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The Soulquarians
From left: Common and Mos Def, members of the collective, in 1999
From left: Common and Mos Def, members of the collective, in 1999
Background information
OriginUnited States
Years activeLate 1990s – early 2000s
Spinoff ofNative Tongues
Past members

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 (whose group A Tribe Called Quest inspired the collective) and Mos Def, and rappers Talib Kweli and Common.[1] Prior to its formation, Q-Tip, Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli were members of the Native Tongues collective.

Stylistically, the collective's music has been variously described as neo soul, alternative hip hop,[2] progressive soul,[3] avant-garde, soul, conscious rap, and jazz fusion.[4] Their 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.[1] 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).[5][6] 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".[6]


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.[citation needed]

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.[7]

— Greg Kot

Recording at Electric Lady[edit]

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. The studio was chosen due to its history, having previously been used by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, amongst others, and for the collection of vintage equipment available. It also presented new challenges for Questlove, who had to learn how to play drums in a softer style. Some of the equipment used included a Ludwig drum kit from 1968 and bass guitars from the 1950s.[8]

Recording sessions began in 1997 when D'Angelo and Questlove prepared to record the former's Voodoo (2000) album at the studio. According to Russell Elevado, the engineer on Voodoo, they used over 200 reels of tape to record in 1997 alone.[8]

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).[1]

Questlove served as what Jim DeRogatis called "the musical powerhouse" behind the collective'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!'"[5]

Demise and legacy[edit]

Bilal in 2007

The Soulquarians' period at the studio ended due in part to the experimental nature of some of their recordings becoming commercial liabilities.[1] 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.[9] 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.[1]

Speaking about the end of The Soulquarians, in 2015, Questlove blamed a September 2000 magazine photo and article from Vibe as part of the reason for their eventual split[10]:

"The Vibe magazine photo was the beginning of the end. 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."[8]

In 2003, Questlove unequivocally stated that there were no plans for a Soulquarians album release for the foreseeable future.[11] This was interpreted as a silent breakup of the outfit. However, according to an interview with Common (circa 2005), the collective continued to exist.[12] In February 2006, founding member J Dilla died of cardiac arrest[13] after prior health issues.[14] That same year, 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.[9] 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.[1]



Albums produced wholly or partly by the Soulquarians:

Year Artist Album RIAA Certification
1999 The Roots Things Fall Apart Platinum
1999 Mos Def Black on Both Sides Gold
1999 Q-Tip Amplified Gold
2000 D'Angelo Voodoo Platinum
2000 Common Like Water for Chocolate Gold
2000 Slum Village Fantastic, Vol. 2
2000 Erykah Badu Mama's Gun Platinum
2001 Bilal 1st Born Second
2002 Talib Kweli Quality Gold
2002 The Roots Phrenology Gold
2002 Common Electric Circus
2006* Bilal Love for Sale[16]
(*) leaked without commercial release

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Gonzales, Michael (March 19, 2015). "Love, Peace and Soulquarians". soulhead. Retrieved August 20, 2020.
  2. ^ JayQuan (November 12, 2018). "Fight the Power: The Politics of Hip-Hop". Medium. Retrieved August 22, 2020.
  3. ^ Cochrane, Naima (March 26, 2020). "2000: A Soul Odyssey". Billboard. Retrieved January 23, 2021.
  4. ^ Lavin, Will (September 9, 2019). "Common: 'I needed to unlearn some of the things I thought I had to be as a Black person'". NME. Retrieved August 22, 2020.
  5. ^ a b DeRogatis, Jim. "Just Plain Common Sense". Chicago Sun-Times: February 5, 2006. Archived from the original on 2009-08-24.
  6. ^ a b Peisner, David. "Body & Soul". Spin: 64–72. August 2008.
  7. ^ Kot, Greg. "A Fresh Collective Soul?". Chicago Tribune: 1. March 19, 2000.
  8. ^ a b c "The Soulquarians at Electric Lady: An Oral History". Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  9. ^ a b Reyes, Andres (Autumn 2010). "Cool on the Outside". Shook. No. 9. Retrieved August 19, 2020 – via Issuu.
  10. ^ Paine, Jake (2018-01-30). "An New Video Shows The Rise Of The Soulquarians & Why Things Fell Apart". Ambrosia For Heads. Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2006-04-03.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ "Common: It's About Time". MVRemix Interviews: April 2005. Retrieved on 2016-01-21
  13. ^ Sanneh, Kelefa (2006-02-14). "James Yancey, Producer Known for Soulful Hip-Hop, Dies at 32". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  14. ^ "J Dilla dies". the Guardian. 2011-06-12. Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  15. ^ Columnist. De La Soul & Common: On the Spitkicker Tour. MTV. Retrieved on 2009-09-30.
  16. ^ Kellman, Andy (n.d.). "Bilal". AllMusic. Retrieved August 12, 2020.

Further reading[edit]

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