As D’Angelo’s seminal Voodoo turns 20, we look at the best albums from the collective whose members included J Dilla, Questlove, and Erykah Badu
Even if you don’t recognise the ‘Soulquarians’ name, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with the people involved: D’Angelo, Questlove, and J Dilla were all founding members of the hip hop-informed neo-soul collective, with artists like Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and more later joining their ranks. The Soulquarians were known for their intense collaborations, technically ambitious music, and their progressive, good-natured lyricism. They also played a wealth of instruments, gravitating away from the sample-heavy sound of late 90s hip hop in favour of the intricate melodies, dynamics, and rich textures of live instrumentation.
The Soulquarians first formed in 1996 when D’Angelo, Questlove, and J Dilla (all Aquarians, hence the name) collaborated on D’Angelo’s Voodoo and The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, bringing a cast of like-minded bandmates and colleagues with them. In late 1996, the rotating dozen-or-so musicians took over the entirety of Electric Lady Studios, a studio Jimi Hendix built in New York City, and lived there for over half a decade. They collaborated a lot, often working on three albums at a time and using all three of Electric Lady Studios’ recording rooms at once, swapping songs between albums even late into recording (the beat behind D’Angelo’s “Chicken Grease”, for example, was originally recorded for Common’s Like Water For Chocolate).
The Soulquarians era was criminally underrated. Looking at the collective’s discography today, it’s easy to see the link between them and the likes of Anderson .Paak and Thundercat, while they’re also a noted influence for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and perhaps the reason modern jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington and soul queen Celeste feel contemporary – it isn’t an exaggeration to see the Soulquarians as the gatekeeper to the live instrumentation, and jazz and soul influence within contemporary hip hop.
The Soulquarians began a run of stellar albums in 1999 that continued into 2000, arguably peaking with D’Angelo’s Voodoo – which just turned 20 years old, marking the middle point of the collective’s winning streak. As we sit in the midst of these albums turning 20, we picked seven of the Soulquarians’ best records, presented in chronological order.
THE ROOTS, THINGS FALL APART
Original release date: February 23, 1999
The Roots’ breakthrough, platinum-selling Things Fall Apart was the first album released in the Soulquarians era. Taking its title from Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, which tells the stories of pre-colonial life in south east Nigeria, Things Fall Apart features vocals from Common, Mos Def, and Erykah Badu, keyboards from D’Angelo and James Poyser, and production by J Dilla. Together, they created an album as eclectic as it is iconic. Things Fall Apart shows how soulful hip hop can feel with live instrumentation, and it took the Roots from niche appreciation among jazz-rap fans to the world-renowned, best-selling ensemble they are today.
Essential track: “You Got Me”
MOS DEF, BLACK ON BOTH SIDES
Original release date: October 12, 1999
Black on Both Sides is more of a conventional hip hop record than The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, but no less adventurous, exploring Brooklyn rap (“Mathematics”), DC hardcore (“Rock N Roll”), and Aretha Franklin’s Southern soul (“Ms. Fat Booty”). Mos Def was previously one half of the underrated Black Star along with fellow Soulquarian Talib Kweli, and his buttery East Coast flow and infectiously s(l)ick bass was ahead of its time – his lyrics cover pollution, the economy, and self-care, among other themes that have since become common in 21st century rap. Mos Def explores high concept, metaphysical ideas throughout the album: “People be askin’ me all the time, ‘Yo Mos, what’s gettin ready to happen with hip hop?’ … I tell ’em, ‘You know what’s gonna happen with hip hop? Whatever’s happening with us’.” Next to Nas’s Illmatic, Black on Both Sides is regarded as one of the pivotal hip hop solo debuts.
