Of all the potential knockout moments on A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, the haymaker lands about 30 minutes in on “Check The Rhime,” the LP’s lead single. “Industry rule number four thousand and eighty,” the rapper Q-Tip declares, “record company people are shady.” Though Tribe had only one album to their credit, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the group quickly became popular behind the tracks “Bonita Applebum,” “Can I Kick It?” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” which all conveyed the band’s fondness of esoteric jazz, folk and psychedelic R&B. The blend felt equally familiar and distant, a gentle mix of adolescent naivety that appealed to old souls and skater kids all the same. Still, they had already grown tired of the nonsense: the dishonest executives, the empty promises of fame and fortune, the hangers-on who get off on proximity to coolness. So when he delivers the line, with the beat dropped out for added emphasis, you feel a year’s worth of irritation coming to the surface. The line was written amid tense dealings with their label, Jive Records, and their own changes in management. Mired in roadblocks and short on money, the band channeled their anger into the music; the resulting song and album are bona fide classics.
Founded in 1985 in St. Albans, Queens, Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White formed A Tribe Called Quest as a jazz-leaning rap troupe meant to present a different side of hip-hop culture. Before they released People’s Instinctive Travels…, they appeared on the rap group De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising as featured players on the trio’s landmark project. Both Tribe and De La were part of a larger collective called the Native Tongues, of which the rappers Queen Latifah and Monie Love were also members. The crew wore medallions and spit socially conscious rhymes that evoked the Black Liberation movement of the late 1960s. They were widely influenced by this ideology, yet they spun the views forward for younger listeners who only knew of the past from their parents’ old record collections.
On The Low End Theory, neither the lyrics nor the beats sounded bitter. Instead, the group walked through its discontent without sacrificing the fun of its previous output. Even on the track “Show Business,” where Tip calls the industry a “cesspool” and Phife laments the signing of below-average rappers (MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were the biggest targets back then), it never feels like they’re wagging their fingers. They broach the topics with parental concern, laying out all the bad as if to ask, “Are you sure you want this for yourself?” And where their peers came off surly when harping on the infrastructure, Tribe assessed it through sarcasm and a wry smile, using just enough gravity to let you know they were serious. So while it was easy to laugh at chicken, french fries and orange juice as a tour requirement on “Rap Promoter,” you didn’t want to find out what happened if the needs weren’t met.
The Low End Theory was inspired by the producer Dr. Dre and the sonic direction he took for N.W.A’s landmark debut, Straight Outta Compton. One day, during a drive with Tribe co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Tip marveled at its broad musical palette and wanted to emulate the project. “I was like, ‘Yo, we gotta make some shit like this,’” Tip told Red Bull Music Academy in 2013. He loved the way Dre’s beats blended with the rhymes and record scratches, and how heavy the bass sounded — “the drive of it,” he said. Hence the title of the album: Tip wanted to make a bass-heavy record of hard drums and murky jazz samples that sounded great on car speakers. “It’s all about low-end on that album,” the producer and Tribe collaborator Skeff Anselm once said. Indeed, the bass comes barreling in on the opening track “Excursions,” its scene-stealing follow-up “Buggin’ Out” and “Verses from the Abstract,” on which the legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter lends his trademark fluidity to the group’s downtempo drum loop.
While The Low End Theory, and Tribe’s music overall, was steered by Q-Tip’s creative vision, it would be unfair to discount Phife Dawg’s contribution to the band. The self-proclaimed “five-footer,” with a high-pitched vocal delivery and scrappy demeanor, he balanced Tip’s serene poetry with direct language that went straight for the jugular. And to think he almost wasn’t on the album.
“A couple of months before we started working on Low End, I just happened to run into Q-Tip on the train leaving from Queens going into Manhattan,” Phife once told Rolling Stone. “He was like, ‘Yo, I’m about to start recording this next album. I want you on a couple of songs, but you have to take it serious.’ … I took that into consideration along with the last couple of shows we did for that first album. I saw how fruitful things could get.”
