25 years ago today, three albums dropped that became game-changers. It wasn't planned. Nobody knew what they'd do. It was pure organic history and pure organic shifts in music with Nirvana's Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magic and A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory.
All of them built up in their own way. Nirvana was blowing up in Seattle but Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were starting to make impacts on radio as well. The Chilis were Los Angeles legends just taking mainstream success with Mother's Milk but were known for punk-funk and rowdy shows around the country. Tribe? An incredible debut that had New York and others anxious to see what they'd do next adding to the Native Tongues landscape.
There's more than enough words on Nevermind today. The album that made most of us know who Nirvana was. The classic cover, the classic songs still getting play on radio so that when I was in high school (98-02), I knew them like they just came out. As much as Smells like Teen Spirit is overplayed, there's still a rush when you hear those opening chords and that chorus that brought in a new generation.
Now I've learned more about music to know Teen Spirit was heavily influenced by Boston's More Than a Feeling and The Pixies soft-loud dynamic (quiet on the verses, loud on the chorus - something you can really hear on "In Bloom"). "Come As You Are" stole the riff from Killing Joke's "Eighties" but it still sounds so murky and beautiful that you can't help but enjoy. It doesn't rob Nirvana of their power or how that album ushered in grunge in 1992.
Oh and "Breed" is one of my favorites because it hints at Nirvana's punk roots. To me, this song is all about Krist Novoselic's heavy bass and Dave Grohl's heavy drumming. Kurt Cobain has a nasty guitar solo that just fires me up but this was all about the total band just going all out, probably why I've had it on my running playlist a few times.
Contrast that with "On a Plain" which always moves me on the Unplugged version. Something about that record makes me feel the pain in Kurt's voice and it's perfect near the end.
Then we have Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Rick Rubin on board to help mature the Chili Peppers sound. But you know something funny? I waver on this album being my favorite sometimes with Mother's Milk.
Don't get me wrong. BSSM has my favorite Chilis songs. "Suck My Kiss" is just so raw and fun every time I hear it. The Power of Equality is one of the more underrated intros in their catalog. The title track has some heavy funk in there and "Sir Psycho Sexy" is hilarious and wild. And of course, "Under the Bridge" is a great love letter to L.A. and so uplifting to me even though it's a depressing revisit into drug abuse.
But something about it lacks the raw punk sound and wild energy of Mother's Milk. Part of that is Rick Rubin robbing that in folks he produces (and I wondered if my burned CD robbed some of that sound in college) but it's missing from BSSM. So I guess there's different things I love about BSSM than Mother's Milk but what I love is great.
You hear Anthony Kiedis show that he's a solid songwriter. You hear John Frusicante show why he's a musical genius even if the fame drove him away during the tour. His guitar work on "I Could Have Lied" is incredibly soulful and hints at the goodness he'd show on later albums. So the album has some wonderful highs I love all the time and it blew them up from the L.A. alternative scene they shared with Fishbone, Jane's Addiction and more to be rock legends.
I just have a weird relationship with it as a super duper Chilis fan. Oh and if you don't like "Give It Away" you don't have a soul. Period.
Now Low End Theory. I've written words already about this being the first Tribe album I heard but with Phife Dawg having left us, it's key to remember his presence is why this album stands out. We knew about Q-Tip being a great MC from the debut. We knew the first album was well-produced so the second would have it. But Phife's presence makes it have more oomph.
His intro on "Buggin Out" still gets me excited as much as hearing that bass kick in. His solo cut "Butter" showed the personality I'd become a fan of when I dug into Tribe. And of course, his back and forth on Check the Rhime with Q-Tip became a new standard for group interplay.
I still love this album for what it has overall. The heavy bass sound. The immaculate production and Q-Tip giving us gems on "Verses from the Abstract" (The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket). It's hip-hop that was smoothed out but no less great. You can hear it now and know that the Native Tongues wasn't just De La Soul's left field greatness but it was also Tribe finding their own lane and giving us timeless music.
"Scenario" will be played forever and ever and ever and we'll get hyped like dungeon dragons with Busta. But today's birthday means we'll also miss Phife Dawg much more. The 5-Foot Assassin who gave us wonderful chemistry with Q-Tip and made Tribe one of my all-time favorites. A classic album with bass and rhymes for days and helped usher in the alternative rap sound that Ultramagnetic MCs, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers and more started.
Happy birthday to three game-changers. Timeless works of art that will never leave my ears or many of us who grew up in their aftermath.