What we’re listening to (#7): ‘The Low End Theory’ by A Tribe Called Quest

I mentioned A Tribe Called Quest in the previous article of the ‘What we’re listening to’ series – Click here to read it


A Tribe Called Quest was a New York based hip-hop group that formed in 1985 – it consisted of MCs Q-Tip (Kamaal Davis) and Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) as well as producer Ali Shaheed Muhammed. Rapper Jarobi White left the group after their first album (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1991).

The group received mainstream praise and success when their second album The Low End Theory was released, with ‘Check the Rhime’ being the lead single. Through The Low End Theory, the group established their style and approach which is now well known by critics and fans alike.

 Critics were quick to label the music as “jazz rap”, which, although Q-Tip disapproved of, is an accurate way to describe the songs. The group had managed to create a laid-back album in which both jazz and rap were fused together – the group are known for their prolific sampling of rare records (and they also took their inspiration from such records), and layered them over their own tracks. The group sampled artists from popular artists like Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone to more obscure composers like Michał Urbaniak.

Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame member Ron Carter provided the bass lines over which Q-Tip and Phife Dawg would have lyrical conversations on many cultural and social topics – the group were also praised for their focus on cultural issues from date rape (in ‘The Infamous Date Rape’) to the nature of showbusiness and how it affected those who came upon it (in the aptly named ‘Show Business’). Even whilst discussing such delicate issues the album maintains the laid-back nature which the group are known for, and the transitions between the two rappers are almost seamless.

“Industry Rule number four thousand and eighty, record company people are shady…” – Q-Tip, Check the Rhime

The Low End Theory also saw the group bring many guest artists into the mix – DJs like Sadat X graced some tracks, as did singer-songwriter Vinia Mojica and rapper Lord Jamar. But perhaps most notably, A Tribe Called Quest enlisted the help of the hip-hop group Leaders of the New School on the track ‘Scenario’. Dinco D, Charlie Brown and Busta Rhymes all provided their talents to the track – the track is considered to be Busta Rhymes breakout song, and he would go on to receive 11 Grammy nominations in his career. It is widely believe that, at the time, Busta Rhymes was Q-Tip’s “protégé”.

This a refreshing change to what hip-hop at the time was, and the stripped down nature made it a very relaxing listen. Intelligent wordplay and sophisticated music replaced the typical verses about women, guns, money and fame – The Low End Theory blazed the trails that 90s hip-hop followed, and perhaps single handedly shaped the alternative hip-hop scene, which is why Rolling Stone magazine ranked the album #154 in their “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” article.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez


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