Saturday, October 22, 2016

Diggin in the Cassettes: The Low End Theory

On September 24, 1991, A Tribe Called Quest released a perfect album. 25 years later, I take a look back at one of my favorite albums ever.

Prof Thug's Diggin in the Cassettes Vol. 2

A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory 


I first discovered A Tribe Called Quest through their video for We Got the Jazz/Buggin Out. It was probably the first video I saw on BET's Rap City. I was soon addicted to the show, hoping they would play that video or Check the Rhime and of course Scenario. I soon purchased their sophomore album The Low End Theory. My musical world was never the same.

From the moment I purchased it at 11 years old, I listened to this tape constantly. I brought it with me everywhere; I even remember listening to it in England on a family vacation. I had my walkman and my favorite tape with me as we drove through the English countryside and the city of London. The album felt like home, and it still does.

I listened to this cassette more than any other. In fact, I listened to it so damn much it no longer works.


My whole friggin concept of listening to the albums on the actual cassettes shit the bed on the second post. Great.

Whatever. I'll listen on youtube. I could probably recite the whole album word for word from memory if I needed to.

The Tribe trio once again handle the beats and rhymes, with the exception of two songs produced by Skeff Anselm (he gets props too huh ha!). Phife is much more involved on the album, a conscious decision made by the group after Phife learned he was diabetic. Jarobi, the 4th Tribe member, is not on the album because he left to study culinary art after their debut. No offense to Jarobi, but these changes allowed Tribe to make a much more concise album than their debut.

On The Low End Theory, they perfected the sound they established the year before. The formula seems simple but their minimalist sound is still lush with different textures. They are pioneers of mixing hip hop and jazz (yeah thats here my hearts at); they did it so well that to me, it felt like something that had simply always existed. It was so natural. I felt the connection between hip hop and jazz before I even knew the history of the connection. Through their sound and samples, along with direct references in their rhymes, they expressed the historical link between jazz and hip hop, revolutionary forms of black music that sprang from oppression. The improvisational style of jazz also heavily influenced the style of hip hop. Over the course of this album, the Tribe expressed the link between hip hop and all forms of African American music.

A lot of people think I only listen to rap, and that was true for a long period of time. However, my love for all varieties of rap, in particular my love for A Tribe Called Quest, exposed me to so many types of music. Without realizing it, I was exposed to jazz, rock, r&b, soul, funk, disco, and all other forms of music that hip hop producers sampled from. Now I have an appreciation for all types of music (except country, obviously) and I credit Tribe for my eclectic tastes.

And they were just friggin kids!

Let's take this journey...


The perfect album starter, It starts right in with a funky bassline. Q-Tip drops a legendary verse talking about the progression of music: I said well daddy dont you know that things go in cycles.
He has a lot of gems here. It's a noticeable upgrade of his rhyming on the debut album, but the themes are the same; the focus is on positivity, pro-Blackness, and music itself.

Q-Tip handles the two verses and the chorus: We gotta make moves, never ever ever could we fake moves. He is flawless here, as is the beat. The drums and bass and horns during the chorus all flow together seamlessly as usual. The sample of the Lost Poets (time is an inanimate object) is another perfect match, amplifying the theme of time running through Q-Tip's lyrics. The recorded voice repeating itself at the end time is running and passing and passing and running echoes Q-Tip repeating excursions excursions excursions. The voices and the beat cut off abruptly, and provide a perfect transition into...

Buggin' Out

The bass line starts in on its own. Then the drums and hi hats kick in when Phife says, YO!

It is a perfect song as a whole, and there are so many amazing individual moments within the song, too. Like at the end of Phife's verse, when Q-Tip starts doing the adlib (uh uh uh UH) then starts his own verse. At the same time, a little snare drum has started up. That leads to a cymbal crash. The same breakdown occurs the next time Phife's verse transitions to Q-Tip's. These little details are everywhere and they're easy to miss at first because there's so much going on and it all comes together so naturally. You can lose yourself in the whole, or you can lose yourself in each detail.

