A Tribe Called Quest
The Low End Theory (1991)
The Low End Theory marked the dawn of a new age in hip hop. Alongside fellow New Yorkers De La Soul and Jungle Brothers, three-piece A Tribe Called Quest pioneered a subtle blend of laidback jazzy samples and hard-hitting beats, spawning what we now known as jazz rap. ATCQ’s second offering strips hip hop back to its bare necessities: beats, rhymes and bass! Album highlight ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ illustrates this, contrasting a chilled Rhodes/double bass sample with a snare heavy beat, Q-Tip reflects, “so low-key that ya probably missed it/but yet it’s so loud that it stands in the crowd”.
Punctuated by a crack of the snare, “Yo, microphone check: one, two, what is this?” (‘Buggin’ Out’), put a newly confident Phife Dawg, Tribe’s other MC, on the map. Indeed lyrically, both MCs moved on substantially from their debut, discussing women (‘Butter’, ‘Infamous Date Rape’, ‘Everything Is Fair’) and the industry (‘Rap Promoter’, ‘Show Business’) with a maturity lacking in many of their contemporaries. What’s more the fluent interplay between Q-Tip’s abstract, mellow musings and Phife’s matter-of-fact, rudeboy-like swagger proves to be the perfect dynamic. This is evident on classic ‘Check the Rhime’, where both MCs freely exchange verses over one of Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Mohammed’s best productions to date. Also worth noting is posse cut ‘Scenario’, featuring a breakthrough performance from a then little known Busta Rhymes.
The Low End Theory’s engineer called it the “Sgt. Pepper of hip hop”. Like Pepper, its influence is abundant, on everyone from The Roots to Kanye West: however the comparison ends there. It is not an experimental record and not every tune is a classic. Overall the stripped back production that makes it so unique is also what starts to tire. Although certainly worth a listen, for me, it’s best seen as a stepping-stone to follow-up, and career highlight, Midnight Marauders.