May 2021 MTP Day 7- “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest

Dedicated readers of my MTP blogs may recall the final day of the “Girl Power” theme, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. In that blog I mention the Harvard Library’s hip hop archive and the 4 album founding class which producer 9th wonder described as being “standard of the culture.” Today’s album, the sophomore effort of New York alternative hip hop duo A Tribe Called Quest, was one of the 4 selected because of its cultural importance, influence, and overall quality. On top of just being a good album, today’s selection is a perfect representative of the dynamic duo theme thanks to the contrasting and complementary styles of Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed and Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor. The Tribe has been praised for their style, lyrical prowess, the subject matter of their songs, and are widely regarded as being the pioneers of “alternative hip hop”. Their 2nd album, The Low End Theory, was heavily jazz influenced and has been praised as being their greatest work with a number of lists ranking it among the 100 best albums ever released. More importantly, The Low End Theory is the finale of this month’s Musical Training Plan, so let’s talk about it.

Leading men Phife Dawg and Q-Tip with co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammed.

This duo from New York are possibly the smoothest pair of rappers to ever deliver bars into a microphone together. They are effortlessly cool as they cruise through rhyme after rhyme, not only taking turns laying down verses but doing so conversationally, ping ponging the song back and forth to great effect. This lyrical back and forth is on display the clearest on the album’s lead single “Check the Rhime” from which the legendary call-response of “‘You on point Phife?’ ‘All the time Tip!'” originates. On that song, Tip and Phife are not only storytelling, but they are actively asking questions and having a conversation in rhyme with one another, and oh boy is it fun. Q-Tip’s voice is much more mellow and low and he often chooses to be fairly conscious in his rhymes, bringing a level of introspection and philosophy to his bars. Phife Dawg, on the other hand, is more of a jokester using his higher-pitched voice to deliver witty and comical lines which are often streetwise and at times humorously self deprecating. In terms of subject matter and lyricism, the Tribe trades in the violence, misogyny, and braggadocio that riddled much of hip hop to this point in time with clever, witty, conscious bouts of storytelling about a variety of topics ranging from consumerism to heartbreak. Much of the album is dedicated to just playing around lyrically which can be seen in iconic final verse of “What?”, but some level of humor and playfulness can be found on nearly every track. It is also important to note that along with with the explicit subject matter, the Tribe foregoes curse words and foul language almost entirely.

When considering instrumentals and production, A Tribe Called Quest can really be considered more of a trio thanks to the huge importance of co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammed. The Low End Theory is packed with jazz, soul, and funk samples and many of its deceptively simple beats which often have very thick, bassy, smooth low ends (hence The Low End Theory) play as buttery and easy to listen to as almost any other beats in hip hop. In addition to simply using jazz samples, the Tribe also collaborated with legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter on the track “Verses From The Abstract”. Interestingly, part of the lack of expletives on this album is a direct result of working with Carter who only agreed to record songs without any profanity. The jazz influences and contributions throughout this record have left some to put it in a subgenre, “jazz rap”, and while this may not have been the first jazz rap album, it may have perfected the style. Since this album was released in 1991, few, if any, have been able to really do it like the Tribe.

And that brings this month’s Musical Training Plan to a tidy close. This is an album I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and I’m glad to finally be able to add it to the MTP catalogue. While no style of music is quite for everyone, I would encourage most to give this album a go, or at the very least listen to the final track “Scenario”. It has been celebrated and preserved for a reason, that’s for sure.

Thanks for reading, and I will see you all again next month for some more great albums.

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