The Low End Theory: A retrospective on A Tribe Called Quest’s masterpiece
27.09.2021

The Low End Theory: A retrospective on A Tribe Called Quest’s masterpiece

a tribe called quest portait
Words by Aidan Williams

A rundown of every song on the gold standard Hip Hop record.

30 years ago on the Boulevard Linden, The Abstract, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad released the future blueprint on which all contemporary and budding hip hop would soon be measured against. The Low End Theory served as the genesis and soundscape for hip hop, masterfully blending elements of jazz and bebop to boom bap.

Read up on all the latest interviews, features and columns here.

Much of the recording sessions took place at Battery Studios in Manhattan from 1990 to 1991, with the album recorded on the same Neve 8068 mixing console that had been previously used by John Lennon. The Low End Theory went on to become one of the most celebrated records ever, and ironically, sound engineer Bob Power would later go on to refer to it as the Sgt.Peppers… of hip hop. 

Today we’re celebrating the influence of The Low-End Theory’s beats, The Abstract and Phife Dawg’s rhymes and the life that A Tribe Called Quest gave the industry that would follow in their footsteps.

‘Excursions’ 3:55

Jonathan Davis

“My Pops used to say it reminded him of bebop”

Starting off strong with the rich sinister double bass of Ron Carter, Q Tip delivers one of the most iconic opening monologues to any album, all to the backdrop of a down tempo cut of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ ‘A Chant For Bu.’ 

Excursions is a rich embodiment of the album and the first step down the rabbit hole that the audience is about to follow in it’s track listing. Exploring rich social and generational intersections through Q Tip’s bars, all imposed over a back boom bap and jazz fills, “Excursions” is like flicking through your dad’s record collection into a hidden world of sampling possibilities. 

Samples:

‘Buggin’ Out’ 3:37

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Taylor

“The 5-foot assassin with the rough neck business” 

Marked as the arrival of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, ‘Buggin’ Out’ oozes energy and attitude over its jazzy Ron Carter bass line and an iconic “boom-thack” sounding beat with two layered drum breaks. Phife bursts into the track immediately with his iconic blunt high-pitched lyrics from the corner to juxtapose the smooth subtly and esotericism that Q Tip’s laces between verses.

As noted in the song’s lyrics, Phife wrote a lot of his bars commuting on the F train in Queens on his way to Manhattan Battery Studio on 25th street.  Dealing with pressure over his work ethic and commitment to the group, as well as recent personal health issues with type 1 diabetes, Phife delivers stinging bar after bar with the attitude that encapsulated the huge presence of the 5-foot assassin.

Samples:

‘Rap Promoter’ 2:13

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad

“If you promotin’ the show make sure it ain’t wack”

The track is a backhanded jab at the music industry, with Q-Tip warning up-and-coming rappers about venue promoters and their shady tactics of scamming money out of new artists.  ‘Rap Promoter’ serves as the album’s first levelled criticism about rap trends and draws light on the exploitative aspects in the Hip Hop industry

Q tip jumps on and off the beat to a sample from ‘Keep on Doin’ It’ by The New Birth, while interlacing the chorus to Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ to mockingly serenade potential promoters with what’ll stop him from playing a show.

Samples:

‘Butter’  3:39

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Taylor

“’Cause I got the crazy game and yo, I’m smooth like butter”

‘Butter’ shifts the tone of the record to its first foray into a smoother jazzier side. The track narrates a semi-autobiographical story of Phife Dawg’s relationship and lessons learned from love interests growing up, and how these experiences has shaped him to what he is now. 

Butter features minimalistic production behind a solid drumbeat sampled from Chuck Jackson’s 1968 rendition of ‘I Like Everything About You’ and with instrumentation heard throughout verses are sampled from the beginning of Weather Report’s 1978 classic ‘Young and Fine’

Samples:

‘Verses from the Abstract’ 3:59

Johnathan Davis (featuring Vinia Mojica and Ron Carter)

“Blasting out the speakers is the hip hop hysteria”

‘Verses from the Abstract’ showcases an unconventional flow from Q Tip, landing on and out of the beat to a soulful but funky track. The lyrical content of the song is shot straight from the hip and is a flow of-conscious thoughts, with plenty of shout-outs to prominent rappers in the group’s scene or even in the studio during the session.

The track samples drums from Joe Farrell’s 1974 track ‘Upon This Rock’ and the background instrumentation for the hook sampled from Heatwave’s 1977 song ‘The Star of a Story’. ‘Verses from the Abstract’ also features session work again from Ron Carter, delivering another jazzy bass line for the beat and vocalist Vinia Mojica making a reappearance after Peoples Instinctive Travels to sing on the song’s hook. 

Samples:

‘Show Business’  3:53

Skeff Anselm, Johnathan Davis, Lorenzo Dechalus, Joseph Kirkland, Muhammad, Derek Murphy, Malik Taylor (featuring Diamond D, Lord Jamar and Sadat X) 

“Let me tell you ’bout the snakes, the fakes, the lies, the highs”

The record kicks back into pace with ‘Show Business’, a cautionary tale about the rap industry and throws a jab at the groups label, Jive Records. The song also serves as the first posse cut of members from the Native Tongues on the album, featuring Lord Jamar and Sadat X of Brand Nubian, as well as Diamond D of D.I.T.C

The track samples the drum break from Aretha Franklin’s 1971 song ‘Rock Steady’, the bass line from The Fatback Band’s 1974 track ‘Wicki Wacky’, a sped up guitar break from Ferrante & Teicher’s 1969 song ‘Midnight Cowboy’ as well as various samples from James Brown’s ‘Funky President (People It’s Bad)’ and Gerson King Combo’s ‘Mandamentos Black.’