This song also perfectly exemplifies the amazing chemistry Q-Tip and Phife had, as well as how important Phife was to the recipe. His deeper voice, harder punch lines and more aggressive flow provide the perfect balance and weight to Q-Tip's airiness.  He destroys his verses here, with gem after gem (styles upon styles upon styles is what I have) yet Q-Tip is able to match him with the punchlines (minds get flooded...ejaculation, right on the 2-inch tape). They have both stepped their game up drastically.

This song is just so insane. The beat knocks, they kill their verses, the chorus is a perfect hip hop chorus (a sampled voice repeating a phrase) and the video was crazy. It was a 2 part video: it opened with Jazz (We Got) in black and white. then halfway through it cut to Phife in bright colors and huge fake white eyeballs. I couldn't get enough. I saw what could be done with music as all encompassing art. The visuals, the beat and melodies, the wordplay. I was hooked.

Rap Promoter

And this song made me never want to get into the business of music. Finally, after an album and 2 songs of positivity and lightheartedness, reality sets in for the guys. They give us an inside look into the seedy side of the industry.

Phife plays the part of the shady rap promoter, talking to the artists during the song's breakdown.

Q-Tip keeps his good nature though. He's a simple man with simple pleasures. I want chicken and orange juice, that's what's on my rider. He just wants to be taken care of, then they will do a fly song for you love check it out diggy dang diggy dangy dang a dang diggy diggy. 

Is that too much to ask, Mr. Rap Promoter?


Great beat. Great verses by Phife. Fantastic chorus by Q-Tip.

This is Phife bragging about his sexual conquests. "Locker room talk," some would call it, although there doesn't seem to be any issue about consent here.

Phife starts off talking about how many women he's been with. Then he meets Flo, a girl who not only equals his "playa" status, but surpasses it.

In the second verse, he spouts a little bit of respectability politics towards the ladies and even sounds a little bit like the Hoteps who exist on Twitter and Facebook posting about "fake bitches."

Your whole appearance is a lie and it could never be true
And if you really loved yourself then you would try and be you
If your hair and eyes were real, I wouldn't have dissed ya
But since it was bought, I had to dismiss ya

On the one hand, I get it. A famous musician probably meets more schemers than your average person. I'm sure he's dealt with a lot of people who do not have self love or an understanding of self. I'm not against promoting the idea that your true self is good enough, and as a kid it all made perfect sense to me because I never considered any other perspective (like the woman's). I just don't like the implication that wearing a weave or contacts means a person hates themselves.

Regardless, he's got some great lines and his flow is on point. Plus, the beat, the horn sample, and the chorus make up for any flaws in the lyrics.

Verses from the Abstract 

One thing that is lost when listening on youtube instead of a tape is the incredible sequencing. The songs merge into one another on this album better than any album I've ever heard. The damn ads on youtube or streaming site ruin that sensation, but all the songs stand on their own anyways.

Butter was essentially a Phife Dawg solo, the first of its kind, and this is a Q-Tip solo. Another great beat, with some assistance from the great Ron Carter on double bass, and the lovely Vinia Mojica singing background vocals.

Tip starts off shouting out his friends: Busta Rhymes in effect, Shaheed is in effect, Phife Didawg is in effect. He talks about using Coast in the morning to avoid the funky odor and his fetish for some booty. He's just talking shit and flowing effortlessly and it's amazing.

At the end, he shouts out some more of his favorite rappers and thanks Ron Carter. Then he says Goddamn it yes the Quest is on and we OUT! The beat stops, there's a moment of silence, then the first line of the next song hits...

Show Business featuring Diamond D, Lord Jamar and Sadat X

Let me tell you 'bout the snakes, the fakes, the lies
The highs at all of these industry shing-dings

This is a great posse cut that builds on the themes brought up in Rap Promoter. The guys really release their frustration at the music industry here. Yo I gotta speak about the cesspool. It's the rap industry and it aint that cool. This is like a public service announcement to aspiring rappers. Tip and Phife are joined by Sadat X and Lord Jamar from the legendary Brand Nubian, and rapper/producer Diamond D. So these guys speak from experience.

