Vibes and Stuff: The Low End Theory Turns 30

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A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory

Released September 24th, 1991 on Jive Records

Produced by A Tribe Called Quest and Skeff Anselm

Peaked at #45 U.S., #58 U.K.

Singles:

Check The Rhime” (#1 U.S. Rap)

Jazz (We’ve Got)” (#19 U.S. Rap)

Scenario” (#6 U.S. Rap)

September 24th, 1991 was a big day for the alternative world, with major releases from Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Red Hot Chili Peppers (aka the playlists of rock radio even until today) but don’t sleep on hip hop on that day either. The Low End Theory, also released that day, had just as big an impact on hip hop as the previously mentioned three had on rock music.

Like rock, hip hop has long been obsessed with authenticity; like rock, this was more true thirty years ago than it is today. “Selling out” was a dirty phrase, reserved for artists who had compromised their artistic vision in order to top the Billboard charts. In 1991 this was people like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer; N.W.A. and Geto Boyz were examples of artists who were able to make a name for themselves without sacrificing their gritty, grim integrity. A Tribe Called Quest, straight outta middle class Queens, had a hard line to walk. They refused to sell out, but they also weren’t pushing the kind of dark, edgy street life stories that other underground groups were building on. Their first record, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was a loopy collection of disparate samples strung together with nomadic bohemian lyrics. Q-Tip wanted to keep recording for the next album even though there was still a tour to do and music videos to shoot; Phife Dawg found out he was diabetic and wrestled with the idea of leaving the group. Compromises were made; Q-Tip would have a bigger role in the next album and they would, as a collective, try to take things to the next level.

The ‘next level’ here meant cutting the more light-hearted samples. They crafted a more singular vision for The Low End Theory, drawing inspiration from the way N.W.A. used bass to propel their songs but filtering it through their interest in jazz. The heart of the record is the double-bass: mostly sampled, but on “Verses From The Abstract” played live by the legendary Ron Carter. In addition to that fat, classy bass sound, Q-Tip sampled breaks and drum samples extensively, layering and producing them in such a way that suggested live drumming. Outside of the rhythm section the samples were kept minimal – keyboards filled in any potential holes in a subtle way that a million less talented producers chased for years afterward. The effect was both coherent and thrilling, a slamming collection of bebop-influenced grooves that formed the perfect backdrop for the group’s laid-back, confident rhyming. This, too, took a detour from their first album; while there was still a general veneer of enthusiastic good vibes overlaying the record, there were also digs at the record industry as well as date rapists and the culture of consumption.

The album brought them into mainstream attention and laid down some of the foundational stones of ‘alternative rap’, which spent the rest of the decade building works of greatness and being derided as ‘backpacker’ or ‘conscious’ rap. Eventually Kanye came along with his pink Polo and his fuckin’ backpack, and brought real rap back. Tribe built on the success of this record with their follow-up, the probably-even-more-praised Midnight Marauders. After that came two albums that were marred by a sudden turn to bad vibes and self-seriousness, and then a long hiatus. When they came back, with 2016’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, it was to wild acclaim but also grief, since Phife Dawg died of complications from diabetes during the recording of it.

At any rate, it was quite the Tuesday.

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