25 Years On: A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory Revisited
, March 23rd, 2016 09:00
With the sad news of Phife Dawg's recent passing, Angus Batey revisits the history and lasting legacy of A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory
There's a wonderful moment in Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Michael Rapaport's fascinating new documentary about A Tribe Called Quest. Jive records CEO Barry Weiss recalls the label's internal reaction when staff first heard the group's second LP, The Low End Theory. "It was very different to the first album," Weiss tells Rapaport. "It wasn't as 'left' in some ways, and we were concerned that maybe it was gonna miss the mark - that maybe they were trying to go too commercial, that it didn't have the artistic integrity that [the debut] People's Instinctive Travels [In the Paths of Rhythm] did. Um... and we were fuckin' completely wrong."
While it's surprising today to hear The Low End Theory described as "commercial", it wasn't a very common reaction 20 years ago either. Certainly, next to People's..., its reliance on a primal hip hop blend of hard rhymes and harder bass made it sound at first almost austere. The New York group's debut had found Q-Tip, Ali-Shaheed Muhammad, Phife and satellite member/spirit guide Jairobi positioned as the first post-De La Soul rap act, its cartoonish, brightly coloured sleeve helping imbue the record's eclectic samplescape with a similarly psychedelic atmosphere. 'Can I Kick It?'s Lou Reed lift and breezy amiability turned Tribe into minor global pop stars, yet it was the nearest to the mainstream the group ever got. Just as 3 Feet High & Rising wasn't all dayglo hippy hop, and De La would prove themselves to be formidable true-school innovators, so Tribe emerged here as purist rap paragons, makers of music of much rawer shading than the accessible, melodious debut had led some to expect.
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). Compare the boom and thwack of the mighty 'Buggin' Out' with 'Can I Kick It?', and they're really not all that dissimilar - both are snapping, fairly sparse drum loops underpinned by cyclical bass lines. What's changed is implied rather than overtly stated: the use of 'Walk On the Wild Side' is a deliberate reference the listener is expected to get, while the bassline from 'Minya's the Mooch' by Jack Dejohnette's Directions - which to start with is an album track released on an experimental jazz label rather than a global radio staple - has been chopped up and reconstructed in a sequence so different even its makers might struggle to recognise it. It surely ought to be the more "difficult" track to listen to - less accessible, less direct - but the opposite is true: the bounce is infectious, the melody drilled into the music from the bass simply thrilling, and it leaves '...Kick...' trailing in the dust, clearly the work of a band yet to find their own unique voice. If it's tracks like this that made the Jive staffers feel the record was more commercial, you can sort of see why, yet it's beyond counterintuitive: this is a kind of universality that can only be achieved by doing the polar opposite of dumbing down.
The other key ingredients, of course, were the writing and the quality of the vocals, and the emergence of Tribe's "secret weapon". It would be a stretch to call ...Low End... Phife's album: he doesn't even appear on five of the 14 tracks, and on his one solo cut, 'Butter', Tip does the hook. But where he'd been another ingredient in the ...Instinctive Travels... stew, here he's a dominant flavour. The album's best tracks - 'Buggin' Out'; the awesome 'Check the Rhime' (proof positive Tribe could do songs, but still imbue formula with invention, wit and personality); peerless posse cuts 'Show Business' and 'Scenario' - rely on the interplay of the pair's contrasting and complementary styles. Their voices ought almost to belong to each other, Phife's raspy attack sounding more like it's coming from a taller, skinnier man, while Tip's nasal, Benny the Ball-ish delivery makes you imagine someone shorter and a little bit chubbier.
There wasn't a specialist rap press in '91, and rock critics tended to pick up on hip hop that was politically outspoken - PE, Cube, NWA - or records like 3 Feet High... or the Jungle Brothers' Done By the Forces of Nature that piqued curiosity by choosing samples that were eclectic and spasmodically recognisable to someone who hadn't grown up listening only to 60s and 70s funk. Artists who placed beats and rhymes front and centre, who really worked at the craft of hip hop as an end in itself, didn't always achieve wide critical acclaim. True, Gang Starr had been rightly feted for Step In the Arena - in reality, the closest to an antecedent to ...Low End... that existed - but subsequent records arrived to increasing mainstream pop press indifference. In the grand scheme of things, whether the critics got it right or not is irrelevant: but it's interesting that Tribe generated almost unequivocal excitement with a record that offered so few obvious ways in for the non-specialist listener. With ...Low End.... Tribe 'became the rap group of choice among many people who didn't really like rap very much at all, a position their first three albums hold to this day.
