When I saw A Tribe Called Quest in concert in 1998 and they announced from the stage that they were breaking up, I nearly cried. Why did it affect me so much? They were hardly at the height of their career anymore, and their break-up had seemed inevitable for a while. But nonetheless I felt shivers up my spine and my eyes start to tear up. I’m not sure where my emotional attachment to their music comes from, but it’s there and it’s strong. After being swept away by how unique and fresh their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was, I was at the record store the morning that each of their four subsequent albums was released, ready for an album I’d knew I’d be listening to for months straight.
It’s not that Tribe ever made especially confessional music, the kind that you connect to on that “they know how I feel” level. Though they worked in their feelings here and there (“I guess I laugh to keep from crying / So much going on / People killing people dying”), the bulk of their lyrics were devoted to wordplay, humor, showing off, and a bit of social commentary here and there. As clever, sharp, friendly and occasionally insightful their songs’ messages were, to me A Tribe Called Quest’s music was all about their sound. And as good as their debut was, the point where their sound truly came together was on their second album, The Low End Theory, which remains to this day the album I’ve listened to more than any others, the one I find easiest to listen to, that I will keep enjoying until the day that I die.
Though the rolling jazz basslines, provided at one point by legendary bassman Ron Carter, and brief samples from jazz records ensure that The Low End Theory will forever be remembered as a jazz/hip-hop synthesis, it deserves to be remembered as something more than that. For to be honest, this isn’t a jazz-rap fusion. It’s a hip-hop album, even as it shows some jazz influence. Jazz is just another part of the album’s texture, along with old-school soul. What’s more notable than the influences is the way that Tribe blends them together into their own sound. That sound is at once mellow and energetic, smooth and rough-edged. The way Tribe balances the rough with the smooth is part of the key to their music. They match aggressive battle rhymes with playful humor, seductive come-ons with put-downs and boasts. Q-Tip’s distinctively sly, sweet voice meets Phife Dawg’s more rugged, reggae-inflected one. It makes sense that in the group’s aftermath Tip moved toward become a fashionable soul-jazz crooner while Phife took his more hardcore rhymes further underground. Tribe was all about chemistry: the way their voices came together and the way they fit the ingenious blend of musical styles that DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad put together. At one point on Low End Theory Q-Tip rhymes, “Women love the voice, brothers dig the lyrics” but the truth is that it was all about the whole package, the way influences, experiences, moods, and personalities met and built into something greater.
Though The Low End Theory isn’t a jazz album, be-bop and other music styles from the past do play a major role in the mood and concept of the album. Throughout the album there’s a level of gratitude towards the music of the past, and an acknowledgement that hip-hop and The Low End Theory are just another piece of a bigger picture. The Low End Theory is a minimalist affair, with a sound stripped to the essentials: vocals, drums, and bass. It’s also is a work all about collaboration, not only that of the group’s three members but the way that musicians draw inspiration from their fellow musicians (of the present and past). The Low End Theory includes nods to Tribe’s compadres throughout, and on a few tracks some of them (Large Professor, Diamond D, members of Brand Nubian) even appear. Worthy of a special note is “Scenario”, the Tribe/Leaders of the New School jam that can easily be regarded as the song that pushed Busta Rhymes into the public arena.
Anything really worth writing about is nearly indescribable; that’s the conundrum of writing about music. Any 30-second snippet of The Low End Theory will go further to convince of the album’s greatness than anything I can write. I could easily write an entire book and this one album and still feel like I’ve hardly said anything. Still, I could do worse things with my time than try to capture even an iota of the enthusiasm I feel each time I play this album. The Low End Theory is a remarkable experience, as aesthetically and emotionally rewarding as any work of music I can think of.