The Soulquarians - The Essentials
“Neo Soul – Alternative Hip Hop – Avant Garde – Soul – Conscious Rap – Jazz Fusion”
That’s the description of “Genre” Wikipedia gives to the collective “Soulquarians”. It seems farcically ambitious, but it barely covers the musical and creative breadth of the often overlooked Soulquarian era that blessed the turn of the century.
When Jimi Hendrix catapulted himself into stardom in the late sixties, he needed his own mecca. In 1968 he bought a run-down nightclub and began construction on his own studio: what would become “Electric Lady”. Tragically, he only recorded in the studio whilst it was being constructed, and died shortly after, leaving behind an empty temple, a blank page in a history book. Those pages were quickly filled by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and many more throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Yet when the end of the nineties approached there had been a significant shift in the musical landscape, and the studio was about to become home to a new musical movement.
Although violent Gangsta rap was the staple of mid nineties hip hop, the murder of its two gatekeepers had ushered in a new era of glitzy pop samples, shiny suits, and champagne. Beneath the bling however were a few hip hop artists that ventured to return to the old school, soulful, jazz inspired roots of the hip hop genre. Most notably were Root’s Drummer Questlove, rising producer J Dilla, soul prodigy D’Angelo and multi-instrumentalist James Poyser. What these musicians shared was a mutual passion for soul, funk, jazz and a defiance against convention. They began jamming at the Electric Lady studios and with those sessions the idea grew into a creative movement with the likes of Common, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Q Tip, Bilal, Talib Kweli and more joining forces.
Questlove is often seen as the Godfather of the Soulquarians, and he details the creative process in fascinating snippets. He describes the atmosphere of artists walking from one studio room to another, all of them working on their individual albums, but never without creative consultancy of the group. Beats and instrumentals were often fought over, ending up on different albums than they were originally intended. The studios were packed full of talent, with artists giving suggestions, adding notes, vocals, kicks, and themes like they were seasoning. The result is something that has almost become a dying art. Today the “feature” is often, understandably, mailed in. The globalisation of the world means it’s easier to send an artist a song than it is to craft it with them in the same room. The short but flawless creative output of the Soulquarians has a feel like no other. Every album feels like a beautiful melting pot of creativity. You can hear Dilla and Questlove’s unconventional drums, you can feel the influence of Poyser and D’Angelo’s piano medleys. They weren’t a group, or a band, but immensely talented artists that shared a space in the musical landscape, and they did their best to deliver a string of albums that would stand the test of time. Here are my favourites:
Things Fall Apart – The Roots (1999)
The first output from the Soulquarian Era is legendary. The Roots, Hip Hop’s only band, were proving themselves to be a force throughout the nineties. “Do You Want More?!!!” was arguably the hip hop record that most devoted itself to jazz authenticity, and their follow up “Illadelph Halflife” showcased the phenomenal balance between Malik B and Black Thought’s lyrical potency, and Questlove’s hard hitting instrumentals. “Things Fall Apart” catapulted them into a new realm. It doesn’t sound like any hip-hop record out there, even today. It walks the line between jazz and neo soul, switching between the two without sacrificing a modicum of consistency. It’s jazz rap at it’s finest.
For me, the album’s real opener would be track 3 “The Next Movement”. It embodies everything this album strived to be. Its immaculately produced groove is infectious, it’s relentless ode to jazz is hard to resist, and the rapping is mastery. The pulsing of the track coinciding with the lyrical barrage from Black Thought is buttery smooth. It has so much going on that present themselves to you with multiple listens. The background vocal melodies, the almost b-bop “ha ha music”. This song was the Soulquarians staking their claim. They didn’t care about fame, shiny suits, or money. They were here to become “Yodas” of the music industry, a term Questlove and D’Angelo used to describe artists that transcended greatness. “You Got Me” is perhaps The Root’s most famous song to date, and was a smash hit at the time, driving this album to go Platinum. Soulquarians Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Common, James Poyser and Questlove all have their fingers in the greatness of this project. The gentle trumpet that leads “Act Too” is another moment on the album that strives for musical bliss, the absolutely bizarre percussion on “Without a Doubt” sounds like it was made in a kitchen, and Dilla’s “Dynamite!” almost sounds like it’s melting as it warps from jazzy key to the next. Too many songs to count, but best believe, without this project, there is no “To Pimp A Butterfly”.
