FEATURE: Vinyl Corner: A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory




Vinyl Corner


A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory


WE have just finished celebrating thirty years of...


 IN THIS PHOTO: A Tribe Called Quest in 1991/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

De La Soul’s debut album, Three Feet High and Rising, and now my mind turns to A Tribe Called Quest’s, The Low End Theory. It was released on 24th September, 1991 and was the second album from the Hip-Hop group. I look around modern music and wonder whether any artists make as a big an impression on their debut and sophomore albums as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – it seems unlikely! The reason why I love this album is because it sound great on vinyl and it is a record that is full of innovation, samples and confidence. Like all great records from that golden era of Hip-Hop (sort of between 1986 and 1991), you cannot take everything in right at once: several listens later and you are still processing the multi-layered songs and cool beats. The Low End Theory was recorded in New York from 1990 and 1991 and largely produced by the group’s legendary member Q-Tip. Rather than copy the busier sound of their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), the follow-up is a minimalist affair that relies on well-incorporated bass, drum-breaks and Jazz samples. When the album first came out, there was doubt whether it could be a success and whether people would actually buy it. A Tribe Called Quest scored big when their debut came out but they changed their style (slightly) the second time around so there was a fear that, maybe, people would want more of the same.

There were some issues within the group when the album was being put together. In fact, just after the release of their debut, Phife Dawg, a band member, learned he was diabetic and did think about leaving A Tribe Called Quest. The group wasted no time following their debut and essentially went straight from the debut to recording The Low End Theory. Q-Tip was keen to keep things going – maybe he wanted Phife Dawg to keep active and not think about his condition – and it was a hectic time of creativity.  Their manager Kool DJ Red Alert was fired by the group and Chris Lighty stepped in. The softer and more melodious voice of Q-Tip contrasted with that of Phife Dawg who was higher-pitched and was more comedic. This balanced and contrast led to an album that was brimming with imagination and brilliance. Such smooth and gifted rapping was excellent, even in a quality Hip-Hop scene. I do not know where people would rank it in terms of Hip-Hop’s peak period but The Low End Theory is a masterful and divine record. Like, too, a lot of other Hip-Hop records of the period, The Low End Theory has a social conscience and dug deep. Everything from date-rape to consumerism was covered on the album. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s interplay and chemistry is key to the brilliance of The Low End Theory.

Q-Tip was, by 1991, already established as a lyricist but Phife Dawg provided plenty of experimentation, skills and fresh flow. Another thing that marks The Low End Theory out from albums by peers such as N.W.A. and Public Enemy is the lack of profanity. De La Soul would also employ very little (if any) expletive language on their debut and A Tribe Called Quest were keen to keep things pretty clean. The reviews that greeted The Low End Theory upon its release were deeply impressive and passionate. There has been plenty of retrospective acclaim, too. AllMusic, in their review, said this about the album:

While most of the players in the jazz-rap movement never quite escaped the pasted-on qualities of their vintage samples, with The Low End TheoryA Tribe Called Quest created one of the closest and most brilliant fusions of jazz atmosphere and hip-hop attitude ever recorded. The rapping by Q-Tip and Phife Dawg could be the smoothest of any rap record ever heard; the pair are so in tune with each other, they sound like flip sides of the same personality, fluidly trading off on rhymes, with the former earning his nickname (the Abstract) and Phife concerning himself with the more concrete issues of being young, gifted, and black...

IN THIS PHOTO: Q-Tip in N.Y.C. on 24th July, 1994/PHOTO CREDIT: Chi Modu/Diverse Images/Corbis  

The trio also takes on the rap game with a pair of hard-hitting tracks: "Rap Promoter" and "Show Business," the latter a lyrical soundclash with Q-Tip and Phife plus Brand Nubian's Diamond DLord Jamar, and Sadat X. The woman problem gets investigated as well, on two realistic yet sensitive tracks, "Butter" and "The Infamous Date Rape." The productions behind these tracks aren't quite skeletal, but they're certainly not complex. Instead, Tribe weaves little more than a stand-up bass (sampled or, on one track, jazz luminary Ron Carter) and crisp, live-sounding drum programs with a few deftly placed samples or electric keyboards. It's a tribute to their unerring production sense that, with just those few tools, Tribe produced one of the best hip-hop albums in history, a record that sounds better with each listen. The Low End Theory is an unqualified success, the perfect marriage of intelligent, flowing raps to nuanced, groove-centered productions”.

