If you’ve been plugged into these pages over the last couple of decades, The Soulquarians — or some thread of their influence — likely led you here. In fact, so intertwined are the origins and trajectories of Okayplayer and this roster of polished musicians, producers and, emcees, that objectivity is damn-near impossible.
But it wasn’t a miraculous coincidence that the swelling vanguard of mid-to-late-90s hip-hop and r&b stars — comprising D’Angelo, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Questlove, James Poyser, Yasiin Bey, Q-Tip, Bilal, and Talib Kweli — all at once landed in the house that Jimi Hendrix built.
To hear The Roots’ drummer tell it in a 2014 Red Bull Music Academy lecture, prior to the five-year, dozen-or-so album, stretch in Electric Lady Studios, The Soulquarians were all friendly rivals keeping each other sharp and ambitious. Questlove won D’Angelo over by sabotaging his own set with an impromptu drum-fill from a fairly obscure Prince side project. After weeks of nudging Q-Tip to meet a prodigious teenage producer from Detroit, Amp Fiddler cleared the lane for Dilla to slide his idol a beat tape that haunted whoever was lucky enough to hear it. And it wouldn’t be long before Dilla’s off-kilter cadence had taken all of their peers under its super-swung spell.
When the moment arrived to record the follow-up to D’Angelo’s debut, Brown Sugar, the core members claimed Electric Lady Studios, an iconic Greenwich Village recording facility, as their central hub, dojo, and dormitory. Between 1997 and 2002, a rotating cast of astute musicians, revered emcees, and prolific producers, bounced between the studio’s rooms, lending and borrowing sounds to whoever may have needed it at the moment. (Though that appears to have been mostly a process of putting dibs on Dilla beats before anyone else could.) The Motor City producer’s unquantized knock was the revolution in rhythm all Soulquarian suites were built on. The muddy undercurrent to a fertile and organic turn-of-the-century movement.
With Poyser’s gospel chops giving grace to the keys, Roy Hargrove’s (RIP) horn arrangements providing understated punctuations, and industry vet Pino Palladino manning the low-end, the Soulquarians were as sturdy a studio band as one could have conceived. They defined new standards in composition by defying any and all genre parameters.
Albums recorded during this period — Things Fall Apart, Mama’s Gun, 1st Born Second, Like Water For Chocolate, Phrenology and Voodoo — are not only bound by their allegiance to Dilla’s woozy wizardry, but a profound reverence for the purest sources of creation. Art, spirituality, and a deep, virtually unscalable, love for their community. Sentiments Dilla embodied and passed on to the best of current and subsequent generations.
As a bit of a primer, we’ve prepared a playlist (curated by our own Michael Eric Gonik, aka ZO) that celebrates the legacy and longevity of the Soulquarian institution.
Hear the first installment of Okayplayer’s Family Affair series below.
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