Retrospective: The Soulquarians

By @TrueGodImmortal

In the late 90s, a collective was born. With some amazing vocalists, great instrumentalists, producers, rappers, and more, The Soulquarians were born. With names like Questlove, James Poyser, Q-Tip, Mos Def and many more, they would galvanize the culture and the world over by providing their brand of "Neo-Soul" alternative music. The name derived from the founders of this collective sharing the same astrological sign, as J. Dilla, D'Angelo, Questlove and Poyser are each an Aquarius. With the name in play, the members set, they would create or contribute heavily to a string of albums during the 1999-2002 time period.

With names like Dave Chappelle tied to them, as well as legendary rappers like the aforementioned Q-Tip and Common within this collective, one could say the Soulquarians is the direct descendent, or rather the evolution of The Ummah. However you choose to look at it, the Soulquarians were a force in music and in some ways, they are greatly missed and needed. In today's shallow music industry, we need more collectives such as this crafting art together, and with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and all of them still closely associated, perhaps a reunion or a full fledged return is needed. Today, we look at the history of the Soulquarians, the albums they contributed to, and what could be if they existed today or made a return (with a new member or two).

*Albums, Electric Lady Studios, And History
-We know very well that the Soulquarians were vital to albums like Common's Like Water For Chocolate, The Roots' Things Fall Apart, and many more. What made those albums so special was the sound. In hip hop and R&B, drum programming and sampling had become the wave, utilized heavily in albums from Common and Q-Tip/Tribe Called Quest previously also. There was always a jazz element underlying in the Common albums, and of course we're aware of the contributions to jazzy hip hop that Tribe made. With The Soulquarians, conventional hip hop went out the window and conventional R&B went out the window, reminding us of the origin using live instrumentation within the music. It was groundbreaking to say the least, though not necessarily new, as figurehead of the collective, Questlove, was already employing this in The Roots music. However, to hear it so consistent in hip hop was not the norm and that was necessary at the time.

When The Soulquarians came about officially, one could say it started around The Roots' Things Fall Apart. Though there were collaborations previously between members, the starting point would be around then, and their movement would grow. A bassist named Pino Palladino joined the fold, and Mos Def was also closely associated with the collective, as was Talib Kweli. Though the Soulquarians wouldn't handle the bulk of the production on the Blackstar, Mos Def, or Reflection Eternal albums, one has to wonder what would have came about if they did. There was also Roy Hargrove who usually handled trumpet duties for the band, and in a way, he was one of the more vital pieces. The sounds of horns in music are without a doubt one of the most grand sounds you could ever have and when we think about albums like Voodoo, Mama's Gun, and more, we realize how important it was.

Speaking of which, after the release of Things Fall Apart, they would contribute some to a Slum Village album, Fantastic Vol. 2 , due in part to J. Dilla being a member of that group. After Slum Village got blessed with some Soulquarians greatness, we would then enter into what I feel is the best album from the collective and the best album of the 2000s, as far as Neo-Soul and R&B is concerned, D'Angelo's Voodoo. Though Raphael Saadiq assisted with the huge hit "Untitled" aka "How Does It Feel", the rest of the work could be attributed to The Soulquarians including the glorious "Send It On", which is a top 5 D'Angelo song. Voodoo was mostly recorded in Electric Lady Studios, infamous for being the house built by the legendary Jimi Hendrix. What probably fueled the creativity even more was that other albums from The Soulquarians were being recorded there as well, such as Common's Like Water For Chocolate and Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, all released in 2000. This was the height of the Soulquarians, as all three albums are certified classics, and they seemingly came in succession. Each is a different vibe and sound, and that's what makes them so special.

After 2000, admittedly the output from The Soulquarians got lesser and lesser. They had minimal work on Bilal's album First Born Second in 2001, but their presence was felt some. After the 2002 release of The Roots' album Phrenology, which is largely attributed to the mind of Questlove rather than the entire Soulquarians, it seemed as if the collective were almost ready to call it quits. This is where Common's Electric Circus comes in. I personally like that album, but it's looked at as being too experimental and not right for the changing time in hip hop. Aside from the Neptunes production, this album is all J. Dilla, Questlove, Poyser, Palladino, and Bilal on vocals. I always felt as if Bilal's involvement was because D'Angelo was troubled and not present as so many of these sessions, but I'm not complaining. If you listen to Electric Circus now, maybe you can appreciate the greatness, and I fully believe that if the production for the album was utilized for Bilal or another Neo-Soul centered singer instead of a rapper that it would seen as a classic. Regardless, I think Electric Circus is a very underrated work in general and it stands as the last official project that the Soulquarians spearheaded.

