In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: songs from 1993.
Twenty years later, it’s still mind-boggling that A Tribe Called Quest’s essential Midnight Marauders and Wu-Tang Clan’s crucial Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) were released on the same day: Nov. 9, 1993. Although Midnight Marauders is generally viewed as Quest’s second-best album—with The Low End Theory taking top honors—it has most of my favorite Tribe songs, as I wrote a couple years ago in My Favorite Music Year: 1993.
The album technically begins with the robotic introduction of “Midnight Marauders Tour Guide,” but the first song on the album is “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” whose opening moments rank among my favorite beginnings to any song, ever. Over a sample of Woody Shaw’s “Blackstone Legacy,” Phife Dawg says, “Linden Boulevard, represent, represent-zent / A Tribe Called Quest represent, represent-zent,” and it’s off to the races.
The song’s references to Bob Marley and the late anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko are right there in the title, though less overt in the lyrics, which spend more time boasting about Phife and Q-Tip’s abilities than communicating some kind of grander message. That’s fine, because Tribe excelled at balancing Native Tongues’ thoughtfulness with streetwise irreverence—the positivity seldom felt preachy (à la Arrested Development), and the lyrics were always clever (aside from Phife dropping “Indian giver,” but even progressive people have their missteps).
“Stir It Up (Steve Biko)” was never released as a single, and Midnight Marauders’’ third song, “Award Tour,” is undoubtedly the album’s hit. But “Stir It Up” perfectly sets the table for one of the great hip-hop albums to follow the genre’s supposed golden era. And, as the last great Tribe album, it’s bittersweet: The group continued for a few more years before an acrimonious split and periodic, paycheck-cashing reunions—which are supposedly ending in a couple of weeks with some shows supporting Kanye West. But back in November of ’93, Tribe was at the peak of its powers.