Week Fulla 90s East Coast Hip Hop – First Listen #61: A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Low End Theory’

Following yesterday’s embodiment of the greatness that is a hip hop posse cut, we have A Tribe Called Quest. While the group is about a third/half of the size of the Wu-Tang Clan, Tribe has made just as much of an impact. I say all of that as I have continued to stand back as I breeze through life with only a single Tribe track – “Scenario” – under my belt. Maybe two. I can’t remember if I’ve heard all of “Can I Kick It?” Like Wu-Tang, Tribe has always felt very intimidating to listen to because of how lauded they are in hip hop history. I just accepted that they were great and worthy of the praise. But with The Low End Theory (1991), I’m hoping to change that. No more passive acceptance! 

Photo Credit: https://www.last.fm/music/A+Tribe+Called+Quest/+images/00844232e6154f5ec004432c1d417c14

1991: The Low End Theory

(via Genius)

Overall, The Low End Theory is a ridiculous album in all of the right ways. Q-Tip and Phife Dog’s verses on here are solid all the way through, the production is consistently good, and everything on here comes together perfectly. A major point towards this project is how different it sounds from the other projects I’ve listened to this week. Before I listened to Low End, I played through the beginning of some other projects (that I hadn’t planned for this week) to see if I wanted to listen to something else. I was hoping for something that didn’t feel so close (sonically) to the week’s first three projects, but I found a lot of similarities. I was also hoping to listen to something closer to what I typically gravitate towards, and I got those things with Tribe. 

Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue

The aim is to succeed and achieve at 21

Just like Ringling Brothers, I’ll daze and astound

Captivate the mass, cause the prose was profound

Do it for the strong, we do it for the meek

Boom it in your boom it in your boom it in your Jeep


It’s the shortest project out of the ones I’ve listened to this week – the one I have planned for tomorrow is over an hour, so this will be the shortest project this week – but Tribe packs a lot into this project’s short runtime. They run through many of the same themes as the week’s previous albums that center on what living in New York was like in the 90s. We get conversations around various vices sprinkled between a lot of New York pride (and shoutouts to other “chocolate cities” around the United States) along with some commentary on the “cesspool” of rap industry politics. There’s also a track dedicated to how pagers were expanding the ways that people communicated. And Q-Tip and Phife explore all of these themes with smooth verses and sharp lines; they float over the beats on here like “Butter.” 

I have a few favorites on here. I’d heard “Scenario” before, and that one remains a favorite. I loved “Check the Rhime;” it’s clear that the song was meant to be a classic. The transition from “Rap Promoter” to “Butter” was CHEF’S KISS (and my favorite moment on the album), and “Butter” follows through beautifully with a sample of Weather Report’s “Young and Fine” and Phife’s tales of past relationships. “Jazz (We’ve Got)” was also an amazing track and is one of my favorites. I wouldn’t put “What?” on my faves list, but Q-Tip’s verse immediately took my brain back to middle school when I was slightly obsessed with The E.N.D. (2009) by Black Eyed Peas (I’m not really here for any BEP slander unless it’s post-The Beginning (2010)…I don’t know anything about their music past that), and I listened to “Rockin’ to the Beat” at least twice a day. Taboo’s verse on there feels like it was inspired by Tip’s with its “what” questions at the front of his verse on there. And that’s part of the reason I do these; there was no way I’d ever make that connection without having heard this album. The only song on here that I didn’t like as much was “The Infamous Date Rape.” While Tribe doesn’t offer as much unhinged misogyny on this project as albums past, this song teeters between exposing how men (in this case) try to take advantage of women but also says, “I’m not the type that would go for that / I’ll have to fetch a brand new cat / Baby, baby, baby I don’t wanna be rude / But I know because of your bloody attitude…When you’re done with the pads can you come check me?” in the same breath. Maybe that was supposed to be a jokey joke, but the whole song just feels weird to me. Like, are you standing up for women and this is satire, or what? I just gave it one of these and moved on. 

(edit: ooh, I wanted to put this earlier, but something I also appreciated about this project was that Phife and Q-Tip constantly made references to (NY) artists who were making music at that time. They gave a shout-out to folks like Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Busta Rhymes (who has a GREAT verse at the end of “Scenario”), Beatnuts, and Doug E. Fresh. Sometimes these albums can feel like they exist in a vacuum when they don’t reference/feature other people, so it’s nice that Tribe was intentional about recognizing their peers)

I think I’m going to have to give The Low End Theory another listen or two…or ten. Everything about this album is top-notch, and it was truly an amazing addition to the team of albums coming out at that time. The impact that this project has had on contemporary hip hop is undeniable, and the throughlines between A Tribe Called Quest and folks like Mick Jenkins and Saba is clear. The mix of jazz and hip hop is an undefeated combination, and Tribe helped paved the way for future generations to find a symbiosis between the two genres. I’m excited to play this project again. And maybe forget “The Infamous Date Rape” exists…

Overall Project Rating

Featured Image via Last.FM

(listen to The Low End Theory on Spotify by clicking the image below)

here’s something else you might like…

Week Fulla 90s East Coast Hip Hop – First Listen #60: Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’

I’ve wanted to get into Wu-Tang Clan’s music for a while, I but fell victim to musical intimidation. The group seemed too ethereal for me to just jump in randomly and start listening, so I just accepted their significant place in hip hop history and moved on (though I have heard some of them on … Continue reading Week Fulla 90s East Coast Hip Hop – First Listen #60: Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’

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