DUST IT OFF: A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” 20 years later

A term that has been used in the last few years is “game changer” as a reference to something that “changed the game” forever. In other words, once it made its presence known, it would result in things influenced by its impact. A Tribe Called Quest‘s second album, The Low End Theory was released on September 24, 1991 and was never pushed as a game changer by any means. It wasn’t even that five years later, but the rise of hip-hop fans on the internet would bring up a generation who were immediate about their views, and the perception of the group and album being life-changing started. 20 years after its release, it is considered to be one of their best, if not THE best ATCQ album. That will lead to arguments in which you will not win, but it shows how devoted fans are to the album and Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Mohammad, and Phife. The recent release of the group’s documentary touches on what made that album the “it” album. It was make or break, it was one that ended up taking them around the world, but it was not an album that made them riches. Then again, they came from a generation that did not mind not having massive success because no one wanted to be ridiculous as MC Hammer. Everyone wanted that money, but not the silliness some had seen in him, yet despite the criticism towards him, you couldn’t help but admire his drive. If someone wanted something more organic, more rootsy, more traditional, you had the Native Tongues and you had its greatest success story, A Tribe Called Quest, and it was with The Low End Theory that they became a success.

However, I did not take to the album as quickly as I did with People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm. To me, that album is perfect ATCQ. It was rough and rugged, a lot of it sounds like it was recorded onto Chrome cassette, and the sound quality at times is not consistent. But what it didn’t sound like was Jungle Brothers first album, Straight Out The Jungle, which sounds like a demo they didn’t bother wanting to improve on. People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm is a fantastic album and to this day I’ll rock it. Yet amongst hip-hop fans online, liking it is equal to admitting you like Method Man‘s Tical more than The GeniusLiquid Swords. You’re told you’re a fool and aren’t worthy of participating in any discussion.

That’s not to say I didn’t like The Low End Theory, because I did, the entire album is great. It wasn’t the fact that Jarobi wasn’t on it, it was pretty much a non-issue. Everyone wondered where he was, but since he wasn’t on there, then people were happy that ATCQ were around and now a 3-piece crew. When the group came out with “Check The Rime”, it felt good to hear something that funky and powerful. Phife had been, for the first album, the “second dog” but with this album and this song he was equal in status of Q-Tip, and that would make people want to hear more of work, hoping he’d drop verses in other songs (cue up Fu Schnickens‘s “La Schmoove”), and maybe one day do a solo album. Fans honored the sanctity of the group unit, and thus wanted to hear all three of them as a group and nothing but.

The Low End Theory was an album that made its greatest impact through its videos. Both MTV’s YO! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City were in existence when they released their first, and people loved the fact their videos were not just a simple “walk on stage, hold a microphone, walk back and forth, make goofy faces in the camera, fade to black”. The video for “Bonita Applebum” had Special Ed and Kika dancing randomly in different locations, a jazzy man on the Hammond organ, and a guy being an umpire in a friendly game of baseball (a reference that would pop up later when De La Soul released De La Soul Is Dead in May 1991.) The video for “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” had them in California looking like boho hippies, while the video for “Can I Kick It” brought in their De La friends and other close associates. But “Check The Rime” looked a bit more “rich”, as in “wow, these guys have a bigger budget to make a video, this looks cool”. It was also the first time fans got to see what the world of ATCQ was like, turning Linden Boulevard into a street as popular as The BeatlesAbbey Road, Booker T. & The MG’sMcLemore Avenue, and L.L. Cool J‘s Farmers Boulevard, which happened to intersect Linden near St. Alban’s, a place that Biz Markie celebrated a lot in his early music. Like a lot of hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s, it catered to localism while seeking to be worldy, so indirectly they were telling fans “this is home to us”.

