How the Soulquarians Changed Hip-Hop and Soul Music During The Turn of The Century
In 1996, D'Angelo and Questlove came together at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York City and changed the landscape of soul music, influencing countless musicians in their wake. Together, along with several other musicians, including Common, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Raphael Saadiq, James Poyser, J. Dilla, Bilal, Q-Tip, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, they turned the historic studio into a hotbed for innovation and creativity.
The loose name for the collective was The Soulquarians, although Questlove explained back in 2015 that the name was probably the least important aspect of collective.
"The thing was we never had a title," he said, adding that The Soulquarians were him, James Poyser, D'Angelo and J. Dilla— who all shared the same zodiac sign, Aquarius. "The Soulquarians were me, James, D’Angelo, and J. Dilla. The Soultronics was the group we were putting together with D’Angelo. "
Name aside, at the time the collective began recording there; Electric Lady didn't see any real activity in years. Decades before, it was the place where magic was created courtesy of legendary acts including Stevie Wonder (he recorded Music of My Mind and Talking Book there), David Bowie and The Clash.
The vibe at Electric Lady was magnetic, mystical even, and D'Angelo picked up on it immediately, after producer/engineer Russell Elevado pointed out that's where Stevie had recorded, prompting them to visit. D'Angelo instantly decided that's where his sophomore album, Voodoo, would be recorded.
"D’Angelo and I were brainstorming about the album [that would become Voodoo], listening to records. I found that Music of My Mind and Talking Book were in his collection," Elevado told Red Bull Academy in 2015. "I pulled them out and showed him that Stevie did these records at Electric Lady. This was when he was really starting to get into Jimi Hendrix. I told him that we should go to Electric Lady Studios to record it. He had no idea that Electric Lady was still operational. As soon as we stepped into Studio A, which was pretty much unchanged except for the flooring and one wall, we immediately felt positive vibes. I can say with conviction that we brought that place back to life."
What happened over the next few years was magical by anyone's definition. Together, the musicians recording at the studio created a sound that influenced and inspired other artists for years to come.
From rappers to soul singers, you can hear distinct traces of the influences of The Soulquarian collective in today's most innovative music. Listen to Kendrick Lamar's jazz influence on his records, notably 2014's To Pimp A Butterfly, on which Bilal played a significant role and is featured on several records. The album featured session musicians and producers like bassist Thundercat and frequent Lamar collaborator, saxophonist Terrace Martin, who was instrumental in shaping the sound of the album. Pianist/producer Robert Glasper, who was also around Dilla and Bilal extensively during the late '90s and early '00s, and has gone on to work with Common, forming the group August Greene, played on several songs from TPAB as well, further connecting the dots back to the Soulquarian collective.
Or listen to the Dilla influence on No I.D.'s recent work for JAY-Z's 4:44 and throughout most of Kanye West's production, with the warm bass lines, obscure soul samples and hard drums.
"To me, Dilla is a major influence, if not the biggest influence on that whole 'neo-soul' era Glasper explained to HardKnockTV in 2017.
Beyoncé, Solange, SZA, H.E.R., Janelle Monaé all have directly drawn from Badu's Mama's Gun. The feisty, world-weary, love torn lyricism and free-black girl countenance Badu possessed on that 2000 record has left its mark on soul music and creativity. Mama's Gun was executive produced by Poyser.
"James Poyser is a big part of that sound. Watching him play and working with Bilal on that first record [1st Born Second and watching Dilla play keys, he's the producer that musicians wanted to play like," Glasper said. "Musicians were trying to play like Dilla. That's the difference between him and probably any other producer that I know. He changed the way that I play."
Countless other artists were obviously directly inspired by the sound that came out of that those now-historic sessions. You can hear in their leanings toward live instrumentation and experimental vocal arrangements. The Soulquarians created a sound that was warm and funky, dipped in '70s nostalgia but still futuristic in scope. It was really unlike anything soul music and hip-hop had seen in years.
In the mid-'90s, the shiny suit era had reached its height in rap music, courtesy of Diddy's Bad Boy imprint. That period eventually gave way to the bling era, defined by Birdman's Cash Money Records, which emerged as a powerhouse label around 1998.
As for R&B, its sound at the time was primarily defined by soulful voices that carried evident hip-hop influences, with Mary J. Blige leading the way for the sound thanks to her juggernaut albums, What's the 411 and 1996's My Life. Outside of a few producers and artists (Organized Noize, Mike Dean, Scarface, and T-Mix among them), live instrumentation on records featuring session musicians and studio jam sessions for R&B and hip-hop were mostly a thing of the past.
The Soulquarians played a significant role in changing that, and the process by redefining the scope and sound of what soul music and hip-hop could be, led mostly by the production of vision of J. Dilla and Questlove.
From 1996 to 2002, the collective of musicians and songwriters would produce some of the most significant albums released in the past 20 years, including D'Angelo's landmark album, Voodoo, arguably Erykah Badu's best work to date, Mama's Gun, The Roots' Things Fall Apart, Bilal's 1st Born Second and Common's Like Water for Chocolate.
Although Questlove says the extraordinary group eventually dissolved based on a Vibe article that erroneously insinuated that Questlove fancied himself the so-called leader of the band of musicians who came together to create, at one time, some of the best musicians in music were working together in Electric Lady. They'd hop from studio to studio, working on various records simultaneously, which fostered creativity.
