Happy 25th Anniversary to A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album The Low End Theory, originally released September 24, 1991.
A Tribe Called Quest earned a legacy enjoyed by few hip-hop groups. They released universally beloved albums. Whenever they chose to tour, they packed venues worldwide. They were the subject of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, a 2011 documentary that tracked the group’s history and growth. They helped influence a generation of rappers, groups, and producers: Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The Roots, and OutKast can all be considered Tribe’s “children” to some degree.
Mind you, Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), and Ali Shaheed Muhammad only recorded together as a group for an abbreviated seven years (1990-96). The trio, along with Jarobi White, had burst onto the scene in the late ’80s as part of the Native Tongues collective, one of the most creative, innovative, and celebrated crews that hip-hop has ever known. However, they only released five full-length studio albums before succumbing to a relatively acrimonious breakup. The group has reunited to tour during recent years, but, as documented in Beats, Rhymes & Life, things were often tense between Q-Tip and Phife, who once famously came to blows while on the Rock the Bells tour. Subsequent Tribe tours seemed motivated by commerce rather than artistic expression.
And yet, when Epic Records Chairman/CEO L.A. Reid recently let word slip during an interview that the group had recorded one final album in secret shortly before Phife’s tragic death this past March (due to complications from diabetes), everyone lost their shit. The giddiness of long-standing Tribe fans could barely be contained. The group hadn’t released an album in close to 20 years, yet the very idea of one final Tribe album was, in the words of The Roots’ Questlove, proof that “[y]our dreams can come true.”
The Low End Theory helped cement Tribe’s legacy. It was universally beloved when it dropped 25 years ago, and still is. It features three beloved singles, complete with three beloved videos. Personally, I have it in my top three of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made, which, for me, places it in the top three albums made in any musical genre. Period.
The Low End Theory served as the follow-up to the group’s great debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths Of Rhythm, an impressive statement for a group new to the hip-hop scene and unequivocally one of the best albums of 1990. It’s the type of album you would expect from a member of the Native Tongues collective: mellow, but with a goofy sense of humor. It eschewed hip-hop’s familiar subject matter and permeated with character.
Tribe was able to take the foundation they had created with People’s Instinctive Travels and build upon it, advancing their lyrical and musical techniques. Staying true to the sound they had previously crafted and establishing a whole new standard of excellence with The Low End Theory was an extremely difficult feat. But Tribe made it all seem so natural and effortless.
Discussions of The Low End Theory begin with the beats. Production for the album was credited to the group as whole, with Skeff Anselm contributing to two tracks. It is one of the most expertly produced albums in hip-hop history, hailed for its innovative use of melodic jazz samples and its unparalleled synthesis of a unique vibe. It’s odd that The Low End Theory was released in the early fall, rather than the summer time. The album is the perfect soundtrack for enjoying the mellow moments in life, those times when you feel the clock pleasantly slowing to a crawl. It’s the type of album that seems like it was created to be enjoyed while working a grill in the park or in your backyard. Or on the porch, on a hot afternoon enjoying a glass of lemonade or cold brew. Or in the car, taking a slow ride to nowhere in particular.
The Low End Theory is also lauded for its, well, low end. The bass-lines for many of the tracks are the stuff of greatness, with much of them indebted to the crew working their sampladelic production magic. For the opening track “Excursions,” Q-Tip notably takes the bass-line from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “A Chant For Bu,” recorded in 3/4 time, and re-freaks it into 4/4 time. For “Buggin’ Out,” the Abstract Poetic expertly chops the opening bass solo from Jack Dejohnette's Directions’ “Minya’s the Mooch” into one of hip-hop’s most recognizable bass-lines. Tribe enlisted jazz legend Ron Carter to play the live bass on “Verses From the Abstract” and it pays off. Carter’s finger-work perfectly complements the ethereal guitars and keys sampled from Heatwave’s “Star of the Story.”
Much has been made of Phife’s lyrical transformation between People’s Instinctive Travels and The Low End Theory. Phife had a few scattered verses on their first album, but only his performance on “Can I Kick It?” stood out as particularly memorable. Many cite Phife’s opening verse on the aforementioned “Buggin’ Out,” with its classic opening line “Yo! Microphone check one two, what is this!” as his re-introduction to hip-hop fans as a serious emcee. But the real funky re-introduction of Phife’s niceness was “Check the Rime,” Low End Theory’s lead single. Between giving the middle finger to all the punk emcees and promising to never promote any junk, it was clear that the 5-footer had stepped up his lyrical game. The beat itself is an exercise in the extremity of rhythm, as the spare, slow-rollin’ bass-line becomes an ideal track for Tip and Phife to conduct their old school call-and-response routines.
When it comes to “pass the mic back and forth” lyrical displays, Phife and Q-Tip are rarely mentioned among the greats. It’s an unfair oversight, because they were really good at it, particularly here on The Low End Theory. A big part of their success was their contrast in styles, obvious to any minimally discerning ear. To again reference Questlove, Q-Tip was indeed very smooth, while Phife was very hype, and their styles meshed and flowed together without creating major tonal shifts. Both rode the musical soundscapes effortlessly on tracks like “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Vibes and Stuff,” arguably the album’s best track. Over groovy and soulful vibraphones hits, along with crispy drums, Tip poetically expounds upon music’s transformative power and its potential to unify, while Phife describes the enjoyment of just being himself.
With as much attention as Phife has received for elevating his game on The Low End Theory, Q-Tip showed significant growth as an emcee as well, further refining his flow and sharpening his storytelling chops. He has five solo tracks on the album, and he sounds as comfortable ruminating on life’s complexities on “Excursions” as he does talking about a woman caught up with living through illegal means on “Everything is Fair.”
The Low End Theory reportedly took six to eight months to create. Much of that had to do with Q-Tip’s self-proclaimed perfectionism, but some of it was the result of re-writing and re-recording. The Skeff Anselm produced “Show Business,” a collaboration with Brand Nubian as well as rapper/producer Diamond D about the abundant shadiness of the recording industry, is another of the album’s highlights. However, it had previously been an incarnation of “Georgie Porgie,” a brutally homophobic song even by early ’90s standards. Tribe’s label Jive Records stepped in, thankfully objected to the track’s lyrical content, and the original version was never released.
On a lighter note, the album-closing “Scenario” went through a few incarnations before Tribe settled on a final version. In this case, however, the deciding how many guests MCs to feature accounted for the multiple versions. Earlier versions of the track featured some combination of De La, Black Sheep, Jungle Brothers, and their (now-deceased) manager Chris Lighty. Tribe eventually settled on keeping it relatively lean, paring down the line-up to include just Q-Tip, Phife and Dinco D, Charlie Brown, & Busta Rhymes of The Leaders of the New School. The resulting composition is one of the greatest posse cuts ever recorded, with all five emcees contributing some of the strongest verses of their careers over a haunting beat created by the expert filtering and chopping of Brother Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto.”
Maybe Tribe‘s legend endures for the simple reason that there is something universally appealing about jazzy music you can chill out to. But it really was a complete package, with top-notch lyrics crafted to complement high-caliber beats. The Low End Theory was the pinnacle of Tribe’s musical achievements as a group, and an album that you can play any time and in any context, and just sit back and enjoy. A quarter century old, it still sounds like a timeless experience.