How A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore masterpiece put the spotlight on their secret weapon and changed the course of rap music
One of the most critically acclaimed and influential hip-hop albums of all time, The Low End Theory, broke the mold by daring to be artistic.
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Its explorational use of jazz and bebop samples combined with Afrocentric lyrics and social commentary continues to influence generations of fans and follows even 30 years later.
The sophomore album from A Tribe Called Quest got its name from the record’s use of heavier “low end” bass frequencies. From the very beginning of the record, it’s apparent where the name is derived. The deep tones and memorable bass line of the opening track, “Excursions” make the lyrical poetry of rapper/producer Q-Tip really pop.
About a month after the release of their landmark debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), rapper Phife Dawg was diagnosed with diabetes. Uncertain and thinking of leaving the group, Q-Tip agreed with Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad to use the album as a way to help get Phife’s name out there.
It was on The Low End Theory where Phife officially became the group’s anchor, keeping the ship on track while Tip went off to use more experimental rhyme schemes.
This was also the first time that the group released a record as a trio without Jarobi White. White was attending school for culinary arts at the time, and according to a 2011 article from Slate, he even contributed a few verses, but the group decided to go with different versions of the track for the final project.
White would later return in 2016 for the album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, which was posthumously released just a few short months after Phife died.
Phife and Q-Tip combined were an unstoppable force. For the lead single, “Check the Rhime” they both took turns going back and forth while reminiscing about growing up as kids in parts of Queens.
The music video was directed by Jim Swaffield, who also directed the video to “Can I Kick It?” and “Summertime” By DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and was shot in front of the Nu-Clear Dry Cleaners on Linden Blvd. in St. Albans, Queens, where Phife grew up.
VIDEO: A Tribe Called Quest “Check The Rhime”
Swaffield would also direct the video for “Jazz (We’ve Got)/Buggin Out,” which combined two of the album’s biggest tracks in a juxtaposing manner, switching between sequences of New York City shot in monochrome with bright backgrounds and white prosthetic eyes. The video was aesthetically different from what was coming out at the time and would help pave the way for future revolutionary directors like Hype Williams.
“Buggin Out” really helped introduce the world to Phife Dawg. That’s not to say Phife wasn’t already coming heavy with the lyrics, but here he most certainly delivered what many argue is his breakout performance. It’s also the first time that listeners hear “the five-foot assassin” really open up and introduce himself.
“Jazz (We’ve Got)” came while Q-Tip was working on a project with Large Professor and Pete Rock up in Mount Vernon.
According to an interview with Q-Tip featured on The Best of [The Abstract] Vol. 1 mixtape from J. Period, they were working on an instrumental but never got around to using it. Tip said that Pete Rock “told me what it was [that he sampled] and I asked him if I could use it. He was like ‘Yeah. We could just swap off something.’”
At the end of the track, he even lists off Large Pro and Pete Rock, along with Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s “Ladies First,” fellow Native Tongues members The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, members of Brand Nubian including Sadat X and Lord Jamar, who are featured on the track “Show Business,” and The Leaders of the New School, who are also featured on “Scenario.”
VIDEO: A Tribe Called Quest “Jazz (We’ve Got)”
Phife takes an introspective look at his past relationships on the solo track, “Butter.” Initially it was intended to also feature a verse from Q-Tip, however, according to Vibe, Phife insisted on keeping it as a solo track.
And considering that it’s followed by “Verses from The Abstract,” it more than makes sense. Q-Tip takes a more unconventional approach over the instrumental by famed jazz musician Ron Carter. Apparently he had only agreed to be a part of the project if Tip agreed that no profanity would be used.
The Low End Theory was the also the first time we saw the group take on a controversial topic like date rape. “The Infamous Date Rape” was meant to sound alarming and uncomfortable, because it was talking about a very real issue at a time when there wasn’t much being done. While activist efforts had just started to gain attention at the time, date rape was seldom reported and often went misunderstood.
However not every track aged quite so well. “Everything is Fair” and “Skypager” were both somewhat left behind in the ‘90s.
The former was produced by Skeff Anselm and was centered around crime and real-life situations in the ever-changing city, while the latter was about what is basically dead technology now. Nobody uses pagers anymore. Not even drug dealers.
“What?” is a timeless track that poses listeners with a series of upbeat questions, some of the questions are profound, others are rhetorical, and some are just utter nonsense.
Q-Tip explains on The Best of [The Abstract] Vol. 1 mixtape from J. Period that he had mistakenly mispronounced the word “gefilte” fish as “kapelka.” Guess he doesn’t like fresh ground cod, but then again who can blame him.
VIDEO: A Tribe Called Quest “Scenario”
The album closes with the beloved posse cut “Scenario,” featuring Charlie Brown, Dinco D, and Busta Rhymes of The Leaders of the New School.
Busta’s break-out performance in the track would help lay the foundation for his future solo career.
Originally the track also featured verses from members of Black Sheep and De La Soul, but they didn’t make the final cut. A remix of the song was also recorded by Q-Tip’s friend Kid Hood, who was shot and stabbed two days after recording his verse.
According to Q-Tip, he recorded the verse in one take while shirtless sipping out of a 40 Oz. bottle of malt liquor. Tragically, his protége was cut down before he had a chance to show the world his talent.
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the album, a 7” box set is being released in 2022. It is available for pre-order via Get On Down.