By: Jordan Ferguson
Imagine it’s November 9, 1993. You’re a 14-year-old rap fan in New York City. You just received your allowance, a cool twenty bucks in your pocket, itching to get blown at the record store. You’d have quite the dilemma that particular Tuesday: invest in the third album by a trio from Queens at the height of its musical powers, or the impressive debut of a grimy, aggressive collective of unknowns out of Staten Island.
If 1993 was the last great year in hip-hop (it was), November was its greatest month, and the 9th its greatest day, with the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Tribe and Wu-Tang were the Team Edward or Team Jacob of New York hip-hop and what you preferred said everything about your taste, your attitude, your philosophy of what hip-hop should be.
Rap in the early 90s was riding a creative zenith it would never repeat again. It was perhaps the last moment before the soiled fingers of commerce started rooting around the culture. The early Def Jam acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys had dropped the musical bomb onto the national consciousness, only for its impact to recede back underground as Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses sold boatloads of records through late-80’s. By 1991, Nirvana unleashed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the world and the sounds of Seattle dominated the musical conversation. Rap was free to stretch its legs because, for the moment, the mainstream wasn’t paying attention. An (abridged) list of notable releases from 1991 to 1994 reads like nominees for the platonic ideal of hip-hop: The Low End Theory. The Chronic. Strictly for My N****Z. Mecca and The Soul Brother. Midnight Marauders. 36 Chambers. Doggystyle. Ready to Die. Illmatic. Rap in the 90’s felt like rock must have during the 1960’s, where numerous acts challenged themselves and each other to reach for greater creative heights. And for me, to stay with the analogy, A Tribe Called Quest were my Beatles.
Midnight Marauders took the formula Tribe tested out on their acclaimed sophomore album The Low End Theory and refined it into diamond precision. The loops were pristine, the chemistry between MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg was at its highest, the drums banged harder and the bass frequencies were downright subterranean: I will never be able to fully express to you how it felt to hear “Award Tour,” for the first time in ’93. Nothing, nothing hit harder than “Award Tour.”
One could spend an afternoon arguing which song was the album’s best; every track, except maybe “8 Million Stories,” is a disgusting success on every level. Even the album cover is a perfect document of “What Hip-Hop Is in 1993,” featuring a Sgt. Pepper’s-esque collage of the group’s heroes and contemporaries. To this day, I consider it the closest thing to a perfect hip-hop album top-to-bottom, as clichéd as that is to say.
But even though I think Midnight Marauders is the superior listening experience, without question Wu-Tang made the greater cultural impact. Sure, Onyx had already done the aggressive mean-mugging and The Fu-Schnickens had utilized Eastern influences, but the Wu felt like they lived it. There was no off-switch for those cats, and that energy, that hunger, ran through every second of 36 Chambers. If Tribe’s production was meticulous order, the RZA’s work on the Wu’s debut was organized chaos. It was cinematic, enthralling and terrifying, snare drums caked over with two inches of dust and out-of-tune pianos. Lyrically, as endearing as the old school boasts of Q-Tip and Phife could be, the Clan were superior rappers, with a flavor for every taste: Raekwon’s weary street soldier on “Can It Be All So Simple?” Method Man’s agile flow dancing around the pocket on “Shame…” the GZA’s marching orders on “Clan In Da Front”, the confrontational absurdity of Ol’ Dirty Bastard every time he showed up. And that’s just behind the mic. The kung-fu soundbites, multiple aliases for the members and heavily obscured lyrical references made for a puzzle box of an album with a preexisting mythology. It was like walking into a movie in progress and having to decipher the character relationships and primary conflict on your own, the MCs snarling their fanged gold fronts in music videos daring you to try.
The RZAs insistence that the Clan wouldn’t sign as a group unless each member was free to pursue individual solo offers from competing companies was a masterstroke in record label politics, which instantly turned the crew from Shaolin into an empire: Method Man, Ol’ Dirty, Raekwon, the GZA and Ghostface Killah would all release acclaimed solo records and establish themselves as monster artists in their own right.
But despite the commercial and critical success of both albums, they each marked the closing of a chapter in different ways. Tribe would limp along for two more albums before breaking up in 1998, but growing up as men and growing apart as artists began to strain the natural chemistry between the two MCs, and they never recaptured the relaxed and confident cool of their third release.
As for Wu-Tang, their checkmate move may have also been their undoing. Nine MCs with nine solo careers meant nine management teams looking out for their clients’ best interests. Rap is a game of egos; you can’t put that many strong personalities in a room together and expect it to hold together for long. While the group’s follow up, 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever, has strong moments – lead single “Triumph” being arguably the group’s best full-roster effort – the continuous flow of solo projects, and onslaught of affiliated releases from wannabes and weed carriers further diluted the Wu brand. Keeping up with all of them became exhausting; hearing stories of Cappadonna driving a gypsy cab through Baltimore to support himself as his crewmates became superstars was heartbreaking.
Both acts are doing a handful of live dates this month, the Wu on an anniversary tour (hitting Toronto November 28 at the Kool Haus), Tribe scheduled to play their final shows ever on the New York dates of Kanye’s Yeezus tour. I won’t be attending either. I don’t regret it. Like any cherished music from one’s adolescence, those albums are moments frozen in amber. Within five years, the shiny suit, bling era would engulf the culture, at least what the mainstream knew of it, and hip-hop would never be the same, for good or ill. But on one unprecedented, unrepeatable day in 1993, we were like Dave Bowman at the end of 2001, shooting beyond the infinite, again reminded of everything this music could do in the hands of raw, unbridled, madly creative geniuses.
Jordan Ferguson always ensures his neck is protected. He keeps it rollin’ at poetryforgravediggers.wordpress.com
 Q-Tip would later admit he was inspired by what he heard on the track “Don’t Walk Away” by JADE, a one-hit wonder R&B trio.
 It slightly edges out Illmatic because of the “Tour Guide,” the automaton who pops her head to offer commentary throughout the album, giving it a sense of unity that Nas’s debut is missing.
 The choice to have the group appear masked on the cover for 36 Chambers was dictated by necessity: more than a few members of the group hadn’t shown up for the shoot.