In the 90s, I was a rock fan into rock and punk music. So very little hip hop made its way onto my radar. But some bands were too big to be totally oblivious of. Public Enemy, De La Soul, Run DMC and N.W.A were impossible to ignore. But there was one massive name in 90s hip hop that passed me by at the time, who has gone to become possibly my favourite group from that period of that genre. A Tribe Called Quest don’t sound like other popular rap from that period. And their unique sound may have hit its peak with The Low en Theory.
Backed by its samples of gentle jazz horns and soft stand up bass, Excursions uses that production to highlight Q-Tip’s vocal delivery. He’s not a hard core gangsta like Ice Cube, or a militant revolutionary like Chuck D. He was a little more reserved and thoughtful than those guys. The less-angry, more-positive vibes continue with Phife Dawg’s playful opening verse on Buggin’ Out.
After the prominent jazz sounds of the opening quartet, The Low end Theory gets a bit more sexy with the slow jam, grooved bass of Verses From the Abstract. It changes Q-Tip’s flow as well. Not that he’s uptight on any of the previous songs, they’re just very precise. But things just seem to have a looser, more organic feel here. Then it’s time for some full blown funk on Show Business. If this record was the basis for a live set, this is the track that would have the crowd at their most pumped.
With its chilled out, laid back, rolling backing track, Vibes and Stuff and Infamous Date Rape are the first time I can hear A Tribe Called Quest get a little more like their West coast contemporaries. While Q-Tip and Phife don’t really give off this vibe here, I could hear these same samples and beats being used on a smoke filled Snoop Dogg track.
When the big beats come, they come really big in Skypager. It has a lo-fi sound that makes it feel a little more immediate and on edge than the rest of The Low End Theory. That same edge is then transferred to the MCs, with Tip and Phife sounding more street than ever. We get the opposite on What?, as the quirky beat almost hides Q-Tip’s series of pretty serious questions about the state of the world, mixed between the odd trivial throw away.
The Low End theory is such a good snapshot of what made A Tribe Called Quest stand out from their contemporaries in the 90s. This is a record like no other mainstream, mass selling rap record from the time (that I have heard). Edgier than De la Soul, less aggressive than N.W.A, more optimistic than Public Enemy. All of these comparisons are my ineffective way of trying to convey just how incomparable they were.