Twenty years ago today A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory came out, and it’s been my favorite hip-hop album since. I remember when I bought the tape. I was on my way to watch a high-school basketball game (against Lansing Waverly) with Colin Moriarty and we stopped by Warehouse Records on West Saginaw then bumped it in his Monte Carlo. The record immediately spoke to me, and that it has continued to do so in different ways at different points in the past twenty years is testimony to its greatness.
Initially it grabbed me because of the jazz. I come from a family of jazz musicians, and this album drew upon that genre in a way that no other rap record had done before. Half of the record is extremely bluesy, with “Excursions” built around a sample from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “A Chant for Bu.” About hip-hop Q-Tip raps “my pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop, I said that daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles?” “Bugging Out” laces a beat from Lonnie Liston Smith’s version of “Spinning Wheel” around a bass line from Jack DeJohnette’s “Minya’s a Mooch” and features entirely seamless interplay between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Tribe rolls out Ron Carter on bass on “Verses from the Abstract” (along with a hook sung by Ms. Vinia Mojica), solidifying the link between generations and genres. The sound immediately connected the world I knew at home with the world I was engaging when I left home, either on Yo! MTV Raps or in the halls of my high school or in my homeboy’s hooptie on the way to a Friday night game.
The first single from the record was “Check the Rhime-” a song that embodied all that was great about hip-hop at that moment.
The playful, practiced call and response beginning: “You on point Phife? All the time Tip.” The nostalgic celebration of home, 21 year-olds rapping about “back in the days on the Boulevard of Linden.” The self-awareness and confidence of a group who hit it big with their first record — “you’d be a fool to reply that Phife is not the man, cuz you know, and I know, that you know who I am” — and then made the impact of success a subject of their second (see “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” from the first half of the record). Q-Tip’s verse on this track is perhaps one of the greatest ever, sixteen perfect bars woven through the snap of the snare that reference Lou Brock and pride, coins “industry rule number four thousand and eighty,” and makes a metaphor of hoop — “pass me the rock and score ‘em with decorum” — before ending with a pointed shot at MC Hammer’s efforts to make hip-hop pop.
But there’s much more on this record. By the mid-nineties, the bling movement signified a genre aspiring to be larger than life. But On The Low End Theory Tribe explored how large real life already was. “Vibes and Stuff” is dedicated to M.C. Trouble, Scott La Rock, Trouble T-Roy (who was also the inspiration for this classic Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth track), influential hip-hop artists who had tragically passed away in the few previous years. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip explored the sexual opportunities (and risks) created by their fame and visibility. Guest spots by Brand Nubian and Leaders of the New School and sprinkled references to De La Soul centered Tribe’s experience within that of the Native Tongues and Zulu Nation collectives, thus making an argument that hip-hop should be about identity and humanity.
If one half of the record connected hip-hop to jazz, the other connected it to funk. The second half simply rocked, picking up steam behind the drum groove of “The Infamous Date Rape” (sampled from Jackie Jackson’s “Is it Him or Me,”) blazing through “Check the Rhime” (with Minnie Ripperton and Grover Washington samples), drawing on Funkadelic for “Everything is Fair” (“you young boy, my love toy? I doubt that very highly. Just because you rhyme don’t mean I’ll let you try me”). And then sampling Sly and the Family Stone, Lucky Thompson, and Freddie Hubbard in the mellow-but-grooving “Jazz (We Got).” These four tracks run together as a ten minute inner suite, sharing a beats per minute, and adding up to more than the sum of their parts. Another Sly sample forms the basis of the palette-cleanser “Skypager.” And then the penultimate track, “What?,” highlights Q-Tip’s verbal dexterity, worldliness, and exceptional rhyme play, over a rump-rattling beat.
The album ends with one of the biggest, baddest posse tracks of all time, “Scenario.” Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad mixed the blues that characterized the first half of the record with the funk that dominated the second (sampling Miles Davis, Jack McDuff, The Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, and Hendrix). This was the third single, and it was released along with a pathbreaking video in January of 1992.
The highlight of the track might be the star-making cameo by Busta Rhymes, whose reference to Peter Tosh, Maceo, and Dungeons and Dragons hit the sweet spot with my group of extremely particular friends. But every rapper on “Scenario” brought his A game.
I’ve returned to this album probably more than any other in the past twenty years, and it’s never failed to connect. Sometimes it transports me back to those early days when the rhymes were fresh and caused me to do double takes to catch the metaphors. Other times it connects anew, like hearing the bass line on “Show Business” in a way I hadn’t before, or honing in on a sample. That’s what makes great art durable, that it can be at once timeless but of a particular moment.
I have no doubt that I’ll still be bumping this in another twenty. Thanks, Tribe!
Here’s the whole album for your listening pleasure: