By 1991, A Tribe Called Quest already had a bona fide classic with People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Had they ended there, they would still be largely respected and revered as a great hip-hop group. “Can I Kick It?” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” are classic singles, and the album’s unique tracks were a refreshing take on the still young genre of hip-hop. In 1991, you would have been forgiven to think that the follow-up to People’s… might be a bit disappointing. But A Tribe Called Quest had a few tricks up their sleeves and their next album, The Low End Theory cemented their status as a hip-hop act to be reckoned with.
With People’s… jazz was already a huge component to Tribe’s laid-back sound, but The Low End Theory pushed that connection even further. The songs are built on sparse grooves, mostly centered on expertly chosen upright bass samples. Furthermore, in “Verses from the Abstract” Tribe brought in legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter to play real-time with the boys. Much credit goes to Tribe’s resident DJ, Ali Shaheed Muhammad who kept things simple and knew when to bust out the perfect sample. It was on The Low End Theory that Q-Tip and Phife’s delivery become honed to perfection and as they bounced off of each other, it was sublime. It was low-key simplicity that made A Tribe Called Quest so great. In a word: unflappable.
What made A Tribe Called Quest stand out from other rappers was that their thought-provoking philosophy was on proud display. They devoted their lyrics to wordplay, humor and social commentary. Like contemporaries De La Soul, the lyrics are clever, sharp and insightful. They were self-deprecating and there was an element of showing off (see: “What?”) but Q-Tip and Phife dwelled on some serious stuff. “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” reflect on the increasingly treacherous rap game. “Show Business” is particularly great with that chime-along chorus. Not to leave it at that, how many rap groups actually addressed misogyny back in 1991? Go ahead, I’ll wait while you count. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Songs like “Butter” and “The Infamous Date Rape” put Tribe on a whole new level, addressing a problem that culture at large still unfortunately struggles with.
Listening to The Low End Theory is to hear a group that is not only feeding off each other’s creativity but also drawing heavily on their influences. There’s a sense of gratitude and humility toward their forebears and the acknowledgement that hip-hop is part of a much larger picture. They nod their head to their compatriots with Large Professor, Diamond D, Brand Nubian and, of course, Busta Rhymes lending a hand. The Low End Theory proved that you could shake hips while getting those gears in your mind moving. It is one of hip-hop’s most defining moments and still relevant and refreshing today at it was in 1991.