"Questlove was the one who started bringing people there. He told everyone what was happening," Elevado told Red Bull. "He was the original Twitter before Twitter. [laughs] He brought Common and Erykah into the studio. He had a vision for Common’s album, Like Water for Chocolate. The same applied for Erykah and James [Poyser]. He wanted them to catch the vibes he was getting at Electric Lady. It was this super organic, soulful, psychedelic vibe that he was getting. Electric Lady brought out a certain type of psychedelic vibe in D’Angelo and everybody else, including me."
The assembly of musicians was incredible. Among them were guitarist Charlie Hunter, bassist Pino Palladino, jazz guitarist,C. Edward Alford, producer/engineer Russell Elevado, pianist James Poyser (who joined The Roots in 2009), jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, producer J. Dilla, Raphael Saadiq, and the musicians who made up The Roots. It was a special collection of talent that wove its way through the albums and songs created during the time.
"D’Angelo was jamming with Mos Def. Mos Def was playing the bass. Most cats don’t know that Mos is ill on the bass," Bilal recalled of the time.
Poyser talked about the spirit of collaboration. "I would go into the studio to work with one person, and while I was there, I’d meet another person and start working together with them."
In the end, it's fair to say that the collection of musicians who worked together during that time helped refocus popular music on the importance of live instrumentation and collaboration.
The records that were being created at the time all of a feeling of warmth and homegrown creativity and freedom. Part of that was just the energy that was created from such a large group of diversely talented musicians coming together to work. The other part should be credited to the actual Electric Lady studios.
"The design of the place was so damn mystical," Questlove said.
While working what's probably the cornerstone album of the collective, D'Angelo's Voodoo, a lot of old equipment in the studio was used during the studio sessions.
"The same Fender Rhodes and clavinet that Stevie Wonder used on Talking Book, including “Superstition,” were still at that studio," Quest said in the same Red Bull interview. "D’Angelo set up included the clavinet, Fender Rhodes, a vintage grand piano; the hip-hop side of him will never leave that damn ASR 10 for nothing. [laughs] To this day, he still sticks by that ASR 10 floppy disk and all. For me, I used a vintage Ludwig kit from 1968. Pino Palladino used these old precision bass axes from the 1950s. Russell Elevado would always use these old Royer microphones."
The nostalgia went beyond old-school instruments, however. The group studied old live performance tapes by Prince, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. Inspired, they'd jam for hours afterward. Quest says that's why it took almost five years to make Voodoo.
The collection of musicians who were recording during that period were widespread, working on the core group of artists' albums, as well as their own separate projects. But the core projects released between 2000-2002 from those late '90s recording sessions are still some of the best releases we've seen in the past two decades. They include: The Roots Things Fall Apart (1999), D'Angelo's Voodoo (2000), Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun (2000), Common's Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Bilal's 1st Born Second (2001).
Music was also being created for affiliate albums, including Dilla's group, Slum Village's Fantastic Vol 2. (D'Angelo and Common collaborated on the album) and Jill Scott's Who Is Jill Scott? Vol 1. (The Roots, James Poyser worked on that project) and Nikka Costa.
"At the height of everything, I was working with 17 different artists," Questlove told RedBull.
In 2002, the good vibes came to end, spawned by a Vibe article on the collective.
"The Vibe magazine photo was the beginning of the end," Questlove told Red Bull. "Because when that issue came out, motherfuckers were angry. The issue started out as a feature about me. The people at Vibe had a clue that I was working on D’Angelo, Erykah, The Roots, Jill Scott, Bilal, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Slum Village, and Nikka Costa’s records. At the height of everything, I was working with 17 different artists. I was really gun shy on any unwelcomed praise. I came from a commune. It wasn’t a one-man act. I was very uncomfortable accepting a title or praise.
I insisted to Vibe that they could get the story, but they had to make it about the family and not one person. The thing was we never had a title, but because the journalist was hanging with us the whole time, they were like you guys keep saying Soulquarians all of the time. I explained the difference. I said that the Soulquarians were me, James, D’Angelo, and J. Dilla. The Soultronics was the group we were putting together with D’Angelo. So when we took the photo and then I saw the Vibe cover it said The Soulquarians. I was in Chicago when I saw it, and I said, 'Oh shit. This is bad.; The next thing you know, every phone call that came in people were saying, 'Yo, man. It looks like I’m working for you. I’m not an Aquarian. I’m my own person.' Literally, that’s when it all fell apart."
Quest specifically remembers Dave Chappelle's Block Party as the moment he realized the collective had indeed ended.
"At the time we were shooting Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, I knew that it was the last time the 'Electric Eight' were going to be together: Mos, Common, Bilal, D’Angelo, Erykah, James Poyser, J. Dilla, and me. I knew that was our funeral," he said. "I knew that the next renaissance wasn’t going to be Roots-centric. Seeing Kanye [West] with the marching band from that movie, I knew I wasn’t going to be central to the next movement anymore. He was going to be the leader, and I would have to be fine with it."
Though the work the Soulquarians produced as a collective ended in 2002, the sound and legacy certainly lives on with new music, new collaborations and new, innovative musicians who were influenced by their game-changing vision.