Samples:

‘Vibes and Stuff’ 4:18

Johnathan Davis, Malik Taylor

“You just gotta keep it happy and keep the vibes going” 

‘Vibes and Stuff’ is a simple but classic embodiment of Tribe at their best, and the groups playful and upbeat disposition. The song beams with positive energy and love for its community, with atmosphere that sonically transports the listener to the playgrounds and basketball courts on the sunny streets of Queens—with plenty of Native Tongues love all around.

The song takes multiple samples from Grant Green’s 1970 song ‘Down Here On the Ground’ exclusively.

Samples:

‘The Infamous Date Rape’ 2:54

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Taylor

“You don’t wanna fight ’cause you know that you’re wrong”

Jumping back into social commentary, the duo covers the topic of rape and disrespect towards women. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg trade verses throughout the track, while also providing casual jokes about sex, in general. Overall, the content heavily contrasts that of the misogynistic vibes given by most rappers during the late 1980s and 1990s. 

‘Infamous Date Rape’ samples drums from Jackie Jackson’s 1973 song ‘Is It Him or Me’, and Rhodes keyboard samples heard throughout the song taken from Cannonball Adderley’s 1972 song ‘The Steam Drill’.

Samples:

‘Check the Rhime’ 3:37

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Taylor

You on point Tip? All the time Phife.”

The first single released in advance of The Low End Theory, ‘Check the Rhime’ is arguably the most celebrated track in Tribe’s entire catalogue, and one of hip-hops greatest call-and-response ciphers. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg juggle the mic back and forth on a deep funk jazz beat, checking Linden Boulevard, shady record companies and even MC Hammer. 

The hook samples Minnie Riperton’s 1975 song ‘Baby, This Love I Have’, a horn sample from Average White Band’s 1976 song ‘Love Your Life’  and drums from Grover Washington Jr.’s 1975 song ‘Hydra’ and Dalton & Dubarri’s 1976 ‘I’m just a Rock N’ Roller’.

Samples:

‘Everything Is Fair’  2:58

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Taylor, Skeff Anselm

“Everything is fair when you’re livin’ in the city”

Flipping back into social issues, ‘Everything is Fair’ is a commentary on crime and survival in New York City in the early ’90s. The track is not as bass centric and heavy as others on the album with producer and engineer Skeff Anselm taking the lead on the song’s beat while Q Tip focused on writing lyrics.

The hook is sampled from Funkadelic’s 1976 song ‘Let’s Take It to the People’ the drums from Willis Jackson’s 1972 song ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and the bass line sampled from Willis Jackson’s 1972 song ‘Don’t Knock My Love’.

Samples:

‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ 4:10

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Taylor

“The tranquillity will make you un-ball your fist”

The second single from the album, ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ is one of the earliest non accredited production credits for the legendary hip hop producer Pete Rock. The track is a blueprint for future jazz inspired east coast hip hop, with mellow flow, a snare-heavy beat and a rich piano loop and jazzy soprano saxophone sample. 

The drums were sampled from Five Stairsteps 1968 song ‘Don’t Change Your Love’, the Rhodes keyboard from Jimmy McGriff’s 1972 rendition of ‘Green Dolphin Street’ and multiple samples manipulated on the turntables from The Dells 1972 song ‘Segue 2: Funky Breeze/Ghetto Scene’.

Samples:

‘Skypager’ 2:12

Johnathan Davis, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Taylor

“Beeper’s going off like Don Trump gets checks”

Tribe round out the social commentary, with versing about the necessity of pagers in the early ‘90s, with a broader message about consumerism on a whole. The track is a modest breather on the record, with some notable verses from Phife Dawg, as well as the first feature of Laura Dann’s robotic voice over—the narrator for the groups follow up record Midnight Marauders.

The jazz-influenced beat samples a pre-recorded Ron Carter bass playing from Eric Dolphy’s ’17 West’, and the drums sampled from Sly and The Family Stone’s 1967 song ‘Advice’

Samples:

‘What?’ 2:29

Johnathan Davis

“What tigga, what tigga, what tigga WHAT!”

The palate cleanser before the records desert, ‘What?’ features a solo Q-Tip and no hook at all. The track follows Tip asking a series of questions—some rhetorical, some nonsensical and some that almost summarises a lot of The Low End Theories contention and the groups philosophy about music and the environment they inhabit.

The bare track entirely consists of a loop of Paul Humphrey’s song ‘Uncle Willie’s Dream’ (1974) and largely serves as a segue way into the album’s seminal group track ‘Scenario’, bouncing and building momentum culminating into a group shout of “What!!” 

Samples:

‘Scenario’ 4:10

Johnathan Davis, Bryan Higgins, James Jackson, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Trevor Smith, Malik Taylor (featuring Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown and Dinco D)

“Powerful impact (Boom!) from the cannon!” 

Finishing the record off strong, Tribe say goodbye to listeners and introduce new members with ‘Scenario’, one of the most celebrated posse cuts of all-time. Featuring Busta Rhymes and Charlie Brown, the track showcases the new break-out of leaders of the new school, most notably with Busta’s explosive bombastic closing verse, making for the perfect end and beginning of Tribes current and future influences. 

The track is heavy on bass lines, trash talk, braggadocio and bars, with drums from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1967 song ‘Little Miss Lover’, the bass line and multiple elements throughout the beat was taken from Brother Jack McDuff’s 1970 song ‘Oblighetto’.

Samples:

The Low End Theory is arguably one of the best records to exist within the hip hop sphere, and its influence continues to grow to this day. With its expertly crafted samples and considered lyricism, this album has stood the test of time and will no doubt continue to live on in the hearts of fans and newcomers alike.

Check out this video for more history on The Low End Theory.