It’s been 22 years to the day that A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory.
I’m gonna tell you a secret. When songs overwhelm me with their greatness, I get goosebumps and I well up. Sometimes it’s due to a sentimental association; happier times when I didn’t have a care in the world. Other times, my brain can’t fathom the awesomeness of it all. De La Soul’s Much More does that to me and it takes about 90 seconds for me to “come round” from the emotional overload. Another such track to produce this reaction is Excursions, the opening track to A Tribe Called Quest’s breakthrough sophomore album, The Low End Theory. For a track with nothing more than an interpolated bass sample, a drum break and prime cut verses from Q-Tip to make me lose my mental faculties for three minutes, that has to give an indication of what this album means to other listeners. But the track and the album are so much more than carefully selected samples in the right place at the right time.
The Low End Theory was the follow up to ATCQ’s untidy but exuberant debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It caught the attention of many but didn’t pack the same critical punch their fellow Native Tongues members De La Soul did with 3 Feet High And Rising. What Tribe did was take everything learnt from People’s Instinctive Travels, mature their content, expressions and strip back on their sound. With the departure of Jarobi White, who took up his love of culinary art, it was time for the remaining members to step things up as a group. The opening verses on Excursions are as good as an excerpt from hip hop’s Rosetta Stone and Q-Tip never faltered with the rhymes on The Low End Theory. Perhaps the biggest upgrade in stature was Phife Dawg’s who effectively fully “blast” onto the scene and into the spotlight with his performance on Buggin’ Out.
As far as the sampling is concerned, The Low End Theory was bettered (for me) only by Midnight Marauders in what was picked. Cherry picked, I should add because – as I will explain later – there was something of an underlying theme on the album. Most of the samples chosen were of the jazz/funk/fusion persuasion from the 70s, the era when jazz had been engulfed with new technology and stylistic advances. Artists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock had shoehorned this evolution into the genre, mixing funk elements with the abstractions of jazz. But you want to know who was sampled, don’t you? You can actually download the sample set for the album via Hip Hop Is Read but as a brief summary, music from Sly & the Family Stone, Weather Report, Funkadelic and Minnie Riperton were used amongst others.
But perhaps my favourite part of the album is the subtext. People’s Instinctive Travels was fun and games but The Low End Theory was where things got serious and their musical cap doffing to their black music predecessors make this album stand out from many of the other hip hop LPs that were out at the time. By 24th September 1991, N.W.A.’s Niggaz4Life, Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, Gang Starr’s Step In the Arena, De La’s De La Soul Is Dead and Cypress Hill’s eponymous debut had already been released and amongst all the fantastic wordplay exchanges between Tip and Phife, it was the jazz influence that pushed through triumphantly. The zenith of it all was Ron Carter’s introduction as bass player on Verses From The Abstract, who said he would only appear on the track if there was no swearing on it. Q-Tip happily obliged showing just how important it was for the rapper to have a piece of jazz and black music history live on a track.
So, 22 years on, will we ever see another album like this one? Probably not. The stringency with which uncleared sample use turns into lawsuits these days would hamper an album of this type. The commerciality of hip hop albums coming through would also negate the type of “real issues” Q-Tip mentioned in response to Ron Carter’s no profanity request. Tribe have one more album left on their Jive contract but it’s questionable whether we’ll ever see another full-length Tribe album again. Until anyone confirms or denies one more, we’ll make do with their groundbreaking music.