Saturday, December 15, 2007

[017] The Low End Theory

Album: The Low End Theory
Artist: A Tribe Called Quest
Release Date: September 1991
Label: Jive
Producers: A Tribe Called Quest, with Skeff Anselm

“All it is is the code of the streets
So listen to the knowledge being dropped over beats
Beats that are hard, beats that are funky
They could get you hooked like a crackhead junkie
What you gotta do is know that Tribe is in the sphere
The Abstract Poet prominent like Shakespeare”
- Q-Tip, from “Excursions”

The Low End Theory is my favorite album of all time. I’ve come to the realization that it achieved that status by default. I have had many different ‘favorite’ albums over the past 20 years, which is essentially how long I’ve been interested in owning the music I like, and while A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album has never been the number one ruler, it’s stuck around longer than any other; it has lingered as one of my top ten, ‘desert island discs’ if you like, pretty much since I purchased the cassette in 1992. Dozens of other albums have come and gone; I’ve grown up and over many of them, while some just faded with the artists’ careers like old Polaroid photos. Some have given way to other records by the same group, like how Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones was once my favorite album, but now I prefer Exile On Main St. Tribe's Low End Theory has endured though, standing by my side through more of my life than any other album, on this list or otherwise. In fact, there are few people that have been in my life longer than Low End Theory has. My family is small. I have my one brother, and most of the rest of my family lives in Europe. A lot of my friends have large families, lots of siblings and cousins. I always envied my friends for this reason, and so maybe music takes that place in my life. The Low End Theory has been my cousin, my friend, my other brother. I’ve included it in every facet of my life. I will find a way to play it on my wedding day, and will probably leave instructions for it to play at my funeral, even though none of the songs on the album lend themselves specifically to either of those events. I would even go so far as to say that Low End Theory is my most prized possession – despite showing the wear of years, the plastic case covered in scratches and cracks (not to mention that I own three copies, 2 CDs and a cassette) – because it’s given me more than anything else I own. It’s been so present throughout my life that I guess I use my love of Low End Theory to define who I am as a person, in the same way a sports superfan talks about ‘their’ team as ‘We’ – ‘We drafted well this year’ or ‘I hope We make the play-offs this year’.

Now I’m faced with a virtually impossible task – for me to try and tell you why Low End Theory is a great album is like trying to explain why you love your brother or sister, what makes them a good person, etc. You just love them because you’re supposed to; that’s just the way it goes. And while that may sound like a ridiculous notion to hang on a simple LP, because that LP is Low End Theory it doesn’t seem so outlandish. This is the intangible, the reason why A Tribe Called Quest’s second album is not only on this list, but towards the top. Ask anyone that owns the album, and they’ll all flash a smile ear-to-ear when talking about how much they love it; they will also almost always tell a story about their past, how Tribe’s music reminds them of a crazy high school party or studying for finals at college. Ask anyone who’s ever heard it, and you probably won’t find one person that could say they hate it. As it says in the sidebar, in addition to being the best, these are the most beloved albums, and I would definitely say that The Low End Theory is one of the most universally beloved albums for my generation. There can’t possibly be a way to not like it.

