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Wait, You’ve Never Heard: A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory

on May 10, 2010, 12:00pm

In 1991, A Tribe Called Quest released its sophomore album, The Low End Theory. On the follow-up to its well-received debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the chemistry between MCs Phife Dawg and Q-Tip crackles as they trade verses over mellow keyboards and jazzy instrumentation. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad contributes expertly chosen samples and stellar production to the proceedings.

But this description hardly does justice to an album that’s been credited with shaping the alternative hip-hop genre. Truthfully, one could fill a few shelves extolling this album’s many virtues, and indeed, hip-hop fans and aficionados alike have pored over every note of this classic. Track by track, the album flows like few in the genre.

Opener “Excursions” begins with impossibly deep bass, and its languid pace sets the tone for much of the album. Almost immediately, Phife and Q-Tip establish their quicksilver wordplay and verse trading. The more upbeat “Buggin’ Out” follows. Like its predecessor, this song is propelled by a vivid bass line and a blistering vocal performance from Phife.

Theory also features some of Tribe’s most trenchant socio-political critiques, particularly on the track “The Infamous Date Rape,” which features appropriately sinister sounding instrumentation. “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” both critique music industry fakery, all over bass and ephemeral keyboards. On this album, the flow of the MCs provides the melody, a counterpoint to the upright bass plucked by the legendary Ron Carter and the jazzy instrumentation.

Though the band eschewed the jazz rap label, some of the songs here deftly merge the sounds of jazz with the swagger of hip-hop. This is most obvious on “Jazz (We Got)”. An unassuming keyboard figure creates a mellow vibe, and at one point, the song lyrically alludes to The Doors’ “Light My Fire”. The loungey-sounding “Verses from the Abstract” traffics in dissonant jazz keyboards. “Vibes and Stuff” is as laid as back that title implies and features laconic rhymes from Q-Tip and Phife.

The album closes with the epic posse song “Scenario”, featuring (among others) Busta Rhymes and Charlie Brown of Leaders of the New School. Like the rest of the album, this anthemic song never feels out of date and can still get a club full of people to sing along with every lyric.

Almost two decades on from its release, this 14-song collection doesn’t merely age well. It brims with energy, wit, and the brash sound of geniuses at work.