Songs by Theme
About A Tribe Called Quest
Liner Notes: A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)
by Mark Anthony Neal
You might think of the late 1980s and early 1990s as Hip-Hop’s most wide open period, premised in part by the national circulation of a sound born and raised in the Afro-Caribbeanized Bronx (the actual mixtape of that moment as analog social media)--success less the matter of a Blueprint--though KRS-One did in fact drop one in the summer of 1989, the same summer that Public Enemy told u that it was was “a number, another summer...sound of the funky drummer” from the metaphoric theme-song for Spike Lee’s attempted takeover of the business of producing relevant cinematic images of Blackness. In the backdrop, the shooting death of a Black teenager, named Yusef, whose name rang out in a world both without hashtags or platforms to do anything with them. Finding the beats and rhymes that adhered to the Brand New that was the Hip-Hop generation coming to political maturation amidst Jesse Jackson’s run for the White House and the release from prison of a South African political prisoner only known to this generation by a dated black and white photo nearly three decades-old; released two months before A Tribe Called Quest’s debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
If A Tribe Called Quest’s debut was a sonic invocation to diasporic movement--in the music, in the tri-State area, where a subway ride from Brooklyn to the Bronx might as well have been a flight from Jamaica to Ghana, on the dancefloor--their follow-up The Low End Theory was an attempt to find grounding, a bottom, within shifting terrains of consumption and political discourse. One might think of The Low End Theory as a theorization of bottoms; in part inspired, by NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, and a Hard Bop minimalism drawn from samples from Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers--the finishing school for a generation of giants, including the Brothers Marsalis and A Tribe Call Quest favorite Freddie Hubbard--and guitarist Grant Green. The richness of the bottom, with its resonances of Black bodies gendered, sweaty, sexy, intricate and in darkness (perhaps), was the will to locate a politics (hard bop as the soundtrack to the pre-movement of the Civil Rights Sixties), an artistic sophistication that the embrace of Jazz signaled, and a connection to Daddy, whose music this once was--a nod to Jonathan Davis, Sr., who provided his son Q-Tip with a portion of the archive that A Tribe Called Quest is built on, the grand-daddy of CL Smooth, who gets a shout on “They Reminisce Over You” (“nodding off to sleep to a Jazz tune, I can hear his head banging on the wall in the next room”), and trumpeter Olu Dara, who appears on “Life’s a Bitch” from his son Nasir Jones’s debut Illmatic.
Those opening bass lines on “Excursions”, The Low End Theory’s opening track are as iconic as any sounds produced in Hip-hop in that era; signaling new inventions and dimensions to give a nod to another Hard-Bop God, Herbie Hancock, whose own career arc from keeping the time to time traveling, served as an example of the possibilities. Indeed listening to Umar Bin Hassan from The Last Poets riffing in that signature wheeze from “Time,” reminder that A Tribe Called Quest was obsessed with time, cause you gotta be able to keep time, if you gonna change the times--the reason why Flava Flav had that damn clock around his neck in his role as Public Enemy’s Eshu Elegbara asking “What Time Is It?”
The Low End Theory is like one of the best archives of great hard-Bop era Jazz bassists, as it should be, since time is best kept in the bottom While drummers are the keepers of the rhythm--inspiration for the twerk, in that twerking, if you will--it is the bass players that keep the pace, keep the people moving forward, hence a term like “walking the bass.” It is the largely obscure Mickey Bass who is featured on the iconic “Excursions”--his own composition, which appears on a fellow Pittsburgh native Art Blakey. When the album shifts to second track “Buggin’ Out”--one of the lyrical platforms that established Phife on equal footing with Q-Tip--it is the equally obscure Mike Richmond holding court from a 1970s new jack, drummer Jack Dejohnette’s New Rags (1977), some hard-bop sensibilities reimagined for a generation looking for new directions, and it finds a home in the grooves of a Hip-Hop band seeking the same more than a decade later.
With tracks like “Verses from the Abstract,” “Vibes and Things” (built around guitarist Grant Green’s “Down Here on the Ground” with the bottom maintained by Neal Creque on the Hammond B-3), and “Jazz (We Got)”, along with the aforementioned tracks, the architexture of The Low End Theory is made explicit--architexture a term coined by Jeffrey Q. McCune in consideration of the structure and texture of space, which I employ in this instance to consider the structure and texture of sound.1 The group famously reached out the noted Jazz bassist and Miles Davis alum Ron Carter--known for professoriate style, replete with pipe in mouth, while playing the bass--to provide lines on “Verses from Abstract,” a song that was ironically a concession to R&B radio.2 Carter’s request that the group not use cuss words on the track, is perhaps overstated, though that likely would not have been a caveat if the group would have been able to actually raise Charlie Mingus from the grave to make the session.
The track “Jazz (We Got)” which was A Tribe Called Quest’s most explicit claim on the Jazz tradition--it was the album’s second single, and featured a black and white video, interspersed with a Phife’s verse from “Buggin’ Out." The song’s production, which featured a sample from Lucky Thompson’s performance of the standard “Green Dolphin Street” from a live set at the Cook County Jail in 1972, is shrouded in controversy, as Pete Rock--another noted miner of hard-bop samples--is not given credit for conceptualizing the samples that serve as the basis of the song’s production. The minor dispute over authorship is notable, because it finds this generation of artists and producers still establishing the ethical practices of sampling, premised as it were on what might be defined legally as copyright infringement, and Afro-Diasporic musical and vernacular practices of borrowing and citation.
The lead single “Check the Rhime” seems almost afro-futuristic in comparison to the more laid back, daisy-age, jr. mood of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, where the group still seemed tethered to the sensibilities of their mentors, and sometimes rivals The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul; “Check the Rhime” managed to update Tribe’s sound to match the emerging East Coast Boom-Bap of Gangstarr (DJ Premier + the late Guru), Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Brand Nubian, Nice and Smooth, and De La Soul, while setting the sonic path through which Nas’s Illmatic (1993) and ironically De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate (1993) and especially Stakes is High (1996) would find their paths. The same can be said with “Butter”--Phife’s coming-out party, which perhaps should have been a single. Built around a sample of Weather Report’s “Young and Fine”--a song thematically in-sync with that of “Butter.” With his breakthrough track, Phife establishes his signature style, of what might be called metadata referencing--his ability to draw widely from a range of cultural reference in the service of metaphoric meaning; Phife was a data mixer, in an era that predates the emergence of Big Data.
The full impact of The Low End Theory is best witnessed on the album’s closing track, “Scenario”--a posse cut with Leaders of the New School, which established group member Busta Rhymes as a major visual star (the group would disband after their second album). The song’s video, shot by Jim Swaffield, provided an Afro-futuristic view of the very interactive digital platforms that are part of the status quo of social life in the United States in the 21st century. It is perhaps most emphatic representation of the continued legacy of A Tribe Called Quest’s low end theories.