A Tribe Called Quest
"The Low End Theory"
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
There are influential albums, and then there are influential albums. A good deal of the records we've looked at so far have inspired the musicians that followed in their footsteps, but few have had the same effect on the artists to come like A Tribe Called Quest and its second release, the critically worshipped "The Low End Theory." Quest has had a hand in influencing what scores of rappers say during their verses, as well as the music many spit those verses over.
First, Quest's genre classification within hip-hop deserves some clarifying. Tom Moon gives credence to the "conscious hip-hop" label, a description that is invariably true, but at the same time requires context. At the time when "Low End" was released, "conscious hip-hop" was not a well-recognized term. Grandmaster Flash had merited attention with "The Message" in 1982, but at that time the genre had yet to gain notoriety for glorifying violence and profanity. N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" changed the scene and its prevailing themes overnight. Quest member Jonathan "Q-Tip" Davis cited "Compton" as an influence when making "Low End," but both the thematic and instrumental style of the "Low End" indicates he saw "Compton" as the opposite of what he wanted.
For one, Quest's lyrics dwell on social ills and misperceptions. Gender roles is a major topic, with females' potential strength explored during "Butter," and the injustices suffered by women during infamous track "The Infamous Date Rape." Quest also settles more personal scores, turning its eye towards the business of hip-hop during "Rap Promoter." Q-Tip and costar Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor aren't entirely opposed to profanity, but they mask it from listeners. Whenever the duo feels a curse is necessary, they censor themselves, leaving a silent gap where the meaning is still obvious (see "Verses From The Abstract"), a trick used by likeminded emcees such as Talib Kweli today. The meaning is felt by adult listeners, but any youngsters tuning in won't be led astray. Renowned double bassist Ron Carter also agreed to only play on the album if profanity was withheld.
Carter's more important contribution was his actual playing however. The jazz man sets the tone for the album on openers "Excursions" and "Buggin' Out," demonstrating that the laid back bass instrumentals could compete with explosive and inorganic rhythms of competitors within the genre. The drums are also more natural, forgoing the robotic sounds of the popular 808 or similar drum machines. Where they couldn't find suitable studio musicians, Q-Tip and the group's resident disc jockey Ali Shaheed Muhammad sampled classic jazz artists like Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly and Art Blakey. The salute to the defining generation of black musicians lent a credibility to Quest unrivaled by the majority of hip-hop artists. The nods to classic African-American work is ever evident in the current generation of producer/rappers, like the horn-laden work of Timbaland or the soul sampling tendencies of Kanye West.
So yeah, A Tribe Called Quest put a whole lot of things in motion for hip-hop music when it released "The Low End Theory." But at the end of the day, it doesn't mean much if no one enjoys it (I'm sure many of you sympathize with this after "Kollaps" a few posts ago). "Low End" is a blast even if you don't care about hip-hop history.
INTERESTING FACT: Phife Dawg is 5'3", which would make him tied for the shortest player in NBA history if he played professional basketball. This seems like a stupid fact, but he IS a playable character in NBA 2k7 and 2k9.