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Album review: The Low End Theory (1991)

author: brendan hill technical editor

The Low End Theory
Listen to Brendan, these guys are the bomb! Credit: hiphoparchive

The Low End Theory cements A Tribe Called Quest as the godfather of modern jazz-rap.

Historically, hip-hop has gotten a bad rap – please excuse the awful pun. Many tend to dismiss the genre for its lack of complexity. However, rap is much more intricate than many people realize, with an array of sub-genres and styles that represent a wide variety of listening experiences. Throughout hip-hop’s relatively brief history there have always been artists that attempted to push the envelope of creativity and bring about something new; in the early 1990’s A Tribe Called Quest attempted to do just that. Their sound featured grooving jazz instrumentals and lyrics with a smooth, complex flow. They rapped about everything from how they liked their breakfast to the trials and tribulations of the African American community at the time.

The second album from A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991), with its jazzy, smooth, and thoughtful approach to hip-hop, set them apart from other artists of the time and even now. The complexity of their wordplay throughout the record is something that prominent artists from all genres look up to today. As someone who enjoys both hip-hop and jazz I think this album is a satisfying mix of both that I will continue to consider one of the best hip-hop albums ever produced.

A Tribe Called Quest was comprised of MC Q-Tip Jonathan Davis, and MC Phife, Malik Taylor, who grew up together in Queens. Alongside DJ Ali Muhammad whom they met during high school. The group made a name for themselves with their abstract yet complex narratives, smooth flow and organic, jazz-inspired beats which stood in stark contrast to the gangster rap of the late 80’s which was more disjointed and cluttered.

Their second record includes samples from bebop, soul, funk and jazz all seamlessly mixed together to form a rich, melodic listening experience that maintains the urban groove that makes your foot tap and your head bob enjoyably. With verses from Q-Tip and Phife that are poetic and clever yet socially aware The Low End Theory encourages the listener to dive below the surface and listen for the wordplay for which the trio has become known.

It’s difficult to choose stand-out tracks for this album, simply because from start to finish the record is near flawless. Personally my stand out tracks include “Jazz (We’ve Got),” which is essentially the endgame for all jazz-rap (even today); and “Excursions,” which makes reference to bebop with an incredible instrumental beat and smooth toned down lyrics. While it remains a departure from much of the record’s sound, “Scenario” featuring Busta Rhymes is one of the most notable tracks ever produced by the group and “Verses from the Abstract” features prominent jazz bassist Ron Carter.

If you like music, regardless of genre, do yourself a favour and listen to this album. Not only does it represent one of the greatest musical achievements in hip-hop’s short history but I think it also manages to transcend the genre. With samples from all types of music and an unmistakable flow throughout, The Low End Theory paved the way for modern jazz rap and should be considered a classic for years to come.

Relatable hip-hop artists from the 90’s include De La Soul and NAS, but if you’re looking for something a little more jazz-heavy, check out the Bill Evans Trio for a similar subtle approach to music. Most modern hip-hop artists are influenced in some way by The Low End Theory but a few of my favourites are J-Cole, Kendrick Lamar and for something more alternative check out MF Doom.

About Frank Nordstrom