The Soulquarians were a rotating collective of experimental black music artists active during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Members of the collective included singer and multi-instrumentalist D'Angelo, drummer and producer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, producer J Dilla, singer-songwriter Erykah Badu, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, keyboardist James Poyser, singer Bilal, bassist Pino Palladino, rapper-producers Q-Tip and Mos Def, and rappers Talib Kweli and Common. Prior to its formation, Q-Tip, Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli were members of the Native Tongues collective.
|Years active||Late 1990s – early 2000s|
The collective's members often collaborated on each other's recordings, holding extensive and innovative sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York, which produced several well-received albums. Questlove of the hip hop band the Roots acted as the "musical powerhouse" behind several of the collective's projects, including the Roots' Things Fall Apart (1999), D'Angelo's Voodoo (2000), Badu's Mama's Gun (2000), and Common's Like Water for Chocolate (2000). Reflecting on their recordings, Common told Spin in 2008: "It was one of those time periods that you don't even realize when you're going through it that it's powerful".
The name of the collective is derived from an astrology sign. The founding members of the collective—Questlove from the Roots, D'Angelo, James Poyser, and J Dilla—share the sign of Aquarius. Questlove, D'Angelo, Poyser, and J Dilla came together after discovering they had a common interest for the unconventional—offbeat rhythms, irregular chords, and other traits often exhibited by the underground urban music scene. Also around this time, D'Angelo and Welsh bassist Pino Palladino developed a connection over their mutual love of Motown and other classic soul music, and Palladino became active in the project, playing on the majority of their discography and serving as a member of the Soultronics touring band that supported D'Angelo's Voodoo tour.
Many of these artists have performed on one another's records, creating a community of likeminded musicians forging a style that doesn't have a name yet. Organic soul, natural R&B, boho-rap--it's music that owes a debt to the old-school sounds of Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton without expressly mimicking any of them. It refreshes these traditions with cinematic production techniques gleaned from hip-hop and with attitude that is street- smart but above all highly individual, celebrating quirks instead of sanding them down for mass consumption. Instead of crooning about "booty and blunts" (sex, drugs, etc.), the subject matter on these albums is idiosyncratic and personal, ranging from the spiritual crises of [Lauryn] Hill, D'Angelo and Maxwell to the socio-political concerns of the Roots and Mos Def.— Greg Kot
Recording at Electric LadyEdit
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, members of the collective held jam sessions while recording their respective albums at Electric Lady Studios in New York. This began in 1997 when D'Angelo and Questlove prepared to record the former's Voodoo (2000) album at the studio. The collective's sessions there over the next five years resulted in the Roots' albums Things Fall Apart (1999) and Phrenology (2002), Badu's second album Mama's Gun (2000), Common's Like Water for Chocolate (2000) and Electric Circus (2002), and singer Bilal's debut album 1st Born Second. According to music journalist Michael Gonzales, their sessions were marked by an experimentation with "dirty soul, muddy water blues, Black Ark dub science, mix-master madness, screeching guitars, old school hip-hop, gutbucket romanticism, inspired lyricism, African chats and aesthetics, pimpin' politics, strange Moogs, Kraftwerk synths and spacey noise". The musical approach also influenced the collective's associated musicians, including Mos Def's Black on Both Sides (1999), singer Res's How I Do (2001), and rapper Talib Kweli's Quality (2002).
Questlove served as what Jim DeRogatis called "the musical powerhouse" behind the colective's sessions at the studio. "I tried to do all in my power that I could to bring people together – to bring Common to Electric Lady, have him record here whenever so that he could record with some of these other artists", Questlove explained in 2002. "You'd just come into [the studio's] A Room, you don't even know who has a session, but you call me: 'Who's down there?' 'Common's in there today.' So you come down, you order some food, sit down and bullshit, watch a movie, and then it's, 'Let's play something.' And I say, 'Who wants this [track]?' And it would be, 'I want it!' 'No, I want it!'"
The Soulquarians' period at the studio ended due in part to the experimental nature of some of their recordings becoming commercial liabilities. Bilal held improvisatory jam sessions at the studio for his second album, Love for Sale, but its experimental direction alienated his label from releasing it. Common's similarly experimental Electric Circus sold disappointingly, which discouraged MCA Records, Common and the Roots' label, from letting the artistically-free environment at the studio continue.
In 2003, Questlove unequivocally stated that there were no plans for a Soulquarians album release for the foreseeable future. This was interpreted as a silent breakup of the outfit. However, according to an interview with Common (circa 2005), the collective continued to exist. In 2006, Bilal's Love for Sale leaked and was indefinitely shelved by his label, although it developed an underground following and wide acclaim over the years. Reflecting on the collective's impact since then, Gonzales writes in 2015:
Without a doubt, the innovations the Soulquarians put down in that five-year period between 1997 and 2002 became eternal, their spirit still alive inside of us, their sound and vision later manifested into the work of photographers, writers, visual artists, indie directors and of course, musicians and rappers. Listening to ... Kendrick Lamar's newest album To Pimp a Butterfly, Bilal has transformed himself into an arty Nate Dogg for the post-Soulquarian generation that includes Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and, now, Kendrick.
- Questlove – drums, keyboards, production, percussion
- Bilal – vocals
- Common – vocals
- Roy Hargrove (deceased) – trumpet, flugelhorn
- Erykah Badu – vocals, production
- D'Angelo – vocals, guitar, keyboards, production
- James Poyser – keyboards, production
- Mos Def – vocals
- Q-Tip – vocals, production
- Talib Kweli – vocals
- Pino Palladino – bass
- J Dilla (deceased) – vocals, production
Albums produced wholly or partly by the Soulquarians:
|1999||The Roots||Things Fall Apart||Platinum|
|1999||Mos Def||Black on Both Sides||Gold|
|2000||Common||Like Water for Chocolate||Gold|
|2000||Slum Village||Fantastic, Vol. 2||N/A|
|2000||Erykah Badu||Mama's Gun||Platinum|
|2001||Bilal||1st Born Second||N/A|
|2006*||Bilal||Love for Sale||N/A|
|(*) leaked without commercial release|
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