THE SOULQUARIANS: A FORGOTTEN DYNASTY?
Only students of history reminisce on certain dynasties. We won’t have kids spontaneously discussing the Xia reign, or the implications of the infamous Satsuma Rebellion, or the Motown era that dominated the airwaves in the 60s and 70s. The study of history is just not on the agenda in this day and age. For one its boring, and well, boredom is never on the agenda for youngens. Ok, that’s it for my grand introduction to this blog. I couldn’t think of anything else, because its just facts, dynasties come and go and apart from the nerds, everybody else just, forgets.
There was a time when the chemistry of A Tribe Called Quest was in limbo, particularly with Q-Tip and Phife’s constant clashes. This meant both men had some serious decisions to make. So, heading into 96, Phife is moving to Atlanta, and its almost 3 years since Midnight Marauders dropped. So, Tip makes a big call, he enlists his cousin Consequence to share the bulk of the lyrical work on Tribe’s upcoming project (Beats, Rhymes & Life), and brings in Slum Village member Jay Dee aka J Dilla to team up with him and Ali Shaheed Muhammad to shape the sound for the next Tribe project. All of this was excellently documented in the Michael Rapaport directed doccie “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” released in 2011.
The chemistry between the 3 blossomed and resulted in what the industry came to know as The Ummah (Arabic for “Community”). And although Beats, Rhymes & Life was criticized by Tribe purists as being a detour from a previous formula that garnered them success, the minimalist approach they went for paid off and the album went platinum, becoming A Tribe Called Quest’s most commercially successful album. The Source praised the Ummah’s sound in their review of the album citing how they “use samples as instruments in themselves”. Personally, I really love the album. So, despite the personal turmoil that rocked the group, musically, there was something big brewing. Following Beats, Rhymes & Life the Ummah went on to produce for the likes of Busta Rhymes, Keith Murray, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Mint Condition, Whitney Houston etc.
Enter the late 90s, at the height of the millennium meltdown, where Y2K and end of the world was on everybody’s lips. The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson links up with incredibly gifted neo-soul singer D’Angelo at the Jimi Hendrix built Electric Lady Studios in New York, as they start working on the follow up to the platinum selling debut Brown Sugar(1995). The energy at the recording sessions becomes so intense that it grabs the attention of many like minded creatives. And it’s not long until Mos Def, Q-Tip, J Dilla, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Bilal, trumpet player Roy Hargrove and multi-instrumentalist James Poyser all follow suit by walking through the doors of the Electric Lady to feed their curiosity. The result? A new race of alien life forms the music world came to know as the Soulquarians (most of the members were Aquarians, go figure). I mean, not much else needs to be said about what followed this voltron moment, the cohesion of styles and ideas was as organic as they come. Let’s put it this way, out of the 11 releases that were concocted by the Soulquarians sessions, 5 went Gold and 3 Platinum:
(1999) The Roots – Things Fall Apart > Platinum
(1999) Mos Def – Black on Both Sides > Gold
(1999) Q-Tip – Amplified > Gold
(2000) D’Angelo – Voodoo > Platinum
(2000) Common – Like Water for Chocolate > Gold
(2000) Slum Village – Fantastic, Vol. 2
(2000) Erykah Badu – Mama’s Gun > Platinum
(2001) Bilal – 1st Born Second
(2002) Talib Kweli – Quality > Gold
(2002) The Roots – Phrenology > Gold
(2002) Common – Electric Circus
But like they say, all good things must come to an end (I hate that idiom with a passion). And in the case of the Soulquarians, in the most stupidest of ways. Vibe Magazine approached Questlove to do a solo piece in their September 2000 issue, but being the humble brother he is, he decided to use the piece as an opportunity to rather get the crew exposure. The photo taken for the spread is considered legendary, but upon reading the article, many members felt that it suggested that Questlove is the de facto leader and they actually work for him. Which obviously was rubbish but hey, ego’s clashed and the group silently broke up in the following years. There’s been suggestions by Common that there could be reunion works but nothing ever surfaced, particularly since the untimely death of Dilla in 2006.
Ali Shaheed Muhammad moved on and formed the groundbreaking Lucy Pearl with Raphael Saadiq, Q-Tip went on to give us a masterpiece with The Renaissance, Erykah Badu pioneered and shaped the neo-soul genre further, J Dilla continued to revolutionize the art of beat making until his death, individually the members further progressed and impacted the culture greatly. But, its still so hard to let go of the “what could’ve beens”. Was the demise of the Soulquarians the beginning of the end for high profile musical supergroups? Probably. But thank God for history, we can go back to the glory years through their music with the touch of a button. They should be proud of Kendrick’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” though, it wreaks of that early 2000 blueprint.
Written by: Jay Seth