Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers vs. A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. Which Is Better?
Last September, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: what is the greatest Rap Album Of All-Time? “Finding The GOAT Album” has considered more than 120 albums from the 80s, 90s and 2000s (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. Now that you and your vote have decided the Sweet 16 bracket, things have gotten really interesting.
Approaching their Sweet 16 battle, both Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory have won each of their three match-ups by margins of 75% or greater. These are two early 1990s group master works that arch to be considered the greatest in the canon of Hip-Hop. Lyrically and musically advanced, these platinum New York albums have proven their classic stature in the decades since. Three-quarter winning margins presumably go out the window as the crew from Shaolin claws for dominance against one of the jewels from the Native Tongues. Only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click (Click one then click “vote”).
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by Wu-Tang Clan
- Third Round Winner (against Gang Starr’s Moment Of Truth, 76% to 24%)
- Second Round Winner (against Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, 77% to 23%)
- First Round Winner (against De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead, 82% to 18%)
In late 1993, Wu-Tang Clan bum-rushed the show when they brought their own menacing cacophonous raucous. Enter The Wu-Tang is a tour de force of rugged raps, filthy beats, and a style that made Hip-Hop’s early ’90s elite get out of the way, handing over the mic. RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Masta Killa, Method Man, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were against the odds when they brought nine bodies to a Loud/RCA Records-backed album, and made all seem as organized as a rank-and-file military branch. With every MC offering something different, each vocalist distinguished himself with skill, vocal tone, and flow. From acts like The Rebel I.N.S. taking on lion’s share roles to M.K.’s lone verse, the family did no favors to each other—and showed its own agitated quarrels in the interludes. Although they had their own internal dynamics, the Wu brought an unrivaled sense of family pride to outsiders. Songs like smash single “C.R.E.A.M.” and follow-up “Can It All Be Simple” proved that the common theme of hardships made this unit a pack of hungry wolves who resented aristocratic peers. Save for GZA and RZA, all the MCs were burgeoning to wax since 1992’s “Protect Ya Neck.” However, from O.D.B.’s “Shame On A Nigga” timing, to the “Method Man” routine all presented styles that felt like they were bottled in 1988, but fermenting, and getting all the more intoxicating while waiting for their chance. On one hand, Wu-Tang was futuristic in their dismissal of conventions. On the other, this was a head-trip back to the days of the late ’80s underground—battling in a smoke-filled train car.
36 Chambers, as the album is often affectionately called, is a beautiful testament to RZA’s visionary gift. In addition to delivering the most lucid, razor-sharp verses of his career, Robert Diggs made an album that sounded electric, alive, and dangerous. Break-beat arrangements on songs like “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit” and “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber – Part II” were accentuated with organs, special effects, and muted horns. While Dr. Dre was out in Los Angeles, setting chronic highs to three-wheel motion, RZA laced his jagged basslines with audio angel dust. With its rough texture, the album is incredibly cohesive, making skipping implausible if not impossible. Enter The Wu-Tang captivated Hip-Hop. It restored the comparative nature of over-stuffed Rap crews. It made every minute of an album feel precious internally and externally. The LP also made the Hip-Hop act feel like a militia, an outlaw posse, or a flash mob of witty, unpredictable voices with natural game. This LP not only served its nine creators with plush careers that followed, it made the industry take closer notice of what was really going on in the streets. For 15 years, Staten Island was the ignored borough. Also with MCs from the Bronx and Brooklyn, the Clan made the short-sighted Manhattan labels not only scared, but surrounded.
Album Number: 1 (as a group)
Released: November 9, 1993
Label: Loud/RCA Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #41 (certified gold, March 1994; certified platinum, May 1995)
Song Guests: 4th Disciple
Song Producers: (self)
The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest
- Third Round Winner (against Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow The Leader, 78% to 22%)
- Second Round Winner (against Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Mecca And The Soul Brother, 75% to 25%)
- First Round Winner (against The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, 75% to 25%)
While 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels & Paths Of Rhythm is a stellar album, A Tribe Called Quest hit their stride on 1991’s The Low End Theory. The Jazz-inspired LP would pocket a sound that A.T.C.Q. (now a trio, less Jarobi and with a significantly increased role for Phife) completely brewed up themselves—big on samples, wisdom, and an overall feel that melted just like “Butter.” The strong qualities of the group’s debut dispersed into beautiful arrangements, both vocal and musical—as heard immediately in single “Check The Rhime.” With one of the many featured Tip-and-Phife routines at center, the group casually waxed their history into a game-changing horn, bass, and drum conconction. That bass would be a defining feature of The Low End Theory—but not in the same way of the group’s Rap peers. With the acclaimed Ron Carter involved with the album, songs like “Buggin’ Out,” “Skypager,” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)” were as inspired by Charles Mingus as they were Afrika Bambaataa. However, in an era where many Hip-Hop acts were drawing on the glory days of Jazz, Quest was intent on never softening or stylizing their rhyme style. Album closer “Scenario” may be the group’s most aggressive mic display, with Phife aiming for the eyes, quite literally.
For a group who would record together for less than a decade, The Low End Theory is a burden of proof as to why Tribe may be Hip-Hop’s greatest. This album is almost entirely self-contained, in terms of production, and lyrics. There are guests, but Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and The Abstract found their synergy on this effort. This album demonstrated how A.T.C.Q. could organically shape Hip-Hop, seemingly in their own vacuum. As De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and Black Sheep made leaps and bounds, the Native Tongues movement was at full throttle, at least publicly. The Low End Theory is an album that stretched to reach many generations, and non-Rap fans, all with a message, style, and skill-set that Hip-Hop purists could certify. At a time when the Hip-Hop generation was showing itself to the mainstream as a legitimate, culture-driven force of thought, creativity, and humanity, The Low End Theory was a brilliant illustration. Songs like “Excursions,” “Check The Rhime,” and “Butter” are proof the great albums can age beautifully. The Low End Theory is high-brow music, and another hallmark effort that so many artists dream of replicating in their own catalogs.
Album Number: 2
Released: September 24, 1991
Label: Jive/RCA Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #45 (certified gold, February 1992; certified platinum, February 1995)
Song Guests: Leaders Of The New School (Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown & Dinco D) Diamond D, Lord Jamar, Sadat X, Ron Carter, Vinia Mojica
Song Producers: (self), Skeff Anslem
So which is the better album? Make sure you vote above.
Related: Other Finding The GOAT: Album Battles.