Tuesday, June 2, 2009

June 2: A Tribe Called Quest, "The Low End Theory"

Artist: A Tribe Called Quest
Album: The Low End Theory
Year: 1991
Label: Jive

Though fusing jazz with most genres is difficult, successfully mixing it with rap music has proven to be nearly impossible. Though countless artists have attempted it, nearly all of them have failed, with it simply becoming a rap album with a less aggressive musical backing. In the case of hip hop legends, A Tribe Called Quest, the formula works perfectly, and their sound and style remain unmatched to this day. Going against the style of the time, the group took a far more relaxed and intelligent approach to their sound, exchanging chilled out beats and melodies instead of pounding bass. Bucking the trend further with clearly delivered, conscious lyrics, their first three albums stand as the high mark for hip hop, nearly two decades after their release. The middle child of this stellar trio of records, 1991's The Low End Theory is one of the most phenomenal hip hop records ever made, without a bad beat, lyric, or mood anywhere on the album.

A Tribe Called Quest serve as the bridge from stylistic pioneers like De La Soul to the more modern incarnations of the style, found in artists like The Roots and Common. The Low End Theory itself still stands as a landmark, as it proved beyond doubt that, much like with rock music, there was space for an "alternative" hip hop scene as well. One of the most significant contributors to The Low End Theory was now legendary producer, Pete Rock. Having honed his skill with the likes of Marley Maul and Heavy D, Rock had a large part in this album, though his contributions went completely uncredited. When the group first presented the album to the execs at Jive, they had no faith in the records' commercial appeal, and the album nearly never saw the light of day. Thankfully, a few people with power at Jive believed fully in Q-Tip's vision, and helped to get The Low End Theory released with only a few adjustments. Since it's release, the album has found its way to the top of countless "best of" lists, both in hip hop, as well as music in general.

Musically, The Low End Theory was one of the last rap records to truly have "music" as a background before the explosion of the "G Funk" era. Smooth bass, not overpowering, and jazzy, groovy melodies line each track, yet they manage to get your "head bobbing" just as well as the "gangsta" beats that would follow from other artists. Mixing bright horn sections as well as moody keyboard pieces, and then fusing it together with traditional hip-hop sampling and scratching takes The Low End Theory to an entirely new musical level. Pulling samples from everyone from Jimi Hendrix to James Brown to Steve Miller Band, the mixing of samples by DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad is nothing short of phenomenal. Another non-rapper who has a major impact on the album is bassist Ron Carter. Having recorded on well over 2,500 albums, he is easily one of the most recorded musicians in history. On the song, "Verses From The Abstract," the group pulls a move nearly unthinkable at the time, tossing the programmed and pre-recorded bass to the sound, and Q-Tip raps live with Carter in the studio. Musically, nearly all of The Low End Theory rewrote what was acceptable in the world of hip hop, and still serves as the blueprint for current artists in the same vein.

The rhymes throughout The Low End Theory remain some of the most brilliant, conscious lyrics to ever grace a hip hop record. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are an unrivaled duo, and they play perfectly off of one anothers' flows. From hilarious phrasings to some of the most biting, pointed social criticisms ever recorded, the lyrics that the pair performed throughout their career remain as the bar to which other "conscious" rappers aspire to reach. Q-Tip sums up the appeal of their sound perfectly when he rhymes, "Women love the voice, brothas dig the lyrics...Quest the people's choice, we thrive it for the spirit..." The flawless interplay between the two is shown on every track, yet their back and forth rhyming on "Check The Rhime" highlights everything that makes the pair so amazing together. Another addition of The Low End Theory that simply cannot be overlooked is the appearance of up and coming rapper, Busta Rhymes. Having just released his first record with Leaders Of The New School (who all appear on this album), his appearance here jump started his rise to fame, as his verse on "Scenario" shows early signs of the style that would make him famous. "Scenario" is easily the most recognizable song off of The Low End Theory, and half a dozen different emcees on the track, it remains largely regarded as the best "posse cut" ever recorded.

Ignoring the building trend to release more "hardcore" hip hop records, A Tribe Called Quest stayed true to themselves and created the foundation for the "alternative" hip hop scene. Presenting the epitome of the term "keeping it real," both the music is as smooth as any, and the lyrics are founded on clear, common, yet astute and introspective themes. Fusing together traditional hip hop sampling with a jazzy mood, as well as live instrumentation, the group proved, that when done correctly, the more humble approach far outshines the "loud and aggressive" rap style. Trading "gangsta" sounds and lyrics for smart, socially aware rhymes, the top notch rapping of Q-Tip and Phife demanded respect throughout the hip hop scene. The second part of a classic trilogy of albums, A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 release, the landmark The Low End Theory remains one of the most complete and remarkable records not only in hip hop, but in the overall history of music as well.

Standout tracks: and "Excursions," "Check The Rhime," and "Scenario."

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