This is the first song to appear in their discography not produced by the group themselves. This maintains the same vibe established on the album, but it is produced by Skeff Anselm (co-produced by the Tribe). It samples James Brown and Aretha Franklin, two iconic artists who knew about getting screwed by the industry.

All of the verses work really well together. And I love the dahh-oo voice sample and the beat breakdown when the verses end.

Vibes and Stuff

The last song ends on the dahh-oo, and this starts with a bell ringing and a horn sample. Possibly the best transition on the album. This beat is crazy. It's got a chopped up sample that cuts in and out, the bell ringing and echoing at the start of each 4th bar, and the dusty drums. Then the breakdown with the jazzy horn sample while Tip names off different parts of the country that have the vibe.

I think I gotta
I think I gotta
I think i gotta SCREAM
Cuz thats how good it feels man

That accurately describes the feeling of listening to this song.

Tip ends the song with a special...special...a special dedication to all of the slain rappers...the fallen rappers. Another great album cut.

The Infamous Date Rape

Classic...classic...classic example of a...a date rape.

One of their hardest beats and one of the more interesting subject matters. Tip's first verse talks about a typical date and offers some very good advice. If the vibe ain't right, ya leavin. He wants to bone but not without consent. Yet and still, rappers get blamed for the moral degradation of society. You're obviously not listening to A Tribe Called Quest!

Phife then drops a verse about hooking up with a girl who cries "rape" after a night of consensual sex. Now I've never been the type to accuse women of false accusations, quite the opposite really, and it bothers me when women are not trusted. However, there are certainly a few cases in which a women has falsely accused someone. Fame and money add to that possibility, so I'm not gonna hate on this verse, especially snce the first verse is about not violating consent.

Tip's last verse clarifies and solidifies his stance on consent:

I won't cry over spilled milk
If you won't let me take you to the Hilt
I don't wanna bone you that much
That I would go for the unforbidden touch
I'm not the type that would go for that

Not all men, bro. #NotAllMen

Then he goes off on a tangent about women on their period that's a little odd but also kind of funny.

Check the Rhime

This song rocked my musical world. I couldn't get over what I was hearing. Tip starts in uh! uh! uh! uh! uh! then the drum kicks in while that horn sample plays. The back and forth before each verse. Ya on point, Phife? All the time, Tip. The verses themselves. If knowledge is the key well just show me the lock. Amazing.

This song was magic the first time I heard it and I've felt the same ever since. There is no time when I'm not in the mood to listen to this song. It is a perfect representation of Golden Era hip hop.

It's a real playful song, but Tip also drops the line Industry Rule number 4080, record company people are shadyyyy, so the business aspect of music was definitely a recurring theme on the album. It's what gives the album more edge than their debut, and what makes it better overall. Their anger pays off. Tip jokes that these music execs smoke crack. That's a much stronger diss than anything he said to Lucien. The joyfulness and the positivity and the hopefulness is still there, but reality has caused them to refine their more eccentric sensibilities and focus their music.

Everything Is Fair

This was another song produced by Skeff Anselm. Great vocal sample for the chorus. Everything is fair when ya livin in the citayyy.

I haven't said it before, but Q-Tip has one of the best voices in hip hop. It's deep yet nasally and he has such an effortless flow. He can even drop a little melody here and there. You don't have to say a worrrrd. Phife has a good voice, too, and the contrast between the two is what creates such a strong sound, but Tip can really hold his own, which he does here. He talks about a woman trying to make it in the big, dangerous city. He hooks up with her and starts selling drugs for her. It's a straight-forward, typical rap fantasy narrative (with gunshot sound effects and everything!) but with a Tribe flavor.

It's a good song, with some nice musical progressions and switch ups, but nothing ground-breaking. It ends with the music stopping and Tip repeating

Jazz (We've Got)

Another great transition into the guys chanting We got the jazz we got the jazz. This was some more other-wordly shit. Tip gives a perfect verse into the perfect chorus with the perfect horn sample and then Phife drops another perfect verse, which starts off with his infamous patois: Competition them Phifer come sideway. Competition they must come straight way.