OK, but why is that?? The answer to that question doesn’t sit up and say hello like it does for so many of these others albums, because a casual listener will simply hear a great Hip-Hop album. There’s nothing on the album that really sticks out as fancy, though “Scenario” and its public arrival of Busta Rhymes do end the album with the “RAOW RAOW” of a dungeon dragon. Low End’s greatness is this…this…THING that just waves and smiles at you and it appears tangible right in front of you and you still can’t describe what it is. The rhymes are very good, but not like Rakim or Biggie or Nas good. The beats are very good, but not quite Bomb Squad or RZA or Primo good. The songs, for the most part, initially hit your brain in a very subtle way, and they remain like that because, I would say, Low End Theory is what Hip-Hop is supposed to sound like, and so therefore it’s not really shocking. It’s fully formed, with everything in its right place. Despite Tribe’s beats now sounding powerful compared to today’s thin programming of rimshots and handclaps and clicks, these rhythms aren’t necessarily hard as they are relentlessly funky; they hit the sweet spot in the back of your brain that controls head-nodding and foot-tapping. Despite the reputation of the Native Tongues as hippies and whatever, the rhymes are nothing of the sort, and aren’t as soft as people think they remember them being, with enough bristling at the everyday problems that any 21 year old would encounter – even the photos of the band in the CD booklet show that the trio abandoned the bohemian garb they sported for their debut, dressing instead in simple polos, button-downs, and jeans. Maybe that’s the reason why The Low End Theory makes a good friend - because it’s actually pretty straight forward and normal. I mean Phife can famously talk sports with you, maybe tell you a story about that dude down the block or that girl from back in the day, while you could listen to Q-Tip gush about his record collection for hours, or maybe debate the issues of the current events, but this is what you do with your people anyway. And Tribe made that comfort into an album with effortless cool.

It’s never really clear how much of the production is a group effort, though I guess it’s telling that later Ali and Tip formed the production team “The Ummah” with J Dilla, and Phife was not included (though, to be fair, Phife had also moved down south). But assuming Ali Shaheed Muhammed is so good at what he does, unless I come out and say Ali is solely and directly responsible for the beats on this album, he would get passed over for recognition. He was one of the first DJ’s to stand behind a turntable deck at the back of the stage, doing his thing, but on the album, you almost never hear scratches or anything. He instead puts the studio hat on and caresses and massages the samples until they’re loops, and the loops until they’re grooves, and the grooves until they’re songs. On much of Low End Theory, the tracks are so seamless – the echo of the snare on “Buggin’ Out”, the timbre of the bass on “Skypager” – they could be a live band. Tribe’s choices of beats, basslines, what have you, are so brilliant that these pieces of vinyl from times past seem like they were waiting around just for Ali to cut them up. The much-discussed Jazz flavor of Low End Theory – best utilized in the overlapping horns and centrifugal bass of “Excursions”, the Ron Carter guest spot on the breezy “Verses From The Abstract” (big up to the angelic Vinia Mojica as well), the hum of “Vibes & Stuff”, and of course the absolute perfection of the ghostly jeep-ready “Jazz (We’ve Got)” – was a big deal in 1991, that Hip-Hop Golden Era gray area between the mind-bending schizophrenia of Nation Of Millions or 3 Feet High, and the glossy criminology of The Chronic, but there’s just as much old soul in this record. The urban caveats of “Everything Is Fair” ride a cherry-picked Funkadelic snippet, while the irrepressible “Buggin’ Out” lays back on its ride cymbal like the second half of Aretha’s “Chain Of Fools”. Q-Tip’s spitfire perceptions on “What” bounce like super-balls off organ which could be excised from classic Stevie Wonder, while the funk of "Rap Promoter" could by Curtis Mayfield. Closing out the album on a perfect note, the posse cut “Scenario” with the Leaders of the New School is still one of the greatest, most exhilarating singles in Hip-Hop history, so infectious that I definitely remember it being the first Rap song I wanted to know all the words to.