*What If The Soulquarians Existed Today
-We don't like to do many "what if" scenarios for music, but what if the Soulquarians were still around? What if they replaced or substituted J Dilla (RIP) with a Robert Glasper or a Raphael Saadiq? I think with the production work done on this new Solange album and the work they put in for D'Angelo's Black Messiah, there could very well be a rebirth of the Soulquarians going forward. I mean, you bring James Poyser, Questlove, D'Angelo, Q-Tip, Badu, Glasper, Saadiq, Bilal, Common, and perhaps a few others together to work on a selection of projects together, you might have another golden era of music on the way from them all. A new Bilal album with appearances by Badu, Common, and Saadiq would be great for longtime fans of the group and collective, but what about newer artists? How would these new artists sound backed by the collective and having an album produced by them? Could it work?

Of course it could. I'd nominate the first person to have a Soulquarians produced album from this new generation as the gorgeous and multifaceted Lianne La Havas. Already heavily infused with live instrumentation in her music and a soulful sound, imagine how amazing her album could be if she sat down with Poyser, Quest, and the others and made a 12 track opus that features her digging even deeper within the depths of her soul to create something special. Throw in a D'Angelo duet, with perhaps a Raphael Saadiq featured production and vocal, and you have the makings of a classic. The musings of Badu and Lianne could also bring us something beyond interesting and I'd love to see these two ladies together on a song. I feel like new age artists such as Lianne or even a more focused Janelle Monae would work magically with The Soulquarians as far as female artists go. Lianne already plays guitar and is instrumental gifted, so an album with this collective could only spawn true greatness I suspect.

The 2nd option for a Soulquarians produced album is the man who seemingly is in waiting to carry the torch for D'Angelo, BJ The Chicago Kid. I mean, he's really one of the best artists today, and while I'm sure Questlove and company could really go for a Prince tribute type of album with an artist like Miguel perhaps, but if we are talking new age artists, BJ is definitely the best choice. I think his sensibility and his voice would fit perfect over the soul production and the smooth sounds. I'd love to see this happen and considering that BJ The Chicago Kid is in close quarters in some ways to these guys, maybe it can happen to an extent? Questlove, make it happen, man!

The 3rd person I'd like to see have a Soulquarians produced album is a legend, and while it probably would never happen, is Maxwell. Max has always done his thing in music and he remains to be one of the more recognizable names, but after the smaller buzz and success of his recent album, why not go back in with a new set of musicians and try to create something even better than before. I think the creative genius of Max mixed with Quest, Poyser, and Saadiq could spark something beyond what we could imagine. The world would stop at the thought of a Maxwell and Raphael Saadiq collaboration or even Questlove on the drums while Maxwell allows his falsetto to sway over the keys and horns. Or even, dare I say, a collaboration between the two most important artists in Neo-Soul history, Maxwell and D'Angelo? I'll dare to dream and also mention that I think Eric Benet would be another great choice to work with on a full album or majority of it since he works with a band himself.

In this day and age for hip hop, I'd like to see only two artists really put out albums with The Soulquarians: Big KRIT and Kendrick Lamar. I'd nominate Chance The Rapper, Blu, or Phonte as well, or myself, but if I had to narrow it down to two solid choices, it would be KRIT and Kendrick. Their music already embodies the sound of the Soulquarians and KRIT was even featured on The Roots' album before. We know KRIT is self produced mostly, but we've heard how great he can be with other production through his work with 9th Wonder. Imagine Kenneth Whalum, KRIT, Badu, Saadiq (who KRIT already has worked with), Questlove, D'Angelo (if available), Common, and Q-Tip all locking themselves into a studio for a month or two and letting the creativity flow... I mean how amazing would that be? Granted, labels, money and the politics of this industry could stop this from occurring, but I'd love to hear what a Kendrick album produced by The Soulquarians would sound like and a KRIT Soulquarians produced album as well. These albums could end up as all time classics if they ever happened.

-The legacy of the Soulquarians will always live on as the classics they contributed to still reign supreme. It is sad they drifted into separate paths so quickly because I'd love to have heard a Bilal, Mos Def, or another Common album produced by them in full. The Soulquarians are legends individually and I'd dare say they are legends together. If only they'd reunite officially and spearhead another great moment in music.



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