Across this album and others, Phife rapped with a chip on his shoulder, sometimes addressing unnamed haters who underestimated his skill. On “Jazz (We’ve Got),” for instance: “I know some brothers wonder ‘Can Phifer really kick it?’ Some even wanna diss me, but why sweat it?” But think about how different Low End would sound without his standout opening verses on “Buggin’ Out” and “Scenario,” or his laid-back flow on “Butter.” History has been kind to Phife, but in the early days of Tribe, Tip, who wore big beaded necklaces and dressed in Egyptian garments that suggested an allegiance to Afrocentric jazz pioneers Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, had an intense gravitational pull. That, along with Tip’s greatest asset — his voice — coupled with the fact that the band’s third member (Muhammad) rarely said anything, made Tribe feel like a solo endeavor. We quickly learned that wasn’t the case: The Low End Theory was a communal effort on which everyone from fellow rap groups De La Soul and Brand Nubian to audio engineer Bob Power was shouted out on the tracks, and the instrumentals collected obscure samples from many different eras and subgenres, where the psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection could live alongside the organist Jack McDuff and the collective of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. A Tribe Called Quest was one of the first groups to blend jazz and hip-hop as a way to forge a bond with purists who weren’t sold on rap music as art. This was 1991, the height of the gangsta rap era, and groups like N.W.A and 2 Live Crew made it OK to be vulgar. As a result, rappers who weren’t hyper-masculine were thought to be soft, as if there was ever just one way to exhibit Black manhood. The members of Tribe weren’t pushovers, but they also weren’t bullies, and The Low End Theory tackled serious topics like date rape, consumerism and socioeconomic plight through an informal perspective. Even a song like “What?” on which Tip asked random questions about poets, martial arts, lollipops and S&M, laid the foundation for Tribe disciples Common and Mos Def to pen a like-minded track called “The Questions” almost 10 years later.
The Low End Theory had bangers, though: “Excursions,” with its hypnotic percussion and trumpet loop, felt like the type of underground jazz track you’d hear on indie labels like Strata-East, Flying Dutchman or India Navigation. Then there’s album-closer “Scenario,” arguably the greatest posse cut in rap history. Those of a certain age can remember first seeing the video, a glitchy clip of random cameos and performance shots seemingly beamed in from the future. The song itself featured the upstart group Leaders of the New School, which counted a budding young rapper named Busta Rhymes as a member. Tribe gave him the last verse — a badge of honor in hip-hop — and he spit one of the most memorable rhymes I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said it; I hadn’t heard someone so raw and demonstrative. “Scenario” showed that Busta was going to be a star. “My life changed dynamically after that,” he once said. “That record made me the number one go-to guy for features after that for a long time. I was doing so well off features, that when Leaders broke up shortly after the ‘Scenario’ record, I wasn’t even thinking about doing a solo record for the next three years.”
Many Tribe fans consider the band’s next album, 1993’s Midnight Marauders, to be its magnum opus. But you don’t arrive at the perfect nocturnal LP without first releasing a focused work like The Low End Theory, which winnowed the colorful expanse of People’s Instinctive Travels into a seamless listen. The Low End sounds minimal in comparison and is a mostly drum’n’bass record of subtle bells and whistles. That’s due to the engineer Power, who used high-end technology to isolate the most important aspects of the sample to make them pop. He and Tribe essentially wanted to shape the sounds into something fresh while maintaining the integrity of the original. “There were elaborate reconstructions,” Power told Okayplayer in 2016. “Actual, new music was coming out of combinations of samples in ways that people had never done before.” Indeed, when I think of The Low End Theory, I think of the bravery it exuded. I consider the pressure Tribe was under to top their debut, and how the band could have succumbed to outside voices. Yet they didn’t go pop, and their denouncement of commercial rap became a rallying cry for the band moving forward. Even as hip-hop grew darker and more sullen in the mid ’90s, Tribe never strayed from the friendly jazz and soul-driven aesthetic that was their calling card. By 2016 and the release of their presumed final album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, Tribe still sounded like the 20-year-old pioneers who helped restructure the tenets of alternative rap. Without them, who knows if The Roots, J Dilla or Kendrick Lamar have agency to color outside the lines. Or if Kanye West would’ve thought twice about wearing a pink Polo shirt in South Side Chicago. Tribe represented freedom, and some 30 years after The Low End Theory, it’s still a sonic masterpiece and one of the best hip-hop albums of all-time.
Marcus J. Moore is a New York-based music journalist who’s covered jazz, soul and hip-hop at The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Nation, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork and elsewhere. From 2016 to 2018, he worked as a senior editor at Bandcamp Daily, where he gave an editorial voice to rising indie musicians. His first book, The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, was published via Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) and detailed the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper’s rise to superstardom.