A Tribe Called Quest didn’t have to deal with as much hippie accusations as their spiritual cousins in De La Soul because when they came out with People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, Q-Tip, presented as the group’s main voice, spread his subject matter out, immediately tackling what he saw around him. When they returned with Low End Theory, now with Phife in an increased vocal role, the MC duo developed a new post-Run-DMC tag team style which allowed both voices to stretch out and carve individual signatures. Phife had honed his flow with a rubbery but unshakable rhythm, bringing stinging lunchroom humor that was second-to-none. He was the definition of reliable, almost like the AC/DC of MC’s, beginning almost every verse by reminding you who he was and who he was representing, and then usually throwing in something about himself (like, say, his small stature or “hockey puck” complexion); the amazing thing was that his shtick never got old. You loved Phife for being Phife. Q-Tip on the other hand was comparably unpredictable. It’s taken me all these years to really notice though, because for the most part the talking point with Tip has always been his tone of voice, that slightly high, slightly nasal delivery. Dissecting Low End as I am now, I find that Tip was predicting the type of playfulness that would inform so many MC’s for the next decade, from Busta to Mos Def to Snoop to even Biggie. Tip was adaptable, he found the nooks and crannies in a beat; the way he speeds up and slows down on “Buggin’ Out” reveals his genius technique, and if his “well-agitated” verse on “Scenario” wasn’t so in-the-pocket, it wouldn’t have set up Busta so well for take off. In becoming such a tight unit, Q-Tip and Phife saw the opportunity to present responsible and intelligent rhymes on society’s issues from the perspective of Young Black Male, while being careful to not beat you over the head with polemics like Public Enemy. Tribe came with messages but tempered with humor. Phife’s “Butter” is funny, but it’s also a sharp critique of the fake, image conscious girls. “Check The Rhime”, “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” all explore the shady financial problems in the music industry with laser precision, while Tip comments on the industry’s cyclical nature on “Excursions”. On the great “The Infamous Date Rape”, Tip and Phife have a go at the delicate tensions of dating in the age of no-means-no debates and full-force AIDS fears; their balance of male confusion and polite sensitivity for the female is incredibly acute for both their age and the era of Hip-Hop. What’s really important in the end is that these songs rarely cease being fun, and that’s Tribe’s secret. They’re able to be accessible, even lovable in places, without losing the hard masculinity so essential in Hip-Hop at the time. The Low End Theory is a masterpiece of that balance between soft and hard, and that’s why it’s loved the world over and that’s why it’s always welcome in my life. Honestly, because I love The Low End Theory so much, the fact that I’ve written these 2000 words – my most yet for the list – seems like just scratching the surface, except that everything past this point can’t be put into in words. I can simply just feel it.

01. “Excursions”
02. “Buggin’ Out”
03. “Rap Promoter”
04. “Butter”
05. “Verses From The Abstract”
06. “Show Business” [feat. Lord Jammar, Sadat X, & Diamond D]
07. “Vibes And Stuff”
08. “The Infamous Date Rape”
09. “Check The Rhime”
10. “Everything Is Fair”
11. “Jazz (We’ve Got)”
12. “Skypager”
13. “What?”
14. “Scenario” [feat. Leaders of the New School]

"Check The Rhime" [video]

"Jazz (We've Got)/Buggin' Out" [video]

"Scenario" [video]
Check the Redman cameo, 21 & eating chicken

"Scenario" [live on The Arsenio Hall Show, 1992]
Arsenio was so big at the time, this is the exact moment that Busta Rhymes became famous.

- BONUS: "Excursions" [audio]
- BONUS: "Buggin' Out" [audio]
- BONUS: "Rap Promoter" [audio]
- BONUS: "Butter" [live at the 2006 Bumbershoot Festival, Seattle]
- BONUS: "Butter" [audio]
- BONUS: "Verses From The Abstract" [audio]
- BONUS: "Show Business" [audio]
- BONUS: "Vibes And Stuff" [audio]
- BONUS: "The Infamous Date Rape" [audio]
- BONUS: "Check The Rhime" [live on Letterman]
Rarely-seen performance with Paul Schaeffer's band on the backup
- BONUS: "Check The Rhime" [audio]
- BONUS: "Everything Is Fair" [audio]
- BONUS: "Jazz (We've Got)" [audio]
- BONUS: "Skypager" [fan video/audio]
- BONUS: "What?" [audio]
- BONUS: "Scenario/Check The Rhime" [live at the 2006 Bumbershoot Festival, Seattle]
- BONUS: "Scenario" [audio]

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