The Low End Theory changed Hip-Hop and marked this extraordinary time for the genre. It helped push Rap to new avenues and broke sonic ground. Unlike some of the harder-edged and more aggressive Hip-Hop records that came out in the 1980s and 1990s, The Low End Theory had more Jazz elements – that helped bring the genre to more people – and was a mellower thing. Hip-Hop, before 1991, was not necessarily filled with macho songs and toughness but there was a sense that the genre was defined by a sense of aggression.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Phife Dawg (who died in 2016 due complications with diabetes)/PHOTO CREDIT: Lukas Maeder/13 Photo/Redux

A Tribe Called Quest offered a new angle and perspective. Alongside peers such as De La Soul, there was this calmer and less aggressive sound. Many can trace A Tribe Called Quest’s Hip-Hop and Jazz blends to many Hip-Hop artists today such as Kendrick Lamar. There is an argument that suggests the lines between Jazz and Hip-Hop have been blurred more than they were in the early-1990s. It is hard to create an album now that will change the course of music and have impacted decades later but that is what The Low End Theory has done. In 2016, writing for The Quietus, Angus Batey talked about the album twenty-five years on and how it has impacted music:

Yet The Low End Theory took Tribe to that fabled "next level" hip hop acts always bang on about by performing the trick every authenticity-obsessed artist most dearly wants to execute. They crossed over without selling out - in fact, they crossed over while retrenching. Contrary to what Weiss and colleagues thought at the time, ...Low End... is harder-edged, darker, and, in terms of its adherence to established hip hop codes, actually a little bit conservative. (Not that that's a bad thing, of course.) The record became beloved of fundamentalist b-boys because it rooted itself firmly in the music's core sonic, conceptual, lyrical and artistic values, yet managed to increase the band's appeal to listeners who generally shunned rap for sonic or ideological reasons. Here was a group from a still outsider genre, uniting hardcore fans and curious outsiders by making music that worried more about integrity, commitment, creativity and resolve than it did appealing to the mainstream. Who'da thunk it?


Even after 20 years it's difficult to work out quite how they did it: the music makes no concessions to outsiders - meaning, essentially, anyone outside the group and their immediate circle of creative associates - and, a couple of half-decent jokes aside, neither do the lyrics. There are formal and aesthetic changes from the first LP, but they're slight: even the much-vaunted coup of landing the input of jazz bass icon Ron Carter has minimal impact on the album as a whole (he only appears on one song, so the notion that Carter's appearance somehow validated hip hop as jazz's heir - which was claimed in all apparent seriousness at the time - doesn't really hold water).

It's still a record that sounds fresh and potent, with even the anachronism of 'Skypager' coming across as a quaint curio rather than a jarring disconnect. And ultimately, this is the most important thing about The Low End Theory: it really doesn't matter what the critics said, whether it helped legitimise hip hop as music among folks who'd hitherto only heard it as noise, whether the label knew what they were dealing with, or even the (huge, undeniable) impact it had on the kindred spirits who heard it and incorporated its teachings into their own art. Even the band's subsequent history, the eventual split and its uncomfortable aftermath that provides the narrative for Rapaport's film and which occasionally lends certain Tribe tracks a subsequent layer of melancholia, can't alter ...Low End...'s power. It's one of those rare instances where a group reaches a creative peak and got to put that moment down on tape, without worrying about what anyone else was doing or listening to any voices of advice but their own. If only making records was always this easy”.


IN THIS PHOTO: A Tribe Called Quest chilling in New York in 1991/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

An article from The New York Times in 2016 saw their contributor Touré look at the impact A Tribe Called Quest made in regards Afrocentrism and how their different Hip-Hop approach – mellower and with greater spirit and control – inspired:

In time, Afrocentrism was seized by Madison Avenue as a marketing tool and a gimmicky way of trying to sell things to black consumers, as if putting red, black and green on the bag makes the French fries inside more authentic. But for those like me who took Afrocentrism to heart, it mattered.

A Tribe Called Quest helped open the door to Afrocentrism for many, just as they helped open the door to hip-hop for me and many others. Lots of different sorts of people are able to succeed in hip-hop now: a superblerd (black nerd) like Questlove; a self-proclaimed Oreo like Childish Gambino; an intellectual like Talib Kweli; a tormented skater-punk like Tyler the Creator; a fashion designer/rapper like Kanye West. We can thank Phife and A Tribe Called Quest for helping to inspire them, and us”.

It is clear The Low End Theory changed the game and A Tribe Called Quest would continue to inspire and innovate. The follow-up, Midnight Marauders, arrived in 1993 and many see it as their best work – I feel The Low End Theory is a more satisfying and nuanced listen.



The group’s sixth and final album of 2016, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, was an emotional affair. Deteriorating relationships in the group meant they could not continue and, ironically, there are many who feel their swansong is their very best – almost like The Beatles going out on a high with Abbey Road. All A Tribe Called Quest fans will have their personal favourites but, to me, The Low End Theory is the biggest revelation and step forward. The sheer consistency from A Tribe Called Quest – on The Low End Theory and through their career – was amazing and they are deeply missed. If you are new to Hip-Hop then this is a great album to start with. It is a wonderful record that sounds perfect on vinyl and takes you somewhere incredible and safe. The record keeps revealing its layers and meanings nearly twenty-eight years after its release. You can hear so many elements from The Low End Theory in modern Hip-Hop but I wonder whether a new generation needs to open their ears more and take notice. I still think there is this tendency for Hip-Hop artists to be aggressive and lack that melodic sensibility. A Tribe Called Quest showed what could happen when you take a different approach and so, in 2019, isn’t it time for the new breed to...


IN THIS PHOTO: A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad photoed in 2016/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

LEARN valuable lessons from this masterpiece?!