When sports fans think of back to back perfection, there are very few teams capable of holding such high esteem. The Yankees, The Bulls, UCLA. It's hard to achieve the kind of dominance that allows you to own your competition in and out from one year to the next. People get injured. Stars get big egoes and forget to make an effort. Overpriced players get traded to other teams. In short, things happen that conspire against the ability of a dynasty to last.
In hip-hop it's no different. Eric B. and Rakim went their seperate ways, as did Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, as did Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Yes, when one examines the annals of hip-hop history to look for dynasties, the group collectively known as A Tribe Called Quest has to be on the short list. On three successive albums, from "People's Instinctive Travels" to "Midnight Marauders," the crew held together by the smooth beats of Ali Shaheed Muhammad dominated the ears of hip-hop faithful worldwide.
Sandwiched in between these towering icons of rap history is a legendary album in it's own right: "The Low End Theory." Figuratively and literally (as in their neon green and red painted album cover girl) the album was all about fusing the bottom to the top. Intelligent songs, with smooth funky beats. The tracks could make your groove thing swing, and on deeper inspection reveal the flow of soulful poets deeply in touch with the spirit and soul of hip-hop.
The album covers a range of subject matter so diverse it's almost hard to conceive, in these days of albums singularly focused on flossing fat rides and buying bigger and better gold watches. One thing the Tribe does focus on though throughout the LP of the music industry's attempts to seperate brothers from their rightfully earned money. "Check the Rhime" introduced rap to the phrase "four thousand eighty," and it's a testament to the Tipster that it's still used to describe being wronged in a record deal to this day:
"Okay, if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock
Got the scrawny legs but I move just like Lou Brock
With speed, I'm agile plus I'm worth your while
One hundred percent intelligent black child
My optic presentation, sizzles the retina
How far must you go to gain respect? Ummmmmmm...
Well, it's kind of simple, just remain your own
Or you'll be crazy sad and alone
Industry rule number four thousand and eighty
Record company people are shadyyyyy!
So kids watch your back cause I think they smoke crack
I don't doubt it - look at how they act!"
This song is Jordan at the buzzer for three with two point nine on the clock. The repetitive bass drops and staggered "uhs" at the beginning are the hands on the ball, the jazzy horns of the break are the elevation of the feet, and the verses fluidly flow from Phife to Q-Tip in a smooth arc that at the song's abrupt ending 3:35 seconds later is a perfect SWISH right before the buzzer. A thing of beauty that's a joy to behold, forever and ever. You can watch the tape again, or you can listen to this song on tape again and again and AGAIN. But such is the harmonious nature of this album that you could virtually start and stop anywhere within it's arrangement and not be dissapointed by the effort. Take "Jazz (We Got The)" for example, which could and should just as easily be flipped and called "We Got the Jazz." If you ever wondered where the hip-hop phrase "boomin in ya boomin in ya boomin in ya Jeep" came from, it's a sample straight from the song - and it's consistant reusage is yet another testament to the fact Tribe tapped a vein on this one and fed rap straight to the brain:
"So push it, along, trails, we blaze
Don't deserve the gong, don't deserve the praise
The tranquility will make ya unball your fist
For we put hip-hop on a brand new twist
A brand new twist with the homie-alistic
So low-key that ya probably missed it
And yet it's so loud that it stands in the crowd
When the guy takes the beat, they bowed"
It may seem like five footer Phife is getting the shaft here, while in fact this was the album that impressed Tribe fans that he was not just playing a supporting role to Tip. Songs like "Buggin' Out" proved that the energetic rapper was a star in his own right, with a witty braggadocious flow and a verbal attack that made him taller in stature than all would-be competitors. Backed by one of the deepest basslines ever heard, this track became legendary:
"Yo, microphone check one two, what is this?
The five foot assassin with the ruffneck business
I float like gravity, never had a cavity
Got more rhymes than the Winans got family
No need to sweat Arsenio to gain some type of fame
No shame in my game cause I'll always be the same
Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have
You wanna diss the Phifer but you still don't know the half
I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path
Messin round with this you catch a size eleven!
I never half step cause I'm not a half stepper
Drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper
Refuse to com-pete with BS competition
Your name ain't Special Ed so won't you Seckle With the Mission
I never walk the streets, think it's all about me
Even though deep in my heart, it really could be
I just try my best to like go all out
Some might even say yo shorty black you're buggin' out!"
