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Article Aug 5 2017 Written by

Honoring The Best Hip Hop LP’s: A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory

A Tribe Called Quest "The Low End Theory" (1991)

Not content to recycle or reinterpret, The Low End Theory is an extension of the jazz that came before, merging the fluidity of Hip Hop vocal with airy, open spaces and curt instrumentation. Abrupt stops and starts allow each word to hang over an abyss of negative space, contributing to the composition as much as an instrument and stoking the narcotic aura of jazz’s profligacy. The mood set by the intimacy of the environment and propelled by the rumbling undercurrent of bass is warm and nostalgic, placid enough to strike a demeanor mirroring A Tribe Called Quest’s silken, phonetic flow. The coherence in sound and vocal composure has inspired an expansion of lyrical scope, capturing the playfulness of the debut with a new found ardor for sexual politics and major label maneuvering.

Introspective and sneakily political, Q-Tip’s brilliance lies in his ability to unveil obscured truths, whether they be as profound as a lyrical exploration of art’s seasonality or as trivial as a comprehensive list of backstage snack requests. His mastery of the form lies in this alternation between serious and frivolous, respecting even the most foolish of his conceits enough to take it beyond the two-bar minimum. Vocally, he’s deeper than his counterpart, but no less agile, managing to strike a balance with the beat much like the one he’s struck between disparate thematic material.

Crucial concerns find his words spit out at a quick clip, adding a needed tension to arguments against racial discord, vanity and the wiles of record-industry “shing-dings” (his word for phonies). Breakneck speeds find him concise and crystal-clear, as he’s never one to fumble over an unneeded syllable, but relaxation and comfort only truly shine through when he “fluctuates the diction,” ruminating over his sexual prowess in the most floral and frequent manner. These dirty dalliances are buried in the knottiest of stanzas, peeking out in feline metaphors that smack of chauvinism, even if his tongue is planted firmly in cheek. Measuring his capacity for copulation as a stockpile of “Tender Vittles” is amusing for its Chaucerian bawdiness, but assuming any female rejection happens around the 28th day of the month sounds positively primitive in the 21st century.

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Phife Dawg doesn’t fare much better on “The Infamous Date Rape,” but he earns all other moments, maturing into a splendid storyteller and uproarious comedic writer. “Butter” finds him as a high-school Casanova, conquering every female opponent in sight and whimsically harmonizing their first names, until “Flo” serves him an unexpected dose of teenage heartbreak. Thankfully, this two-timer only gave him the life experience needed to shuffle on to a new partner, which most certainly won’t be a lady with a weave (“I asked who did your hair and you tell me Diane made it.”) or one of the snobs that dissed him before his royalty checks cleared.

Vocal sounds are as pronounced as the lyricists and at the fore of the production, with omnipresent bass and the thrum of snare drum gently resting behind, coaxing out a seductive, organic rhythm. Libidinous urges are as fleshed out sonically as they are in the minds of the vocalists, resulting in grooves that shake the pelvis and demand a complicit head nod. The bed of samples selected is fertile and lively, alternating between boisterous horn and subtle, dulcet organ tone, tranquil enough to go unnoticed next to the speaker-rupturing low end. One particularly muted passage finds Tribe leaning towards ambient atmospherics, flipping a sumptuous Grant Green guitar improvisation into a floating, spacy psych segue, replete with trails of heavy echo and sustained keys. Morphing quotations from other artists into parts of a bigger puzzle has allowed Tribe to define their own style, instead of linking their legacy to one artist or movement in particular.

Sidestepping avant-garde jazz in favor of a more fundamental sound, Tribe refurbished a lumbering Mike Richmond bass line into chunky, melodic gold. The resulting track (“Buggin’ Out”) is gloriously groove-oriented and fixated on its sonorous, obsidian low-end, varying only for bits of contrasting, crisp drum clash and sharply struck high-hat. Stripped of studio-imparted formality and artificiality, the composition pares down the sound to a trinity of words, bass and percussion, striking a distinctly unrestrained space suited for lyrical exploration. Phife thrives in this environment, dishing out scrappy, nuanced banter from the first-person perspective, phrased as punchline or retaliatory exclamation, often in relation to his diminutive stature. Q-Tip is eminently more confident and effortlessly poetic, effusive in his applause of musical expression, black introspection and uplifting positivity. His words are beautifully strung and rife with meaning, likening the catharsis of emotion in his writing to the release of seminal fluid, proliferating a thoughtfulness and imagination in Hip Hop that wouldn’t succumb to the emptiness of intellectualism or gangster rap nihilism.

A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory was ranked #3 on Matt Deapo‘s Hip Hop Top 50, a ranking of 50 of the best Hip Hop albums recorded between 1978 and 2006, based on this consideration and these rules.

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Matthew Deapo is a Philadelphia-based arts critic and founding writer for Hip Hop Top 50 (hiphoptop50.blogspot.com) and Kinetoscope Film Journal (www.kinetoscope.org). His essay on Awesome Dré was recently included…

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