Until I saw Q-Tip’s tweet from last week, I hadn’t put together that Nevermind came out the same day as The Low End Theory. How thematically convenient! Both records spawned dozens of imitators and, in general, changed the prevalent direction of rock music and rap music. Q-Tip and Phife’s interplay was never crisper, and its deep groove accented by jazz legends like Ron Carter lent the record a well-worn, but still daring and original, sound. And like Nevermind, it’s a record that is easily rhapsodized over, an LP glittering with subtext, conjuring discussions of Queens-borne rap, label politics, domestic violence and downright fun rap showcases (“Check The Rhime”). It’s a heavy record in a lot of senses. It’s a landmark, and has served as an entry point to a lot of people.
Though revivalists always have their place — Big K.R.I.T., ASAP Rocky, stand up — the vanguard of modern hip hop is typically informed by context and history, each new movement building off the previous one. The prevalent style, it seems, is constantly evolving — if you were never midstream, it can be difficult to absorb a record that excels in an antiquated style, for instance the way Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary might not sound the same as when Jive first put it out in 1988, at least relative to the stuff that By All Means Necessary inspired.
So what’s so stunning about A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory is that it’s still remarkably vivacious and fresh-sounding, even free of context. Save for the occasional reference to Shabba Ranks or Belle Biv Devoe, Low End doesn’t sound like a record that just turned 20. Though the Midnight Marauders vs. The Low End Theory argument will live eternally on message boards, it’s hard to argue that the dynamic between Q-Tip’s and Phife’s styles was ever more impactful than on The Low End Theory. Q-Tip pensively explored the jazzy atmospheres while Phife Dawg excelled so thoroughly as a b-boy throwback that LET is likely his finest work as a rapper.
Having shed the outsider, prankster status (as well as having shed the ridiculous clothing) that the group was tacked to with its freewheeling, heady vibe-channeling debut People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, The Low End Theory was a wholly grittier affair, ATCQ still burying themselves deep in “the jazz” while adopting more of a streetwise cipher. While People’s Instinctive Travels was more than content to create a headspace, The Low End Theory is tighter and more driven, and it shows up as early as the first few bars of “Excursions.”
And, even 20 years later, as long-overdue documentaries surface and A Tribe Called Quest is given the appreciation that they never quite enjoyed while they were working, it’s as good a gateway as ever.
“Check The Rhime”
“Jazz (We’ve Got)”/”Buggin’ Out”