Dusty Henry revisits 2000 with a look at the legendary Soulquarian collective.
Dusty Henry revisits 2000 with a look at the legendary Soulquarian collective. They showed the power of real collaboration and letting inspiration light the way.
Written by Dusty Henry.
Audio production by Roddy Nikpour.
Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop
Collectives have been integral to hip-hop long before people started labeling them as “collectives.” Crews, posses, supergroups—whatever you want to call them—bring together different artists to push each other’s creativity. Instead of working on the same piece of music like a traditional band, a collective is more like a community. Artists in collectives usually have their own careers and goals, and they lean on their friends for inspiration, support, and of course collaboration. Just look at Atlanta’s Dungeon Family which kicked off the careers of Outkast, Goodie Mob, and Organized Noize among many others.
[MUSIC CUE: Dungeon Family - “Rollin” ]
Native Tongues is another collective that brought together A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers and more. Their jazz-heavy samples helped define hip-hop in the 90s.
KEXP’s Fresh off the Spaceship podcast is all about Seattle’s Black Constellation collective, which brings together artists from the spacey hip-hop of Shabazz Palaces to the punk aesthetics of OCnotes.
Collectives don’t just uplift the artists. Sometimes, they also ignite full-on musical movements. Such is the case of the Soulquarians.
Like many collectives, there’s often ambiguity in who exactly is a quote-unquote official member. This can lead to tension in some cases—more on that later. In the beginning, our main Soulquarians were Questlove, drummer for The Roots and unofficial music historian.
J Dilla, the producer from Detroit who redefined rhythm for an entire generation of artists.
Songwriter and producer James Poyser who at this point had worked on records for Marvin Gaye, Mariah Carey, and Lauryn Hill, among other Soulquarians acolytes we’ll get into soon.
And of course wunderkind funk and soul songwriter D’Angelo,
D’Angelo is really where this all begins. He was coming off his critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated 1995 debut album Brown Sugar. While searching for the direction he wanted to go next, D’Angelo was obsessed with the music of Jimi Hendrix. It was then that his engineer Russel Elevado, who would work on many of the Soulquarian records, recommended they check out Electric Lady Studios in New York.
Hendrix isn’t the only artist to make history at Electric Lady Studios. It’s also where Stevie Wonder recorded classics like Talking Book and Music of My Mind – some of D’Angelo’s most cherished albums.
D’Angelo and Elevado went to the studio and immediately fell in love. The space was like a time capsule from the 70s. Everything virtually unchanged and packed with vintage gear. The legendary studio had been fairly quiet over the last couple of decades, but that was soon about to change. D’Angelo called in Questlove to play drums on the recordings that would eventually make up the album Voodoo.
In 1997 alone, the group used over 200 reels of tape. The sessions were freeform, almost a spiritual practice, going late into the night. They’d take breaks to watch old VHS tapes of concerts from Prince, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson. They even drew inspiration from old episodes of Soul Train. At this point in the process, another key collaborator stepped in.
Dilla had already made waves as part of the production collective The Ummah. His group Slum Village garnered underground buzz when bootlegs of their unfinished album began circulating between collectors and artists. Dilla wasn’t just creating a new sound but an entirely new sense of rhythm. His tracks would have multiple different rhythms on top of each other. Sometimes they’d even play ahead of or behind the beat. For a drummer like Questlove, it was both confounding and revelatory. And that’s all before getting into Dilla’s sampling technique, which we’d need a whole other podcast to talk about.
When James Poyser joined, the four continued their endless jamming. At some point, they realized that they all shared the same astrological sign – Aquarius.
And thus, the name Soulquarians was born. Soon, more artists started to hear about these magical sessions and started to pop in. Erykah Badu, Common, Bilal, Q-Tip, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, jazz artist Roy Hargrove, and Welsh bassist Pino Palladino all became mainstays of the now bustling studio.
It became a communal affair. All these superstar artists were in Electric Lady Studios, recording albums simultaneously and hopping on each other’s albums. It was a spirit of spontaneity and inspiration fueled by classic soul sounds mixed with innovative new ideas. At this point, the music slowly started to make its way to the public. This brings us to the year 2000, a landmark year for Soulquarians. That year saw the release of four pivotal albums from artists in the crew, including D’Angelo’s long-awaited Voodoo.
Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun.
Common’s Like Water for Chocolate.
And Fantastic Vol. 2 from J Dilla’s group Slum Village. An album that was recorded before the Soulquarians came together, but was edited to include contributions from the crew.
While each album sounds different, you can feel that signature Soulquarian connective tissue throughout each release. This stunning mixture of soul, hip-hop, R&B, and wide-eyed experimentalism all fused together. Critics tried to label it as “neo-soul,” a title the Soulquarians all but dismissed. It was a predecessor to modern terms like “alternative R&B” and “conscious rap.” The sound they were making wasn’t an alternative, though. It was a continued evolution of everything that came before it. The technical advancements that came with hip-hop infused with the live instrumentation and spirit of soul and R&B.
The Soulquarians sessions led to more music up through 2002. Questlove says that the demise of the collective started with a photoshoot and interview with Vibe Magazine. The article attributed the Soulquarian title to all of the artists we’ve mentioned here, which led some people to infer that it made Quest out to be some sort of bandleader. In reality, it was only the original four who called themselves Soulquarians. The other artists felt like they’d been put into a box they didn’t want to be in. And slowly the sessions stopped and everyone began going their own ways.
All the artists went on to have illustrious careers. It’d be more than a decade before D’Angelo would release another record—Black Messiah in 2014.
To this day, Questlove and James Poyser still perform and record together in The Roots. They also serve as the house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Tragically, J Dilla passed away in 2006 from cardiac arrest due to complications from Lupus. Just three days after releasing his monumental album, Donuts.
The legacy of the Soulquarians extends beyond all of the influential records they made. The Soulquarians showed us what happens when artists come together to lift up each other’s ideas. Their reign was a rare stretch of time when artists could let themselves be consumed by inspiration and let their ideas flow. An idea that’s not limited to just these amazing acts, but something we can all open ourselves up to.
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