Released in September 1991 to mixed reactions, ‘The Low End Theory’ began as a left field album of Alternative Hip Hop and has, over the ensuing thirty years, come to be considered not just a classic album but arguably one of the highest pinnacles of the entire Hip Hop genre. Here we take a look at how it all came together and what set it apart, then and now, from the mainstream crowd.
Part of a New York-based Hip Hop collective known as the Native Tongues alongside Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, and later others, A Tribe Called Quest began writing ‘The Low End Theory’ shortly after the release of their debut, ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’. Following on the back of breakout releases by Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, Tribe’s first LP had seen success with audiences, including the hit ‘Can I Kick It?’, and main producer Q-Tip was eager to ride the wave of creativity into a second release. Slowing that drive was a change in management and ensuing legal wrangling, the departure of founding member Jarobi White to culinary school, and the need to persuade rapper Phife Dawg to take his role to a new, more committed level. The resulting album, released 18 months after their debut, shows that Q-Tip, Phife and DJ and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad were unfazed by any distractions.
Famed for its extensive use of Jazz samples, ‘The Low End Theory’ is oft-quoted as being the album that finally connected the dots between Jazz and Hip Hop. Opening track ‘Excursions’ immediately places this front and centre as it builds on an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers bassline from their track ‘A Chant For Bu’. To make sure there was no doubt on the concentrated and conscious connection being made, the first bars find Q-Tip, who often used the alias ‘The Abstract, regaling “You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop, My pops used to say, it reminded him of Be-Bop”. From there on out samples come from familiar Funk and Soul favourites like Funkadelic or Sly and The Family Stone as well as less-plundered reaches of Jazz like Eric Dolphy and Cannonball Adderley. In between it all are lifts from 60s Pop with Peter, Paul and Mary, film soundtracks with the theme from Midnight Cowboy, and the prototypical rap forebears The Last Poets. It’s a heady display of far-ranging musical knowledge and abundant, boundary shattering creativity. Moreover, the key to ‘The Low End Theory’ is less about which samples were used and more how they were used.
The album title refers to both the bass frequencies of kick drum and bassline in music and the position of Black people in society. Musically, the tracks here are minimalist and stripped back focusing largely on Boom Bap breaks and languid, deep basslines. To this latter point, Tribe went so far as to bring in legendary Jazz bassist Ron Carter, who has become known as the most recorded Jazz bassist ever, to lay down a live double bassline on the track ‘Verses From The Abstract’. Adding to this dense, low end sound was the production skill of Q-Tip who added multi-layered drum samples to find a sound more akin to live, and dropped two separate beats on top of each other on ‘Buggin’ Out’ in a way that revolutionised how producers would work from then on. Lyrically the album title also lays out the position of the group. Afro-centric, socially conscious, philosophical but comically funny the rhymes on ‘The Low End Theory’ have been quoted, covered and quizzed but never stripped of their wit or their frequent wisdom.
While Phife had relatively few appearances on their debut, here he appears on the majority of the tracks including his breakout verses on ‘Buggin’ Out’ where he lays out the framework of the “five-foot assassin” who proceeds to kill it on track after track. His bold style and confident attack stand out on solo track ‘Butter’ as well as on the excellent call and response tag team with Q-Tip on ‘Check the Rhime’. A much loved highlight of the style, it skillfully shows how the two MCs’ styles differ and yet flow effortlessly as Phife’s braggadocio gives way to Q-Tip’s more mellow vibes. Notably the track also contains one of Tribe’s most quoted lyrics; “industry rule number four thousand and eighty, record company people are shady”. Elsewhere Q-Tip’s cerebral wit are on show, from motivational speeches on ‘Jazz (We Got)’ “so rise up squire, adjust your attire, we have no time to wallow in the mire”, to hitting us with deeper thoughts juxtaposed with puns and fun on ‘What?’ as he hits us with “what’s ménage a trois, or that is, what is sex when you have three people? What are laws if they ain’t free and equal?”. This mix of humour and thought, tied up in exemplary rhyme and delivered by rappers so in tune with each other, marks ‘The Low End Theory’ out as something special. Intentionally from the left field, progressive and alternative, the swagger carried through shows a confidence in their crossover potential, but purely on their own terms. Commitment and self-belief were not new in Hip Hop, but to be so purposefully antagonistic to trends during the heyday of Gangsta Rap was something else to behold. There’s barely a swear word on the entire album and an entire song bucks misogynistic trends (that even this album doesn’t fully escape from) and addresses sexual abuse on ‘The Infamous Date Rape’. These weren’t just out of step with Rap trends in the early ‘90s, ‘The Low End Theory’ offered change in Hip Hop that still hasn’t materialised in the mainstream to this day.
Influencing a veritable who’s who of superstars too long to count, ‘The Low End Theory’ elevated A Tribe Called Quest to a new level both critically and commercially. Yet, before the album was out it would play one final and that further shifted the genre. Album closing posse cut ‘‘Scenario’ was recorded featuring a long list of fellow Native Tongues artists before being stripped back to a core group featuring the members of the upcoming Leaders of the New School. Closing out the final verses a young Busta Rhymes stole the show as he mixed lines written by Q-Tip with his own, much quoted, volleys.
As an album that wore its own influences on its sleeve, paring them back and reworking them into something new with supreme confidence and creativity, ‘The Low End Theory’ takes listeners to places Hip Hop had never been before. To end by elevating the voices of the next generation of Hip Hop talent the ambition of the album is clear. No other Hip Hop album has reached for such heights and surpassed them with such aplomb.