Black On Both Sides – Mos Def (1999)
Mos Def in the late nineties was the king of the underground. He was the epitome of old school harking, channelling the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, and Souls Of Mischief. He was a Brooklyn native that wasn’t remotely interested in the gang violence side of the genre, he was rooted in his devotion to the music, and his lyrics. Mos Def’s flow to me, is one of the few artists that can rival Biggie. His breakout album with Talib Kweli “Black Star” showcased a rapper with an endless fountain of lyricism that would fly out of the speaker without a stutter or stumble in sight. Its like treacle. After being hugely influenced by what he was experiencing in Electric Lady, he released his debut album “Black on Both Sides” to legendary acclaim, and the Soulquarian footprint was evident. The album is largely rooted in Hip Hop, but places emphasis on live instrumentation, genre crossing and Afrocentricity. Its one of the most interesting Hip Hop albums to date.
The way I see it, this album has a little bit of everything, all bought together by Mos’ presence. If your looking for grass roots Hip Hop, look no further than “Hip Hop”, “Ms Fat Booty” and “Mathematics”. “Ms Fat Booty” was the single that brought the world to this album, and it can be a misleading representation of this album in many ways. Its an excellent, soulful hip hop track that gives Mos plenty of space for him to take the listener on a tongue twisting narrative revolving around an encounter with a girl in a bar. There’s something special about this track’s playful and humorous spirit that makes it hard to put down, and although it’s considered a radio single, Mos Def’s rapping doesn’t remotely falter. It’s as silky smooth and effortless as ever. He has a talent in making bar heavy rap feel easy, and accessible, rather than laborious and aggressive. “Mathematics” is almost like a New York emcees rite of passage, teaming up with the legendary DJ Premier, for arguably one of his best beats ever, with Def delivering on all fronts.
Where the album steps away from convention though, is where it gets interesting. Mos Def delivers a neo soul anthem in “Umi Says”, and its dodges the curse of genre hopping entirely, becoming a beautiful centre piece for the album. His lyricism on this track is unusually loose, and his singing feels very stream-of-conscious-esque. It’s not a song that was crafted, but more a song that seems to be the result of a jam session. “Rock N Roll” is a cutting and decisive track that strives to remind the music industry who really created the genre that’s largely dominated by white faces. The song’s first half seems to step away from Hip Hop slightly, but keeps close by, but before long the track descends into organised chaos, and a full-blown rock song with Mos screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s a statement. This album is a spectacular piece of music that’s songs act as motifs, offering the listener a fresh perspective on African American culture.
Voodoo – D’Angelo (2000)
This is the first album on the list that doesn’t lie in the realm of Hip Hop but looks to progress the genre of Neo Soul to places it never thought it could go. This album, for Questlove, was almost a frustrating reinvention. D’Angelo’s perfectionism was meticulous, and unflinching, which lead to some heated studio sessions. D’Angelo was dedicated to bringing back the thought that had gone into albums created by Prince and Marvin Gaye, his two biggest influences. He had a vision for this album and needed his drummer to be on board. He wanted to throw timing, rules and syncopation out of the window, and as a drummer, Questlove thought he was crazy. He would say to Quest “play drunker”, meaning he wanted him to play behind the beat, almost as though he didn’t quite know how to play the drums, giving the song a swagger and groove that it didn’t have before. Questlove was concerned he would become the laughingstock of the music industry, but he embraced D’Angelo’s vision and after almost 3 years, Voodoo was released, and its platinum perfection.
Voodoo is sticky. Its wholeheartedly one of the grooviest experiences in music, and there isn’t much else to say really. It’s endlessly heavy bass, its swaggering drumlines, and layered vocals that never do too much to dominate the feel of the record create a late night, sexually charged atmosphere like no other. D’Angelo’s vision was genius. He cemented himself as the Prince of his generation but did so without sounding derivative. “Playa Playa” rises from the murky sounds of what seems to be a studio warm up session, and the heavy, inebriated pulse begins to set in, gripping the listener in a trance. It builds slowly. It’s so loose, yet so precise in it’s mastery. As the song proceeds, it takes the time to explode, retract, and groove. Interestingly DJ Premier, who seems like an odd fit for the record, provides the second song “Devils Pie” with an epic beat. He brings his signature drum machine sound to the track but layers it with a dirty bassline and gives D’Angelo plenty of space. It’s one of his all-time greats. Further down the track list we get Motown inspired slow jams with the beautiful “Send It On”, Marvin Gaye influenced tracks with “The Line” and even a song that was ghost-produced by J Dilla “Feel Like Makin Love” which manages to achieve an agreement between beautiful levity and sexual weight. Even the smash single on this album “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” didn’t cater to radio, with a run time of over 7 minutes and stunning electric guitar lines interwoven with tinkering piano keys. It was a hit but sounds like nothing that came out on the radio in 2000. That perfectly epitomises D’Angelo, he does not drop often, but when he does the world stops and pays attention, and so far, he hasn’t put a single foot wrong.