Essential track: “UMI Says”
Original release date: November 30, 1999
20 years ago, when he was still just 29, Q-Tip had already fronted and produced five A Tribe Called Quest records, three of which are among alternative hip hop’s finest moments. He brought this experimental confidence to Electric Lady Studios and the Soulquarians, and although Amplified isn’t my personal favourite Soulquarians record, it has its moments of beauty: “Let’s Ride” is one of the best tracks that Q-Tip has ever been a part of, while “Wait Up” is a striking track with a very different sound to the Tribe years, where gritty drums are met by a bright piano, poppy brass, and pulsing bass synths. It wouldn’t sound out of place on N.E.R.D.’s debut album In Search Of…, which came out three years later. Q-Tip was one of the Soulquarians’ most prolific members, featuring on other albums as both an MC and a producer. He was like a mentor figure – and one who’d eventually be eclipsed by his students.
Essential track: “Let’s Ride”
Original release date: January 25, 2000
One of the greatest albums of the 2000s, D’Angelo’s second studio album stands in the middle of the Soulquarians’ 20-year anniversaries, and belongs alongside Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun (we’ll get to that) as one of the pivotal records of the neo-soul genre. D’Angelo recorded Voodoo to 2” tape, a method dating back to 1952, with instruments including the same Fender Rhodes electric piano that Stevie Wonder played on albums Music of My Mind and Talking Book – both of which were also recorded in Electric Lady Studios. The result is an album that tangibly recalls the gritty Motown era. Soulful as it is, the collective’s hip hop influence still shines through in spades. “Devil’s Pie”, for instance, contains one of hip hop’s greatest basslines, but in true Soulquarian form, is lyrically critical of the genre’s vice-heavy culture. Alongside Things Fall Apart and Mama’s Gun, Voodoo was one of the three Soulquarian albums that went platinum, but the only one to ever win a Grammy.
Essential track: “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”
COMMON, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE
Original release date: March 28, 2000
Most of the Soulquairians artists released their best records while they were still part of the collective, suggesting the collective were often better than the sum of their parts. Common is one of these artists. Like Water for Chocolate, its title taken from a novel by Laura Esquivel, refers to a Spanish expression for when someone has reached their boiling point. However – as with much of Common’s work – he adopted the phrase to convey Afrocentric themes and a quest for universal love. Where Mos Def showcases the versatile world of music that rappers don’t often utilise, Common showcases the need for peace and unity among hip hop fans. This makes for an album full of social commentary – it’s often hard to know if you’re nodding in agreement or nodding to the beat (usually both). Like Water for Chocolate is a favourite of Loyle Carner’s, and with tracks like “The Light”, it’s easy to see why. “There are times, when you’ll need someone / I will be by your side / There is a light, that shines / Special for you, and me,” is a timeless and comforting chorus.
Essential track: “The Light”
SLUM VILLAGE, FANTASTIC, VOL. 2
Original release date: June 13, 2000
Fantastic, Vol. 2 shows the Soulquarians’ production at its best, with a masterful push and pull between rhythm and beats – which is a good thing, as lyrically, this is a far less refined album (“Three is the magic number, ask my partner / I be servin’ that ass like a bartender,” are some of J Dilla’s bars from the track “Climax”, for instance). Still, the album is a musical masterclass, with Dilla, the stand-out member, at a peak. There’s no better place to hear him making songs, rather than beat tracks – his use of the Akai MPC 3000 sampler has been compared to how Hendrix played his guitar, while Questlove, who’s responsible for most of the live drums you hear across these albums, credited Dilla as a major influence on his drumming style.
Essential track: “Fall in Love”
ERYKAH BADU, MAMA’S GUN
Original release date: November 21, 2000
Erykah Badu is a unique artist in the Soulquarians canon, both in that her most popular album came before she joined the collective, and that she’s the only ‘she’ in the group. Badu was also one of the later members to join the Soulquarians, but she embodies much of what they were all about – her sound is gritty and painfully raw, oozing technique and drawing comparisons with Motown and jazz, most specifically Billie Holiday. Mama’s Gun blends Badu’s soul and the collective energy of the ’Quarians, pushing their sound into more avant-garde territory. It’s tender, sophisticated, beautiful, dark, and powerful from start to end, discussing Afrofuturism and the cosmos. The album is kept together by a Soulquarian rhythm section – Questlove on drums, James Poyser on piano, and Pino Palladino on bass – who explore their shared musical language with incredible nuance.
Essential track: “Orange Moon”