Flashback Fridays: A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory

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This week marks the 24 year anniversary of one of hip hop’s greatest alternative albums, The Low End Theory. This sophomore release from jazz rap legends, A Tribe Called Quest- long regarded as their most defining moment- strikes the perfect balance between rhythm and rhyme, bringing together smooth, downtempo beats and clever lyrics.

Having laid the foundation with People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths Of Rhythm a year earlier, the group  now embarked on a warmer, more mature sound. Where their first album came across as zany and experimental, TLET offered subtlety and simplicity.  Gone were the weird sound effects and whimsical instrument arrangements; in arrived minimalism: snappy drums, deep bass and moody jazz.  The new formula worked a treat.

Interestingly, on release, TLET proved remarkably different from anything else out at the time. 1991  was a year dominated by anti establishment rap like Apocalypse 91 The Enemy Strikes Back, 2pacalypse Now and Live Hardcore Worldwide. Freeing themselves from the gun violence and dissidence preached about by the likes 2Pac, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions that year, Tribe instead adopted a more cerebral approach. It followed that on TLET, they c0vered off such wide ranging topics as date rape (The Infamous Date Rape), consumerism (Skypager), the entertainment industry (Show Business), city life (Everything Is Fair), promiscuity (Butter). Most notable of all though are the three singles on the album: Check The Rhime, Jazz (We Got) and Scenario– each with a video to accompany.

Check The Rhime is one of their more uptempo joints, taking into account the cheery horns and cheeky back and forth exchanges from ‘Tip and Phife. The boisterousness and free flowing creativity shown between the two in the music video as they jam atop a roof in Queens really gets to the heart of what this tune is all about (see below). Jazz (We Got) is pretty much the title track to the album: it’s mellow, smokey and masterfully interpolates a sample of Green Dolphin Street by the Lucky Thompson Quartet. If their chief intention  was indeed to break away from some of harder hip hop of the era, then they achieved it here alone with the lyrics, ‘The tranquility will make ya unball your fist/ For we put hip-hop on a brand new twist”. Use of black and white in the video make the song just as classy to listen to as watch.It also contrasts nicely with the psychedlic visuals that arrive at the end with the rapid interchange to Buggin Out.

The scenario sees the group returning to their former eccentric heights- with a little help from fellow Native Tongues, Leaders of the New School. Considered hip hop’s best posse cut, it features verses from as many as 5 rappers- including multi grammy nominee, Busta Rhymes. In fact, Scenario is the track which first put Busta on the map and he’s at his element in the video, among the kaleidoscopic colours and interactive desktop used.

Scoring highly amongst critics and fans alike, TLET went on to scoop five stars in The Source and The Rolling Stone Album Guide. Rolling Stones have also ranked it among The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time. Crucially,  the album was one of the first to fuse rap and laid back jazz, to such extent that it now ranks as a historical link in music. Allmusic Writer, John Bush, put it best when he called it, “the perfect marriage of intelligent, flowing raps to nuanced, groove-centered productions”.

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