All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.
Today’s installment of Arachnophonia is by MUS 235 student Ryan and features the 1991 album The Low End Theory by hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest. Thanks, Ryan!
In this post, I will be analyzing The Low End Theory (Album, CD) by A Tribe Called Quest as an academic source. The Low End Theory was the second album released by ATCQ, through Jive Records and Zomba Recording company on September 24th, 1991, and is frequently listed as one of the greatest Hip Hop albums of all time by critics. Considering that Hip Hop was still relatively young at the time, the album was fairly commercially successful. It peaked at number 45 on the U.S. Billboard charts and was certified gold within four months and platinum three years later. Much more important than its commercial success and its critical acclaim however, was its influence on the future direction of Hip Hop. Because of ATCQ’s heavy use of jazz sampling and their playful and funny yet socially conscious lyricism, The Low End Theory is an essential source for researchers examining the relationship between Jazz and Hip Hop and the rise of the popular subgenre of Conscious Rap today, including the music of Kendrick Lamar and J Cole.
The fourth member, Jarobi White, left the group after their first album, so he was not included on this album, but returned to contribute to the groups final album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, after Phife Dawg passed away in 2016. On The Low End Theory, Ali Shaheed Muhammad was a DJ/producer, Phife Dawg was an MC, and Q-Tip was both a producer and MC. Their sophomore album, which consists of 14 tracks and is 48 minutes in length, gets its name from both the bass, or low-end, focused instrumentals and is also a clever reference to their lowered status as black men in America. Alongside the album, ATCQ also released a music video for the track “Scenario” and another combined video, which I will be analyzing in my final research paper for this class, for “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Buggin’ Out.”
As the title of track 11, which is part 1 of the previous video, suggests, the music on The Low End Theory is heavily inspired by Jazz and wears that influence on its sleeve. In the first verse of “Excursions”, the opening song of the album, Q-Tip references this influence by comparing Hip Hop to Bebop Jazz in the lines, “You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop/My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop/I said, Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles?/Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”. The most obvious musical influence is in the samples found within the instrumentals. Though not all of the samples on the album are credited, some of the more prominent ones were cleared and are listed at the end of the CD booklet and most originate from jazz or funk records. “Vibes and Stuff” uses a sample from jazz guitarist Grant Green and “Check the Rhime” uses a horn sample from Average White Band’s song “Love Your Life”. Though it isn’t credited on the album, a bit of digging on whosampled.com shows that the song “Jazz (We’ve Got)” uses a sample from the piece “Green Dolphin Street” by Jazz/Blues Pianist Jimmy McGriff. ATCQ even goes beyond sampling and recruits famous Jazz Double Bassist, Ron Carter, to play the bass line on the Q-Tip solo track, “Verses from the Abstract”.
Though The Low End Theory was far from the first Hip Hop album to make use of jazz sampling, ATCQ was able to fuse jazz and funk instrumentation with hard hitting but laid back drum loops in a unique way that resonated with their audience. ATCQ’s previous album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, also used many jazz samples but did not receive the same kind of acclaim. At that point, the group was still perfecting their sound. The lyricism was similar, but the instrumentals were not quite as sparse and focused on the low-end, an attribute of The Low End Theory and its successor, Midnight Marauders, that made them stand out.
The instrumental style of The Low End Theory was not just critically acclaimed, but turned out to be a major influence on the future of Hip Hop production. Even today, its influence can clearly be heard in the music of some of the most popular artists in modern Hip Hop. The closing songs on both J Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly employ soft jazz instrumentation over prominent bass lines and hard-hitting but laid-back drums and sound like they could have easily fit into A Tribe Called Quest album. The two artists even collaborated on an homage to ATCQ called “Forbidden Fruit” in 2013, in which the two used the same sample that ATCQ used for “Electric Relaxation”. The vocal style of ATCQ has also proven to be very influential. To use another J. Cole example, his song “Wet Dreamz” has many similarities to the Phife Dawg focused song, “Butter”, from The Low End Theory. Both songs deal with various girl problems the two have gone through. They are clearly fairly serious and relatable topics, however both rappers tell the stories using clever and sometimes funny rhymes. Instead of focusing on catchy lyrics like groups like Run D.M.C, or the more serious tones of contemporaries like N.W.A or Public Enemy, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg found a conscious yet light and palatable rap style that many later rappers wanted to emulate.
The Low End Theory is essential to my research for this course since I am using the video “Jazz (We’ve Got) Buggin’ Out” in order to examine the relationship between Jazz and Hip Hop. That video, and by extension The Low End Theory, is not the only place to start when searching for the critical point connecting the genres, but it is certainly one of the most significant. In the time since The Low End Theory was released, Jazz and Hip Hop have become increasingly intertwined, to the point that they have become indistinguishable from one another at times. Albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Madlib’s Shades of Blue, as well as many of The Roots’ projects explore the explore the shared musical and cultural lineage of the genres and all of those artists would cite A Tribe Called Quest and The Low End Theory as one of their influences.