What is Hip-Hop without A Tribe Called Quest? As a rookie to the genre, the low end theory is as mysterious and vibrant to me as its striking album artwork. It perfectly encapsulates the vibe of the record: stripped down, stylish and Afrocentric. The album trades in the violent and misogynistic imagery often associated with the genre, for a more socially conscious, humorous and laid back lyricism. Being given top marks by critics from Mars to Massapequa, it truly is the quintessential alternative hip-hop album. It forever and unforgettably bridged the gap between the aforementioned genre and jazz music. Seconds into the record, Q-Tip proclaims that hip-hop and be-pop are two of the same: both revolutionary, improvisational forms of black music. They are a dynamic a duo. Much like Q-tip and Phife Dawg who cemented themselves as in this masterful flow-centric creation.
Bouncing off of the success of their first album ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’ tribe released ‘the low end theory’ a year later in 1991 , receiving instance appraisal from fans and critics alike. Originally a foursome but eventually a trio, a tribe called quest was composed of: MC and producer Q-Tip, MC Phife Dwag and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Guest performances on this album come from ‘The leaders of the new school’ and ‘Brand Nubian’ amongst other artists from the native tongues collective. Some of the albums main highlights come from Q-tip and Phife’s lyrical interplay and rapport. Just check out the call and response on ‘Check the rhime’ if you need convincing. Q-Tip’s calm, smooth and philosophical lyrics promoting honesty and unity earned him the title of ‘abstract’. Phife contrasted this with humour and a playful, animated punchiness, (“drink a lot of soda so they call me doctor pepper”). Chris Lightly (their manger during the album) said that Q-tip would take the listener to Pluto but Phife would bring them back to the moon: tip’s abstract and often complex lyrics brought back down to earth by Phife’s street wise lines. Tip’s middling, polished vocal range and Phife’s high-pitched energetic flows did truly formulate a ‘yin-yang’ relationship between the pair: hip-hop’s perfect marriage.
The Low End Theory does what it says on the tin. On memorable tracks such as the smash opening ‘Excursions’, it provides deep, heavy , fat , flow centric double bass. The ‘low end’ is perpetual on this album. In the aforementioned tune, Q-Tip states that “things go round in cycles” directly referring to the direction Tribe takes hip-hop in – back to its roots. The albums sound is pensive and the sampling is innovative: jazz, soul and funk records flourish though out the stripped down bass-heavy records. Not selling out to heavy beats and aggressive rhythms, the record certainly gave birth to a distinct, ground breaking sound by seamlessly merging smooth, fine-tuned jazz samples with a New York vibe and street-wise rhythms. On ‘verses from the abstract’ the jazz bassist Ron carter (a member of The Miles Davis Quintet) was brought in by Q-Tip, adding to the authenticity of the jazz sound. Questlove from The Roots said that Q-tip was sampling jazz artists from your “parents collection” that had been neglected by others. The innovation and genius is clear.
Over a quarter of a century after its release, the album has still managed to remain relevant, initiative and rewarding. After each play I fall deeper into its trance, hearing bass loops in my head and endlessly reciting my favourite lines from the songs. The enigma that is ‘the low end theory’ surely must be one of 90’s hip-hops greatest accomplishments. Its listenability travels far beyond the hip-hop genre and can be appreciated as a ground breaking record by music fans from all over. Full marks go to A Tribe Called Quest on this one.