Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Low End Theory turns 21

The first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory, I was a sophomore in college. It was 2004 and I decided it was time to finally buy a Tribe album. I found it at Best Buy and the cashier told me, "You're gonna love it."

(That's one of the sad things I miss buying music today. Not a lot of cashiers know enough about the music you're buying to give you feedback anymore. It's just ring it up, exchange money/receipts and "Have a good day")

So I came home, popped it in my desktop and listened for the next 37 minutes. What happened next help spark my love affair with one of the greatest groups in hip hop history. I played that album over and over that year and when I saw Tribe reunite that summer at the San Diego Street Scene, the booming bass of "Buggin Out" hit my soul deep!

And on the 21st anniversary of its release Monday, here's why this album is so important to me.

The first lines that Phife would speak on Low End Theory on "Buggin Out"
1) Phife Dawg. The 5-foot assassin barely showed up on Tribe's debut but when he committed to recording more for LET, he stepped up! It's one of the best leaps an MC has taken on an album. He didn't just step up to Q-Tip's level, he showed he could hold his own. The minute you heard him on "Buggin Out", you knew this wasn't going to be a one-man show anymore.

"Butter" is his coming out party. Everything I love about Phife - his similes, pop culture references, bragging about the ladies, his sports takes - showed up here on his first solo cut. He kills his verse on "Infamous Date Rape" and sets off "Scenario" with his opening verse. It's no surprise this album helped me realize why Phife is one of my favorite MC's.

2) The BASS!!! That stands out right away. I've never heard an album with this much bass before. I'm not talking 808's or Miami Bass or what you hear in Southern beats. This is heavy, subtle bass. It's like Q-Tip, Phife and Shaheed were working with a jazz band, not a hip hop studio.

3) Q-Tip settled into his groove as one of the greatest MC's of his era to me. Go listen to "Verses from the Abstract" for a great example of flow, breath control, being inside the beat. It still gives me chills hearing Ron Carter on bass and Vinia Mojica's silky voice.

"The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket. Wrap yourself up in it, if you love it, then you'll thank it."

Andre 3000 quoted this song once to explain why Q-Tip is a big influence on him. On Low End Theory, Tip showed could be as smooth as he was animated. "What?" influenced me to write a poem in similar fashion (and I discovered it inspired a rap I recited a summer camp in 1995)

4) I love how Tip and Phife show off their chemistry on the album. If Run and DMC were the modern architects of rap duo synergy, Tip and Phife took it to another level. "Check the Rhime" and "Jazz" show guys working together to make something great. Low End Theory is the start of Tribe Called Quest realizing how great they are as a group.

5) Scenario. No questions asked. The birth of Busta Rhymes as a presence. One of the greatest hip hop songs ever that still sets a crowd off 20 years later. I've seen it happen twice when I caught Tribe live.

Their followup to this, Midnight Marauders, took everything they did here a step further and it's one of my favorite albums of all time. Yet Low End Theory is equally important and great to me. It's one the best sub-40 minute experiences in hip-hop besides Illmatic and as one of the most groundbreaking albums of the last two decades, I can't get enough of it.

Thank you Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (and Jairobi in spiritual essence)

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