The Low End Theory's success almost certainly lies in the group's single-mindedness - they're showing off, but it's clear that the only people they really cared about impressing were themselves. But, aside from fans, critics and each other there was another audience to whom the album would go on to be pivotally important, and that was Tribe's peers. There was the Native Tongues, of course, but along the road from People's... to The Low End Theory Tribe had gone from students to masters; between 91 and 93 De La were playing catch-up, and the Jungle Brothers never really nailed the consistency they'd achieved before Tribe's emergence. It's curious, today, that none of the core Native Tongues acts appeared on ...Low End.... Brand Nubian, Diamond D and Leaders of the New School were never official members of the unit, but they all got a front-row seat for the making of a hip hop classic, and they all took that experience and ran with it.
Leaders' blistering second album, T.I.M.E. (The Inner Mind's Eye), is a spiritual heir to ...Low End..., an acerbic yet introspective delight, a record kicking at hip hop's self-imposed boundaries and striking out in unexpected new directions. It was widely misunderstood and sold terribly; the group broke up; and Busta Rhymes went on to become one of hip hop's more durable superstars, still trading on that rambunctious dungeon dragon persona he perfected here in 'Scenario'. How very different things may have been had he not stepped up to the mic for that sparring match with Tip. What if his verse had been a little less stellar, what if he'd not let that ragga influence imbue the verse quite so thoroughly, what if he'd tried to match Tip's acerbic abstractions and not let the world see his star potential? The verses by Charlie Brown and Dinco D are sensational: maybe they'd have stuck more in the minds of fans and record company execs, maybe Leaders would have found a firmer footing, T.I.M.E. might have sold a bit better, and they'd have gone on to make another half-dozen LPs. That verse surely changed musical history.
But maybe later, greater Leaders albums wouldn't have connected either: largely unknown as a rapper before ...Low End..., Diamond D also wore the influence of these sessions on his shoulder, and two years later he lifted slabs of 'Show Business' to use on his pugilistic 'Fuck What U Heard' single. That was merely one of a plethora of blazing classics on his debut, Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop, but the unfortunate coincidence of it being released on a label in collapse ensured that was to become yet another album the purists revere but the masses never heard of, let alone heard.
But the real legacy of The Low End Theory came when it was heard by people who weren't around when it was being made. In Rapaport's film, Pharrell Williams attests to Tribe's powerful impact on both him and Kanye West. Compare and contrast 'Rap Promoter' and Souls of Mischief's ' Let 'Em Know ' - the Bay Area's Hieroglyphics collective bore more than a passing sonic and structural resemblance to the Native Tongues, but it's in the playful sense of internal competition that SoM most strongly echo Tribe's music and ethos. Down in Atlanta, two idiosyncratic teenagers auditioned to join another extended rap family by rhyming over an instrumental of 'Scenario'. Rico Wade was impressed, and within weeks, Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton made their first appearance on record, rapping on a remix of a song by TLC. While all their schoolfriends were concentrating on west coast gangsta rap, OutKast bonded over the bands who were mixing musical adventure with lyrical ingenuity, and making it all sound so natural and fun. "We were both big Tribe Called Quest fans," Andre told me in 2001. "And De La Soul, Souls of Mischief, Das EFX. We thought those were some of the best hip hop groups ever." Meanwhile, over in Philly, ?uestlove and Black Thought were taking notes: and from the Roots and the Soulquarians the direct, indirect and implied influences spread in a series of mazy but undeniably clear lines to every point on the musical compass from D'Angelo and Al Green to Jay-Z. They even managed to influence themselves, Tip coining the title of the 1993 follow-up, 'Midnight Marauders', in the middle of 'Vibes and Stuff'.
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.
First published 10th October, 2011