A few weeks ago, an important literary event went unnoticed in the literary world: Midnight Marauders turned twenty. Midnight, the third album of legendary hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, is both a lyrical document of postindustrial life in New York and a master class in the art of sampling. The title track “Midnight” is as vivid a scene of the nighttime streets as any in American literature, not just in hip hop.
In terms of African American poetry, specifically, “Midnight” also completes a “historical loop” (I’m borrowing this term from Jeff Chang) between Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (1919), Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi” (1962) and itself, connecting the struggles of the Great Migration and Civil Rights generations to the Hip Hop Generation. “Midnight” reveals a less spectacular violence than anti-lynching poems, but a violence that is no less damaging, no less effective. The song testifies to the official state harassment and constant surveillance that pursued black youth in urban war zones during the Golden Age of Hip Hop, as well as the creative means these youth devised to resist it– and by resistance, I mean they were simply trying to live. The characters in “Midnight” are not trying to integrate the races or challenge white supremacy, just eat and talk to girls and relax. Still, at night, the fight comes to them.
“Jake be gettin illy when the sun get dark,” the opening lyrics announce. This phrase frames and haunts the song the way police haunt young black lives, and freights a subtext of police brutality against poor black and brown people, though no scenes of brutality are actually depicted in “Midnight.” The line is like a weight that gives gravity even to the lightest moments, from the leisure of illicit gambling and smoking weed, to the frustrated sexual conquest of a “shorty” who won’t stop talking about “mind upliftment and being positive.” For fans of Tribe, this is a funny scene, since Tribe and their larger Native Tongues crew are often credited with introducing a powerful positive tone into hip hop rhyme in the wake of West Coast revolutionary rap’s tortured rise to simultaneously broad media coverage and widespread censorship.
“Midnight” conveys the mundane sense of threat that pursues “the ghetto child” both when a cop is actually present, as well as when no cops are visible. In the first few lines alone, Q-Tip combines the wit, wisdom and social commentary of Gangstarr’s “Just to Get a Rep” with a new kind of critique of racist state violence. “Midnight” is not a tale of the corrupt cop, like LL Cool J’s “Illegal Search,” but is more in the tradition of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” also released in 1993, which communicates the massive violence and police brutality that attends urban life by describing a “good day” as one where nothing really, in fact, happens; as opposed to the usual, bad day, where friends die, smog chokes basketball players at the park, police harass the protagonist. A day where “he didn’t even have to use [his] AK” is a good one. (Props to Zero Star for making this point first).
Hip hop might be the most important development in poetic art in the past half-century, but literary scholars are only just now coming to grips with this. (Harvard recently established a fellowship in the name of Nasir Jones. Eventually there may be endowed chairs in Hip Hop Studies and/or Literature. We’ll see). In any case, when I listen back to “Midnight” and Midnight, it confirms one thing for me: Q-Tip is a genius. He takes the listener on a cinematic tour of the nighttime, and in less than a verse he guides us from a dice game to a bodega to bedroom to cipher to police pat down to a meditation on the immense beauty of the midnight sky–seamlessly, and seemingly effortlessly. It is a mark of its achievement that even in the wake of opuses like Illmatic, and mixtape masterpieces like Elzhi’s “Boomerang Slang” (also a cinematic whirlwind through the interwoven lives lived at night), “Midnight” remains a great rhyme. It’s taken me 20 years to realize just how great.