Like Water For Chocolate – Common (2000)
Chicago rapper Common had made quite a name for himself in the nineties, with his jazzy No I.D production providing the perfect backdrop for his conscious and introspective style of rapping. However, when he moved from Chicago to New York he decided to make a departure from his producer No I.D and became a figurehead of the Soulquarians. He made a crucial decision to team up with the innovative and buzzing producer Jay Dee (who become known as J Dilla) who gave his signature and unparalleled production to this excellent album. To me this album feels like the precursor to “To Pimp A Butterfly”. Its experimental, jazzy and tackles Afrocentric themes with finesse. J Dilla is massively important to the excellence of this record. He’s the producer’s favourite producer, and his skill is almost hard to convey without playing you his music. In my opinion he’s the best producer there has ever been, and this project is a brilliant showcase. Once again, it has its smash single “The Light”, which is one of my favourite songs of all time, but there is more to this album than that single.
It’s a pleasure to witness the seamless marriage between Common and Dilla who became close friends and even roommates later on in life, and this album is where that unique partnership began. “The Light” is without a doubt a highlight, with its beautiful piano led Bobby Caldwell sample, but its not the only example of sampling genius. One of the best things about the Soulquarians was there ability to challenge each other creatively. Questlove had deemed Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby” as one of few records out there that were simply impossible to sample. It provoked Dilla to give it a go, and what he did with that record is nothing short of gobsmacking. Listen to “Doonit” side by side with “Give it to Me Baby” and how he was able to hear that is amazing.
Common’s the kind of artist who always delivers over amazing instrumentals, and this album plays like Dilla throwing up some of the best beats in years, and Common knocking them out of the park by perfectly hearing the vibe of the track and using his pen to match it. However, Dilla didn’t produce the whole album. Early on we have a track “Cold Blooded” produced by Questlove and none other than jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, which makes for an excellent jazz fusion. Once again, DJ Premier is invited to bless the album with his talent, crafting a beautifully uplifting instrumental for “The 6th Sense”, which could be my favourite DJ Premier beat if you catch me in the right mood. A final track that rarely gets talked about but is worth highlighting is “A Song For Assata”. This is by far Common’s best storytelling track, and its powerful. The song tells the tragic story of the Black Panther Assata Shakur and her struggle for freedom, but the way that Common delivers the story is truly gripping. Common would go on to produce one more truly fantastic album with 2005’s Kanye assisted “Be!”, but for me this album holds the crown as the most important and innovative Common album.
Fantastic, Vol.2 – Slum Village (2000)
It’s no secret that this album’s reputation is owed to the late great J Dilla. Out of all the albums mentioned this one is perhaps the most firmly rooted in Hip Hop, as it’s produced entirely by Dilla using his MPC and some input from fellow Soulquarians. Dilla was first recognised when he handed legendary producer and rapper Q-Tip his Slum Village tape in the mid-nineties. Out of interest, Tip decided to pop the tape in on his tour bus, and his entire world changed. He couldn’t believe the quality and audacity of the beats he was hearing. He spent months playing it for everyone he could, asking them to vouch that he wasn’t alone in thinking whoever “Jay Dee” was, he was “making beats like me, but even better”. That eventually lead to Jay Dee producing a handful of tracks for The Pharcyde in 1995 to great success, and from there he began his rise to industry envy and acclaim. But he never forgot about his Detroit roots, in particular his group Slum Village.
Fantastic, Vol.2 is a slice of producer excellence. Its J Dilla in his soul/jazz – influenced prime, providing 20 beats that could all fairly fight for the number one spot on the album. Now that’s not to discount Baatin and T3’s contribution. This project wouldn’t have the charm it has today without their contributions, but they were definitely aware of the greatness that Dilla’s beats beheld, and so they were reserved with their lyrics. They were self-aware about the lane of hip hop they occupied and didn’t attempt to overpower the beats with bar heavy lyrics, instead they inserted themselves in the songs, creating perfect vibe music. The best examples of this can be seen in “Players” and “Fall in Love”. The former is a soothing, mellow beat that’s utter genius hides away behind simplicity, and the latter is a dusty, east coast classic with its Dilla twists and turns. Fellow Soulquarians enter the smoky atmosphere plenty of times, perfectly cementing themselves in the feel of this special piece of music. Q-Tip provides almost a farewell verse on “Hold Tight” where he encourages his musical peers to strive away at their crafts, and passes the Tribe Called Quest torch over to Slum Village, a gesture that’s grandeur cannot be understated. “Tell Me” is gifted by the instantly recognizable vocals and piano of D’Angelo as he croons the hook in his typical multi-layered fashion that’s yet to run dry, and Common brings a killer verse to the fan favourite “Thelonious” that is also featured on his album, exemplifying the crossover and bond that the Soulquarians shared. This album is a masterclass in production and is an all-time favourite.