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30 Years of A Tribe Called Quest's 'The Low End Theory'

The year was 1991.

Rap Music had slowly transformed itself from a single-driven genre to a commonplace of great albums by a diverse set of artists. All this was at a time when printed hip hop magazine The Source was kinda like the bible for any avid Hip Hop fan and when they ran this annual summer piece about upcoming albums. Black Sheep’s 'A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing' was announced and previewed there and I ran to my favorite record store in town on a daily basis, to ask whether that album already came in.

This went on for months (the store owner understandably eye-balled more and longer with each and every visit), until I came in one day and asked for that Black Sheep album again. He replied with a deadpan “No, but I do have this!” and handed me a copy of their Native Tongues affiliates, A Tribe Called Quest’s 'The Low End Theory'.



See, I knew the 'Check The Rhime' single just came out a week or so before (coincidentally on the same day as Sheep’s 'Flavor Of The Month'), but I expected it to take a few extra months before the album would see it's actual release.

Tribe reportedly worked reclusively on this album, and probably in an effort to make no room for tampering, hardly even let their record company executives in on the recording process. They fittingly unleashed the final product in the same manner on the world.

And what a product it is.

It goes without saying The Native Tongues crew (which at the time consisted of aforementioned Black Sheep, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Chi-Ali and Tribe) is one of the most original in Rap’s history, but since the release of 1990’s landmark 'People’s Instinctive Travels…', Tribe always stood out a little more.

But even then nobody remotely expected the sonic experience 'The Low End Theory' provided.

It’s darker (but not in a cold way) than its predecessor, the jazz influences more upfront, the bass deeper (hence part of the album title) and most of the drumbreaks, assembled from various sources, have a sort of excellent repetitiveness to its patterns.

Both Q-Tip & Phife display beautiful chemistry throughout the whole album, the back & forth goin’ on 'Check The Rhime' being its prime example and this is also the album Phife really came into his own. Having appearances on only a couple of joints of their debut, on 'The Low End Theory' he’s all over it. And the reason for this appeared to be simple: Phife just came to the studio more.

And it showed. The Five Foot Assassin just busts in the door, with his down-to-earth approach on the mic, spittin’ out endlessly entertaining rhymes with his typical comical and/or sarcastic wit:

“I’m all that, and then some/short, dark and handsome/bust a nut inside your eye, to show you where I come from” (Scenario), “Got more rhymes that the Winans got family” (Buggin’ Out), “Go get yourself some toilet paper, cause your lyrics is butt” (Showbusiness), “A special shout of peace goes out to all my pals, you see/and a middle finger goes to all you punk MC's” (Check The Rhime)

And those are just a few examples of him being the perfect counterpart for Tip’s more introspective approach.

Brand Nubian, Diamond D. & Leaders Of The New School (with a young Busta Rhymes in the line-up) are to be found on the album as well. The Nubians’ Sadat X & Lord Jamar (who made noise that same year with their classic 'One For All' album, alongside Grand Puba & DJ Alamo) are featured on the aforementioned 'Showbusiness', which at first was titled 'Georgy Porgy', had Puba on it too, sported wholly different lyrics, but since this is a 30th anniversary celebration of the album, I don’t want to get into all that, other than this might be one of those very few occasions a major label was totally right by rejecting the song, as it was, to be put on the album. So Tribe had to retool it, kept the beat, had to write new lyrics, and reached out to Brand Nubian to do the same. But Puba wasn’t having it and didn’t want to record a new verse, thus he got replaced by Diamond D, who was friends with Tip and also worked on his own album, so he definitely could use the break.

'Scenario' on the other hand, doesn’t need any form of introduction, as it’s one of the most quintessential Tribe tracks. The tune that put Busta Rhymes on the map, spitting flames in his inimitable delivery, also where "The Dungeon Dragon" moniker found its origin.

Fun fact is De La Soul, Black Sheep and even Chris Lighty rhymed on it too, as well as Jarobi (who did verses on several tracks for the album, but were taken off when Jarobi decided to pursue a culinary career). In the end, all that remained were the verses of Tip & Phife, and the Leaders’ Charlie Brown, Dinco D. & Busta.

'The Low End Theory' was received very well, with raving reviews everywhere, a 5 mic rating in The Source (on a scale of 1 to 5, back in the days when such things mattered). First it went gold (within 6 months after release) and subsequently platinum.

Its sonics eventually found its way to Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon & Souls Of Mischief’s seminal debut albums a.o., and even the good doctor admitted 'The Low End Theory' was highly influential during the making of 'The Chronic'.

Tip, on his part, said in several interviews that he & Ali Shaheed were very much inspired by NWA’s 'Straight Outta Compton', in particular the bass, when recording 'The Low End Theory'.

"It's simple...., don’t you know that things go in cycles?"

You on point, Tip.

'The Low End Theory' grew out to be a desert island disc for me, so for its 30th anniversary, I thought it would be a great thing to string its primary sample sources in one continuous mix. After listening to interviews with people involved in its recording, I decided to incorporate those too, and it turned out to be closer to an audio doc than a mix.

Some of the sampled joints can be a challenging listen, but Tip said it best in 'Jazz (We've Got)':

"I don't really mind if it's over your head"
"Cause the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead"

Right on.


James Brown
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