The hip-hop/jazz mix seems so simple now. It really feels like it had to happen because of how natural it is. People couldn't have come up with this, it must have just been there all along. You look back and it might seem somewhat bland because it's been done so much now. But it's been done and copied so much because it was so good and it was so groundbreaking. That's how you know something is good. It created, or helped create, the defining sound of a beloved era of music.

Plus this video was just cool as shit. Putting the two songs together was genius. I totally forgot how, at the end, they come back to the original black and white video setting with Tip doing his verse acapella. Awesome.


Do you know the importance of a sky pager?

This song screams early 90s. Beeper's going off like Don Trump gets checks. Keep my bases loaded like the New York Mets. Ok, so Phife wasn't always the best sidekick. I mean, Robin died a few times on Batman, so Phife can bomb a few times, right? Besides, the batteries I use are called Duracell, they last for three weeks so they do me well makes up for it in its utter absurdity.

The chorus is phone sounds, an automated voice saying welcome to the new skypager, then Tip going uhhhhh... so funky, while Ali Shaheed Muhammad scratches. It's a nice little rap ditty.

Side note: someone should do a collection of all the references to Donald Trump in rap music (pre-Presidential run). There's probably enough for a DJ Drama mixtape. It'd also be interesting to see a lot of rappers' political leanings. I bet many are basically conservatives (not the Tribe, necessarily, but a lot of rappers). Guns, capitalism, misogyny. Its the GOP platform!


This is the closest song to filler on the album, and it's still great. It somehow manages to be the perfect transition to the best song on the album, so for that alone it's a classic. It's an uptempo beat with Tip saying some silliness then rapping in questions for the remainder of the song. He switches up the structure from "what is a ____ if_____"  to "what is a ____without the___"  to a few other "what" questions.

It's nothing special, until the end, when Tip raps:

ooh ooh, it's like that ya keep going
freak freak yall cuz you know that we showin
what tigga what tigga what tigga what tigga what tigga what tigga what tigga 
[group yelling] WHAT!

Scenario featuring Leaders of the New School

The bass and organ start in boom boom BOOM, boom boom BOOM. Then a bunch of guys yell out HERE WE GO YO, HERE WE GO YO! while the drums kick in.

As much as I loved Check the Rhime the first time I heard it, it still didn't compare to this.

Besides the amazing performance by each rapper (this was one of the earliest songs I could recite competely) it sampled Jimi Hendrix. They get credit for meshing jazz with rap, but they also merged rock, funk (Funkadelic on Everything is Fair) R&B (James Brown and Aretha Frankiln). Black music is utilized with love and care and turned into something entirely original and beautiful.

Phife will be forever loved because of his opening bar and nut inside ya eye, to show you where I come from. Busta Rhymes became my favorite rapper the second I heard his verse. Dinco D and Charlie Brown will always have free drinks around me because of their contributions. And Q-Tip showed his versatility by going back and forth with Busta.

This is the greatest rap song ever. I'll fight about it.

So that's the tape. What an ending!

It turns out that a song called Georgie Porgie was originally on the album, but was rejected by the label because of its hoophobia. The track was eventually rewritten as Show Business. I never heard it so I looked it up and just listened to it.

Man...I did not need to hear Phife and Q-tip spouting gay-bashing lyrics. But you can if you want. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, considering Lord Jamar, King of the Homophobes, is on the song, but it damn near broke my heart.

I'm so glad they kept it off the album. I'm sure they're happy, too. The omission of this atrocious song allows the album to maintain its perfection.This is probably the first and only case where a label actually made an album better. See, modern rappers? You don't need to release every single thing you do. Sometimes less is more. Get someone to tell you when your song sucks. I am available for hire.

I owe a lot to this album. It got me through much of my young life and opened my eyes to so much great music. I can listen to it at any time and it transports me to a place of comfort and peace. And the damn thing just knocks, even to this day.

5 THUGS out of 5

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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