All the bases are covered with this album. "Rap Promoter" sounds like a biographical day-in-the-life song at first, but then turns the chunk-a-chunk 70's type swing into a lecture to bookers that if you're not going to pay, they're not going to play. "Skypager" details the joys and woes of owning the device, at a time when their influence was so broad that millions of hip-hop heads probably bought one just to jump on the bandwagon. "Vibes and Stuff" is some kick off your shoes and soak in the shuffle step slow groove goodness, while "The Infamous Date Rape" might have surprised and shocked some by it's title and topic matter. Most critiques of this song wrongly interpreted the blunt honesty of the song, when in fact Q-Tip explicitly states that no tomfoolery will take place on the MALE'S part:
"Now baby bust it, if you wanna groove
Me and you can do it, it will be the move
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
I'll have to fetch, a brand new cat
Baby, baby, baby I don't wanna be rude
But I know the cause of your bloody attitude
I know why, you act that way
It usually happens on the 28th day
I respect that - crazily!
When you're done with the pads can you come check me
This ain't a joint to disrespect you
Because one head ain't better than two
Check it out"
Guests aren't very abundant on this album, but the two places they appear are two of the all-time stand out posse cuts in hip-hop history. The first of these joints is "Show Business" featuring Sadat X and Diamond D, and one gets the impression that the Tribe are not the only rappers who have a deep mistrust of the record industry. D's rap may be the album's best on the topic, and even has a sly diss for a label rich in talent but lean on making payments:
"Well, excuse me, I gotta add my two cents in
Don't be alarmed, the rhyme was condensed in
a matter of minutes so it must be told
All that glitters' not gold
Everybody wants a deal, help me make a demo
See my name in bright lights, ride around in a limo
My moms keeps beefin (boy, get a job)
But I wanna make jams, damn, I know I'll slam
Huh, well it's not that easy
You gotta get a label that's willin and able
To market and promote, and you better hope
(For what?) That the product is dope
Take it from Diamond, it's like mountain climbin
When it comes to rhymin, you gotta put your time in
Get a good lawyer, so problems won't pile
You don't wanna make a +Pitch+ that's +Wild+"
The second of these two became a massive (and to me surprising) crossover sensation. This song was so large, Brain Austin Green was rapping along to it on "Beverly Hills 90210." This song was so large, they even commissioned a remix that featured the one and only vocal appearance of "Hood" on wax before he was tragically killed. If you don't already know, then go and check the "Scenario" starring Leaders of the New School side by side with the Tribe. Every verse shined, but Busta Rhymes brought his rising star into full focus with a phenomenal closing verse performance:
"Watch, as I combine all the juice from the mind
Heel up, wheel up, bring it back, come rewind
Powerful impact BOOM! from the cannon
Not braggin, try to read my mind just imagine
When diggin into my library
Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!
Eating ayea toadstool like the one Peter Tosh-a
Uh, uh uhh, all over with the track man
Uh, pardon me, uhh, as I come back
As I did it yo I heard you beg your pardon
When I travel to the Sun I roll with the squadron
RRRRRROAW RRRRRRROAW like a dungeon dragon
Change your little drawers cause your pants are saggin
Try to step to this, I will, fits you in a turban
And had you smellin ripe, like some old stale urine
Checkady-choco, the chocolate chicken
The rear cock diesel, buttcheeks they were kickin
Yo, bustin out before the Busta bust a nut the rhyme
the rhythm is in sync (UHH!) the rhymes are on time (TIME!)
Rippin up this dance just like a radio
Observe the vibe and check out the scenario!!
Yeah, my man motherfucker!"
Phenomenal. As the last track on the album, it takes all of the action to climactic heights through off key piano chords and a pulsing rhythm so powerful it could break your neck clean through if you resist bobbing along to it. Very few rap groups achieved this much success over back to back albums, but from their freshman debut to their sophomore release the Tribe proved so powerful that rap fans came to EXPECT greatness from them each time out - and for a while at least, they were never dissapointed - and neither will be new converts to this classic. Cop it new, or cop it used, but do not fail to COP THIS ALBUM. Like a Troy Aikman pass or a Magic Johnson finger roll, it's the kind of perfection that inspires others to reach for similarly lofty heights of repeated greatness.
Music Vibes: 10 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 10 of 10
Originally posted: April 1, 2003