American musician, record producer, disc jockey, filmmaker, music journalist, and actor Questlove Ahmir Khalib Thompson, of the American hip hop band The Roots, plays on stage during JazzFest at The Knitting Factory in New York, New York, circa 2000.

American musician, record producer, disc jockey, filmmaker, music journalist, and actor Questlove Ahmir Khalib Thompson, of the American hip hop band The Roots, plays on stage during JazzFest at The Knitting Factory in New York, New York, circa 2000.

Photo by Michael Macioce/Getty Image.

The Soulquarians Quietly Won the Late ‘90s, Early 2000s Rap War

With a sound that was carved out in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, the Soulquarians have influenced the underground and mainstream alike, bridging a commercial and aesthetic divide that once seemed insurmountable.

This article has been handpicked to be included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative.

By 1996, when Questlove and D’Angelo began working on sessions at Electric Lady Studios for the R&B classic, Voodoo, rap music in particular was on the cusp of a genre-splintering identity crisis. As mainstream rap began to capture more and more real estate on the Billboard and Soundscan charts independent labels like Rawkus, Fondle Em’ and Raw Shack would go onto lead the New York front of the indie/underground revolution, while Seattle’s Conception, and California indies like Outhouse and Bomb Hip-Hop were making noise west of the Mississippi. As both underground and mainstream rap were gaining strength simultaneously, an ideological schism emerged between the two. For underground rap fans and many artists, the divide between the popular rap played on daytime radio and the rap played on late night mixshows was not just aesthetic. This friction was tantamount to a moral crisis and the artists and executives that navigated the industry were cast as the villains in the story of hip-hop’s exploitation by commercialism.

In his 2013 book, Mo Meta Blues, Questlove recalls facing the prospect of working with JAY-Z on his 2001 MTV Unplugged album with great anxiety. “Even though I was developing a tremendous amount of respect for him as an artist, I still felt like he was the antichrist to a certain kind of hip-hop fan.” The crux of this conflict can be gleaned from the lyrics from Black Star’s 1998 album cut “Children’s Story.” Using the 1988 Slick Rick classic as its inspiration, Yasiin Bey tells the story of an aspiring MC who is lured into the maw of commercialism by a literal devil.

“Once upon a time, not long ago
When people wore Adidas and lived life slow
When laws were stern, and justice stood
And people was behavin' like hip-hop was good
There lived a little boy who was misled
By a little Shaytan, and this is what he said
"Me and you, kid, we gonna make some cash
Jackin' old beats and makin' the dash..."

Luke much of the underground rap being made around this time, the moral message of “Children’s Story” was clear: underground hip-hop was inherently virtuous and mainstream rap was evil. Looking back on that time, this moralizing and handwringing can be chalked up to the growing pains of a culture wrestling with its complicated relationship with art and commerce. Despite being signed to a major label, The Roots had long made it clear what side of the divide they were loyal to with Black Thought even lamenting on their 1996 single “What They Do” that “the principals of true hip-hop have been forsaken.” The Soulquarians — a loose cadre of musicians that initially included Questlove, D’Angelo, J Dilla and keyboardist James Poyser — would spend six years producing a handful of powerful albums in the midst of hip-hop’s great ideological divide.

Common’s polarizing release

The Roots - What They Do (Official Music Video)

As a genre rife with generational angst and regional parochialisms, rap music is, by nature, deeply polarizing. It’s difficult to find consensus on the specifics of rap music history and its canon, and debate is practically baked into our discourse around the music. In the winter of 2002, Common released his fifth studio album, Electric Circus, and looking back on it, one would be hard-pressed to remember a more polarizing and aggressively despised album from such a beloved and respected artist. Executive produced by Questlove, the album featured contributions from Soulquarians J Dilla, James Poyser, and D’ Angelo, guitarist Jeff Lee Johnson, Erykah Badu, and more. A wave of immediate disapproval with the album hit internet message boards early. Okayplayer’s The Lesson board was a spot where music heads would regularly log on to talk shit and share ideas about music with people from around the world. With its overt nods to rock and psychedelia (“Jimi Was a Rockstar,” “I Got a Right Ta,” and “Electric Wire Hustle”), flowery love songs, “Star *69 (PS With Love),” and an unlikely feature from Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier, it was clear upon first impression that Electric Circus was a departure from anything that Common — or most rappers — had done before. The reception on the message boards was divided between folks who thought that Common had or was actively trying to torpedo his career and others who were underwhelmed. The album certainly had its appreciators but the noise from the album's detractors was loud and unrelenting.

In the years following Electric Circus and the controversy that surrounded it, Questlove in particular held out hope that history would be kind to the album. In a 2006 Wax Poetic article published after Dilla’s death, Questlove said: “I feel somewhat vindicated now because the Sa-Ra cats and Platinum Pied Pipers are embracing the Kraftwerk side of things,” a reference to the album’s leftfield, experimental aesthetic.

The influence of The Soulquarians

Common with a blue head in front of a bunch of musical artists.Album cover for 'Electric Circus' by Common.MCA Records.

By the end of the decade, a new musical movement would appear to vindicate Electric Circus and the vitality of the sound it pioneered. When J Dilla passed away on February 10th, 2006, the music community mourned deeply. At 32 years old, Dilla’s death seemed particularly tragic as it seemed like his power and notoriety as a producer was on the ascent. In his wake, the loose, and distinctly “off” rhythmic aesthetic that he carved out for himself would serve as a template for a new generation of producers. In Los Angeles, young beatmakers like Flying Lotus, Ras G and Teebs were taking Dilla’s influence farther out into the cosmos, crafting beats that had a rhythmic complexity and dreamy textures reminiscent of Dilla’s finest work. Concurrently, a wave of artists like J*Davey, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Muhsinah were putting a fresh, progressive spin on R&B. Like the LA beatmakers, this new R&B sound took clear inspiration from Dilla and benefitted from the artistic space that Electric Circus and The Soulquarians helped open up. For hip-hop, Dilla has become a patron saint of beatmakers everywhere and the influence of the Soulquarians has expanded like an ever-growing web covering all corners of hip-hop. Kanye West — a figure who navigated both sides of the divide by his association with JAY-Z and Rocafella Records and Soulquarians like Common and Talib Kweli — would go on to dominate the latter part of the last two decades of music. The Roots are an established legacy band and young artists everywhere continue to pull inspiration from those old records that were made at Electric Lady Studios.

Looking back over the two decades since the unofficial crew “disbanded,” The Soulquarians’ body of work has not only been glowingly revisited, the influence of those records has only grown. If you take a look at hip-hop, R&B, jazz, and beyond, the influence of The Soulquarians has reshaped the landscape of contemporary music. The sound carved out in the late ‘90s and early 2000s has influenced the underground and mainstream alike, bridging a commercial and aesthetic divide that once seemed insurmountable. At the end of the day, mainstream hip-hop and the corporations that produced it may have ultimately “won” the battle of commerce and industry but the music of The Soulquarians has aged gracefully with its influence spread widely.

John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.