A Tribe Called Quest

The Low End Theory

I didn’t want to let on that I knew very little about hip-hop. I was the Music Director for English Programming at CINQ-FM in Montreal, and the rap music label rep was making a pitch for airplay. She was an old high school classmate, a bass player of ferocious talent and, to be blunt, much cooler than me. I didn’t want to flaunt my ignorance.

It was 1989, and while I had begun listening to hip-hop a few years before – when Run-DMC swung the first sledgehammer at the wall that segregated it from popular music consciousness – I didn’t always get it. The hip-hop that crossed my desk ranged from 2Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be (which I loathed), to Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary (which I found electrifying), to NWA’s Straight Outta Compton (whose brilliance and importance I didn’t really grasp until the Rodney King beating and Los Angeles uprising three years later).

The sad truth is that I was a middle-class Canadian radio guy steeped in post-punk and twangy alternative rock music trying to make sense of the greatest revolution in American popular music since the 1950s. My friend, who was flogging her labels’ wares to radio guys like me all across the city, knew that I needed an education. “Tommy Boy has something from Queen Latifah coming out later this fall,” she said. “You’re going to want to hear that.”

I made a mental note.

“And Jive just signed a New York crew whose music is unlike anything,” she said. “They’re called A Tribe Called Quest. Their album should be out this winter.”

That album was People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It was kind of hip-hop that made it all fit together in my mind. She was right: their music was unlike anything that I had heard. It was brash, but soulful, at once an archive of music history, mobilizing a vast array of samples and rhythms from disco, rock, and classical music, as well as a bright signpost to the future. “Can I Kick It?” threaded a complex web through popular culture, contemporary politics, and rebellion.

People’s Instinctive Travels had been a revelation. To my ears, at the beginning of the 1990s, there was nothing else like it. What I hadn’t expected was that it was only a prelude to the main event. I can’t say for sure if Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad had meant it that way, but if you listen to People’s Instinctive Travels first, followed by The Low End Theory, released a little more than a year later in 1991, you can hear a progression of style, content and artistry as necessary as the cycle of day and night.

In many ways, People’s Instinctive Travels was Tribe’s promise; The Low End Theory was its fulfillment.

True to its title, the album opens in the low end with jazz bassist Ron Carter’s walking riff launching “Excursions.” I hadn’t been expecting that. I had to check the liner notes to confirm that the bass player who had anchored the Miles Davis Quintet in its heyday was setting the groove. Q-Tip swaggers into the track with a rolling introduction to the history, present, and future of hip-hop filtered through his own eyes and ears. It is a kind of rap manifesto full of bravado, but backed up with unprecedented verbal finesse. Q-Tip’s line “What you gotta do to is know that the Tribe’s in this sphere/The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare” was no idle boast.

What made The Low End Theory such an epiphany in 1991, and such a classic today, is the confidence and ease with which Tribe pulls all of the trends and tropes of African American music together. Jazz, gangster rap, rhythm and blues, protest, pride and desire are engraved deep – to the “low-end” – in this wax, but it all fits together naturally, as if it was always meant to be that way. It samples the jazz standard “Green Dolphin Street” as seamlessly as breaks from Sly and the Family Stone in a way simultaneously complex and perfectly simple.

Lyrically, Tribe serves up “A brand new twist with a whole heap of mystic/So low-key that you probably missed it.” The rhymes range from critiques of the intersections of popular culture, consumerism, and Black street culture in “Skypager” to uncomfortable lyrical moments like “The Infamous Date Rape” where Q-Tip and Phife enact a dialogue of consent as a way of exploring dynamics of masculinity.

“What?” finds Q-Tip at his most trenchant, reciting a long catalogue of questions that, at first, appear to be little more than the kind of late-night idle musings he might wonder about as the record player needle bumps and grinds in the deadwax after a party. “What is a war if it doesn’t have a general?” he asks “What’s channel nine if it doesn’t have Arsenio?” But they quickly morph into an extended critique of American culture in the 1990s, and of the very endeavor Tribe inaugurates in the album’s first track:

What are the youth if they ain’t rebelling?
What’s Ralph Cramden, if he ain’t yelling
At Ed Norton, what is coke snorting?
What is position if there is no contorting?
What is hip-hop if it doesn’t have violence?

The album ends with the crew track “Scenario,” with guests Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown, and Dinco D. It is a return to swagger after all the deep thought, a perfect close to the album’s narrative arc, and it’s a return to the bravado that had defined hip-hop up to this point. In fact, there is something comforting about how Phife, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes step out to take turns, like the MC crews of the 1980s. But this is a new “Scenario” draped in the formal structures of the past: “It’s a Leader Quest mission and we got the goods here.”

Hip-hop found itself in a period of radical experimentation and discovery in the early-1990s, stimulated by an enthusiastic transgression of genre boundaries, the exhaustion of rock at the end of the punk/post-punk moment (which would soon get a kick in the ass from Seattle), the unravelling of the myth of the American Dream, and the possibilities of new technologies like rhythm programming, digital sampling, and the compact disc. In that regard The Low End Theory is emblematic of a moment of explosive creativity, when hip-hop became America’s most relevant popular music.

Listening to it today, I can hear the start of something. In later years, Mos Def’s cadences would be looser, Asheru’s political commentary would be sharper, Jay Z’s productions would be slicker, and the sonic bricolage of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly would be more sophisticated and avant-garde. But that New York crew whose music was like nothing I had ever heard started it. It all began in The Low End.