Hip-Hop is a genre that couldn’t really be called consistent. Some years, there are just leaps and bounds of creativity present. Other years there’s Lil’ Wayne. It’s weird. Don’t take this to mean I think Hip-Hop is some kind of derivative genre. Quite the opposite. But it’s a fact that for every Mos Def, there are about 10 Lil’ Jon’s. Don’t even get me started on fucking Nicki Minaj. If you’re relying on your arse to sell records, and talking of nothing but dick….why not just become a porn star? Anyway, she can do what she wants, besides bastardise hip-hop. It wasn’t always that way. In 1990’s, there were groups spawning from both coasts of the USA, groups that cemented hip-hop as a viable source of good music and entertainment. There were the groups that still gather adoring fans and listeners today, critical, commercial and cultural darlings. You’ve got De La Soul, N.W.A, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan…and of course, A Tribe Called Quest.
The second outing of A Tribe Called Quest, ‘The Low End Theory’, is considered an all time hip-hop great. Scratch that. It’s widely considered fucking musical genius. The combination of MC Phife Dawg (hands down the most ridiculous name to belong to a respectable rapper), MC/Beatmaker Q-Tip (in the running for the greatest alias in hip-hop alongside Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Quasimodo and Captain Murphy) and their producer Ali Shaheed Muhammed is just an explosive combination of talent that can only create amazing things. For science nerds, it’s Newtown, Einstein and Bohr in a room. For playwright masturbators, that’s Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams all hanging out. For hip-hop, it’s A Tribe Called Quest.
The Low End Theory, released in 1991, is landmark for a few reasons. One, it seamlessly fuses classical jazz with hell bent rapping. The juxtaposition of laid-black, bluesy doo-woop style jazz music, complete with a hypnotic bass drum in all the tracks, and even a live double bass (played by bass legend Ron Carter) in the track ‘Verses from the Abstract’, to the brutal lyrics mainly spurted like a gush of blood from a severed tendon from Phife Dawg is surprisingly, and thankfully, mind blowing. Imagine the backdrop of a jazz bar, someone lightly strumming out some rhythmic orgasm on a basic getup, while the wild eyed insanity of hip-hop spouts choice quotes like ‘Only if you’re on stage or if you’re speakin’ to your people, Ain’t no one your equal’ (Q-Tip, Show Business) or ‘A special shot of peace goes out to all my pals, you see, And a middle finger goes for all you punk mcs’ (Phife Dawg, Check the Rhime). It’s bitter, it’s cynical, it’s funny. While Phife tends to keep things light, and uses the word ‘wack’ maybe a bit too much, Q-Tip is always very low and dead serious. They act as a foil for one another, ensuring the songs never reach over-seriousness, but never trip on being overly comical. They’re like a better version of Chuck D and Flava Flav.
Reason number two of why you need to love ‘The Low End Theory’: they rap about all sorts of shit. No matter what the topic, as long as it was thriving in 1991, then it was on the album. Even if it was trivial it was on the album. Topics varied from the pure love of jazz shared by all members (Jazz [We Got], but also evident throughout the entire album), the horror of rape (The Infamous Date Rape) and the viciousness of the music industry, especially in the first floundering days of hip-hop (Rap Promoter, Show Business). Of course, there’s songs about girls on there, it wouldn’t be a rap record without that. But the references to women aren’t subordinant or demeaning, rather more appreciative. In fact, there’s only one track that is consumed in it’s subject matter to women, ‘Butter’ for those wondering. It’s a real record with a diverse subject matter, as well as a diverse sound.
Which brings me to the third and final reason of why ‘The Low End Theory’ is more awesome than words can describe: the sounds that come forth. Jazz and hip-hop are vastly different genres, and at face value could never be connected. But Phife, Ali and Q-Tip found a way, and by fuck did it work. The apparent contradiction worked way better than anyone could have ever expected. Also, the sampling, one of the most integral parts of hip-hop, is spot-on, abundantly varied as it is engaging. The music ensures that anyone listening to the record, even for a second, will be totally enraptured, and be able to appreciate the integrity of it.
Over 20 years on since it’s release, ‘The Low End Theory’ is still deeply cherished by hip-hop fans. It’s honest, laid-back approach can be acknowledged as brilliant writing and songcraft. Whether you like hip-hop or not, you’ll at least be able to appreciate ‘The Low End Theory’ for the achievement it is.