A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory Was Certified Platinum 20 Years Ago Today
Twenty years ago today (February 1, 1995), the Recording Industry Association of America certified A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory as having reached platinum status (shipping 1 million units). Originally released in 1991, the album continues to reverberate, landing on countless Best Albums lists and remains one of the most influential pieces of Hip-Hop artistry, both sonically and visually. Home to Golden-Era staples like “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Scenario,” L.E.T.’s commercial success was latent on paper, going platinum after its follow-up, 1993’s Midnight Marauders. Nevertheless, its indelible contribution to the legacy of Tribe is unmatched, aligning them forever with the jazzy elements of their production, but also the masterful storytelling on topics both cerebral and absurd.
As a whole, the project was a departure from Tribe’s debut, albeit one replete with similar motifs. Voices expressed concern that the project was heading for a mainstream niche, leaving behind the lofty and sometimes esoteric imagery and abstruse messages of songs like “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and “Ham ‘n’ Eggs.” Those doubts were unfounded, and as Jive Records CEO Barry Weiss succinctly stated in Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes, & Life documentary, “We were fuckin’ completely wrong.”
The first sound to emerge from the album is the plucking of bass strings which serves to concretize the relationship between Jazz and Hip-Hop; forgoing a hard-hitting baseline created in a lab, Q-Tip opted for an equally thumping yet minimalistic approach, launching immediately into a lyrical explanation of that musical relationship (“my pops used to say it reminded him of Bee-Bop, I said ‘why, Daddy didn’t you know things go in cycles?’”) on “Excursions” (notably performed this very weekend alongside The White Stripes’ Jack White at Madison Square Garden). Bridging the two genres remains thematic throughout the album, playing a pivotal role in the formation not only of the music, but also of the vernacular and cadence in Tip and Phife Dawg’s delivery, both of whom embrace the bare-bones production as an opportunity to bring lyrical prowess to the forefront, making it impossible for listeners to ignore the wordplay (“so low key that you probably missed it, and yet it’s so loud that it stands out in the crowd”). A guest appearance from venerated Jazz-bass player Ron Carter on “Verses From The Abstract” underscores the concept, but undeniably boom-bap production on tracks like “Check the Rhime” brings the album back down to the musical elements tangible to the youth for whom it was ostensibly created, opening up opportunities for listeners to make those musical connections on their own, and it is that gift of self-discovery that makes Low End Theory so powerful.
For many, the album signaled the complete arrival of Phife as an MC. His mechanics on People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm were not nearly as prevalent as Tip’s and as if to prevent the all-too-common “sophomore slump,” the group rallied and crafted the follow-up to be a vehicle not only for their universal messages of knowledge, creativity, and love but also for each member’s unique capabilities. That expansion was of course evident in Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s production as well as Bob Power’s magnificent mixing, but Phife Dawg’s growth as a wordsmith is never underestimated as a key player in The Low End Theory‘s success.
Another unmistakable conceptual theme on the record is the struggle of the MC versus the industry, a David and Goliath-esque battle between the artist and the businessman. On “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business,” MCs lament on the shenanigans encountered throughout their creative processes, with the latter featuring guest verses from Diamond D, Lord Jamar, and Sadat X, three emerging underground kings whose pedigrees read more like those of political activists than rappers. Both Phife and Tip were only 21 when L.E.T. was released, but the acuity with which they approach the pitfalls of the industry on “Show Business” belies their age and era (as Phife mentions, “Seems in ’91 everybody want a rhyme / And then you go and sell my tape for only $5.99”), veritably prognosticating the forthcoming ailment to the music industry exacerbated by illegal downloading.
ZombArt’s visual contributions to the album’s artwork are as ubiquitous in Hip-Hop culture as are the harmonies and melodies located within. Although various art directors at Jive were involved in the nuts-and-bolts of designing the artwork, Q-Tip is credited with being the conceptual mastermind behind the iconic striped woman who drapes not only the cover of L.E.T. but also Midnight Marauders and again as a dystopian version on the cover of 1996’s Beats, Rhymes, & Life (as designed by MC SKAM2?). Perhaps the most obvious reference in the cover art is the representation of Africa, a woman draped in the Pan-African colors (also known as the [Marcus] Garvey Colors) of black, red, and green. The late ’80s and early ’90s were a hotbed for reinvigorated Afro-centricity, so the homage to a motherland is very much in line with the ideology behind the Native Tongues, the collective of conscious Hip-Hop artists of which Tribe was a member. That a female representation of an entire sociocultural movement prevails to this day is not only rare but it signifies the breadth of knowledge inherent in A Tribe Called Quest’s modus operandi; The Low End Theory wasn’t just a piece of music, but an acknowledgment of the history and future of an entire generation.
And then there’s “Scenario.” Put simply: that shit is just ridiculous. The final cut on the album and a prime example of how a real collab is done, L.O.N.S x A.T.C.Q manifested itself into a record that contains some of Hip-Hop’s most quotable lyrics (“bust a nut inside your eye to show you where I come from,” anyone?) and is arguably the springboard from which Busta Rhymes‘ Rap persona truly catapulted. In one of the most memorable Hip-Hop reunions in recent history, every member of both A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School performed the song at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival in 2012, the first time in decades that “Scenario” was performed with its full roster of contributing MCs. The astronomical energy and excitement around that performance will never die down, and that is only one track from The Low End Theory.
Twenty years later, it’s interesting to reflect on what the album’s legacy would be had other avenues been followed. “Georgie Peorgie,” a song deemed too homophobic for Jive’s taste, was cut from the record. Certainly, hearing Phife rap “but on the DL, getting done up in the butt box, oh my God how gross can one be?” or Tip calling a gay man “filthy and funny to the utmost exponent” would be a rough and jarring juxtaposition to the “conscious Hip-Hop” the two MCs so wonderfully represent. In perhaps one of the few instances when censorship protected not only the image of executives but also of a disenfranchised group like African-American youth, the decision to throw the song out has left The Low End Theory effectively untarnished in terms of negative critique.
Amanda Mester is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @CanEye_KickIt