative in the history of hip-hop. With debuts from some of the most iconic artists, ranging from Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, to Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang 36 Chambers, to works by Oakland’s own Hieroglyphics, Tupac Shakur, and The Coup, the year marked the beginning of what many considered hip-hop’s renaissance, or “new school” years.
In an already crowded field of game-changing albums, A Tribe Called Quest’s third album, Midnight Marauders still managed to distinguish itself as a standard-bearer in the genre. Unlike its first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm, which gained it some notice, but very little praise; and its second, The Low End Theory, which gained it praise, but very little notice; Midnight Marauders introduced a well-balanced Tribe, fully-mature and confident in its abilities. The album was dubbed a classic upon its release.
DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife Dawg, and Q-Tip (recently re-named The Abstract Poet), brought an evolved sound that incorporated mellow jazz breaks; hypnotic drum beats; and clear, witty rhymes that established the young group as elder statesmen, representing the old-school New York streets. At the same time, the group stayed true to the tenets of what was then known as “the positivity movement,” established by their collective, which was known as The Native Tongues (De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, and others.) Even today, twenty-six years later, one would be hard-pressed to think of an album that is as tightly composed and professionally performed as Midnight Marauders. Even as Tribe continued to make great music, the album is considered by many to be its timeless masterpiece.
In 2016, Malik Izaak Taylor (Phife Dawg, The Five-Foot Assassin) passed away in Contra Costa County due to complications from a life-long struggle with diabetes, which he had made known on Midnight Marauders when he asked, “When was the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”
Phife’s death hit the world of hip-hop hard because many had come to realize just how beloved and respected A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) had become over the years. Its music had become so ubiquitous that no one had really noticed until the possibility of there being no more had arrived. As it turned out, Phife, just as much as impresario/wizard partner Q-tip, was a catalyst for so many positive changes in the music and the culture.
The musical collective UnderCover Presents is presenting a live tribute to Midnight Marauders for three days starting Thursday, May 16 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The City of Oakland has designated the following day as the official holiday of “Phife Dawg Day,” and Malik’s mother (Poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor) will receive the official mayoral proclamation and read poems dedicated to her son and A Tribe Called Quest.
The live performances, which will feature more than 100 Bay Area musicians from at least 13 separate acts, are being accompanied by a dedicated recording of the musical reinterpretations, which follows on the heels of other memorable UnderCover tributes to recordings by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Radiohead, Bjork, and Bob Dylan and Marley.
Undercover has created a fitting tribute to ATCQ that doesn’t update Midnight Marauders so much as it traces the album’s influence into contemporary times, showing how many genres have benefited from its contributions. With the promise of a full orchestra, a full brass band, and some of the best rappers and singers in The Bay Area, the live show promises to be a high-point for the year.
Producer Michael Starita (known simply as Starita), is a two-time Grammy-winning producer who worked with the group for years, including on “This Generation” from Tribe’s last album, Thanks For Your Service We’ve Got It From Here. Starita was the perfect fit to helm the project, which presented it’s own set of challenges.
“Everybody knows Midnight Marauders like the back of their hand,” he said. “What I wanted to do on the first track was to give the listener a little bit of what they were expecting, and then erase it. I wanted ‘Steve Biko’ to be a reset button.”
From the first track on, the tribute bends and morphs the original songs without deviating too far from the original to make it unnoticeable. With Oakland performers like Gina Madrid, RyanNicole, Gift Of Gab (From Blackalicious), Jennifer Johns, and the all black woman punk rock band Skip The Needle, the tribute is constantly surprising, taking Q-tip and Phife’s lyrics to unexpected places. The multi-lingual album is jazz, hip-hop, zydeco, afrobeat, and one of the best hip-hop renditions is “Midnight” by Wolf and Crow, an indie-folk band.
“Though you expect the song to be similar, it completely flips with a full orchestra, and I added drum programming and some crazy electronics to that,” Starita added. “When I’m working on my computer, where I’m composing a lot of these songs, there’s a button called ‘purge memory,’ which is a good analogy for what I was attempting to do on a few tracks. I wanted to purge the memory of the listener to create a blank, or at least open, slate to new renditions of songs that they are already have experienced and known.”
Starita also worked on tracks with Phife Dawg that have yet to be released. “There’s quite a few songs that didn’t make the album,” he said. “You can expect more new stuff coming from Tribe any time now.”
Phife may be gone, but it’s great news to hear that he will live through.
May 16-18, 7:30 p.m., $39.50-54.50, 701 Mission St., San Francisco, UnderCoverPresents.com