The video for “Jazz/Buggin’ Out” was like a much colder version of Journey‘s “Separate Ways (World’s Apart)”, but not as dorky. Then again, all of them bugged out at the end as Phife dropped his verse, and that stood out in a genre when you were often treated like dirt if you not only looked funny, but acted weird, even if it was of your own doing. You were an outcast. Then the Spike Lee-directed “Scenario” video helped to officially make this album a genuine classic, with cameos from all of the MC’s in the song plus Fab 5 Freddy, Redman, Posdnous, Kid Capri, Cut Monitor Milo and many others in a recipe that was true to modern vibe of the Native Tongue, but also futuristic, specifically how the video was programmed to look. There was a digital interfact at a time when most people had no idea what WAV files and digital synchronization was, plus the subtle in-jokes throughout: the “neg” (negative) option changing to “pos” (positive) when Posdnous’ face was shown in full, the Jimi Hendrix drum loop arranged to show each “stab” in visual form, and during Charlie Brown‘s verse, the map options switch as he mentions “New York, North Cacalaca (Carolina) & Compton”, and when you see the word Linden, you see the homes as originally shown in the “Check The Rime” video.

That was it: three official singles and videos, but one album that fans embraced, absorbed, and stapled into the consciousness of hip-hop. Another thing to consider at the time was the make-believe feuds of the East and West Coast. A Tribe Called Quest represented the East but were much more than the guys who loved Linden. It would be with the next album that they’d wantto be on an “Award Tour”, but they had no issues with people from New York, North Cacalaca, or Compton. The Low End Theory was very much New York hip-hop personified, especially as an album and a group that came from the city where hip-hop started. Yet without having a territorial preference, the group were able to travel across the country, Europe, Japan, and Australia and gain fans, all of whom loved what the group shared in their videos but more importantly what they could deliver on an album. Singers are a major part of hip-hop’s history, but soon it was all about proving yourself in album form, and A Tribe Called Quest did not have a problem.

It was because of this album that helped move ATCQ into the forefront for the Native Tongues, and when they released Midnight Marauders two years later, they were the leaders of their own school, even bringing on Busta Rhymes as an unofficial member when his group officially collapsed. If A Tribe Called Quest was a game changer in anything, it was the fact that not only were their videos showing a bit of forward thinking adventure, but it was also one of the first hip-hop albums to be partly recorded in digital. Digital had been a luxury for classical, rock, and pop music for years, but not with hip-hop. You may have recorded the music using modern equipment, but everything was still recorded on and mixed on analog. Engineer Bob Power helped to bring the sound of the group further into the future, and as everyone was highly impressed by its “future primitive” groove, everyone wanted to make an album that was as polished as The Low End Theory. That changed the way hip-hop was recorded from that point on, or at least allowed producers and engineers to record songs without the limitations placed on itself. In terms of recording studio technology and use of the studio as a “member” of the group, The Low End Theory was truly a game changer.)

To say how much this album changed things for others would be repeating what everyone has said for years, so… just listen. As for what makes up the perfect A Tribe Called Quest triad of albums, maybe will say the first three with The Low End Theory being on top. Regardless of your personal best, it’s safe to say that The Low End Theory is in there, or at least should be.

The music and culture of hip-hop has changed in the last 20 years. The Low End Theory was meant to represent what they called “the art of moving butts”, they made albums and music that would move the low end of women and men. In time, some will argue that “low end” meant low-class or old, and that all hip-hop after 1996 represented the “high end” aspirations of the music and its people, which felt like it was nothing more than a dividing line between the “old school” and “new school “mentality”, now that an era of “new school” was seen as “your father’s hip-hop”. That bitter feud is what continued to drive the music as a whole to do better, even as New York hip-hop started to fade out from mainstream acceptance. Yet when one puts on The Low End Theory, it very much goes back to when NYC was king, but when hip-hop felt like not just like the soundtrack to your life, but life itself. Or as ATCQ would announce a few years later, it was about Beats, Rhymes & Life: why bother with anything else? It’s a theory that the mainstream will claim is hanging out at grandma’s house, but even grandma knows how to get down to The Abstract.

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