As mentioned in the last post, 1991 was an amazing year for music. While Nirvana was tops in rock music (and probably music as a whole), A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory was an instant hip-hop classic and the best rap record of 1991.
Like Nirvana following up Bleach, A Tribe Called Quest took things to another level with their second album. ATCQ’s 1990 debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is a classic as well, but The Low End Theory fine tunes everything from their debut and pushes their style to new heights.
My love for A Tribe Called Quest started with that first album, specifically the songs “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”, “Can I Kick It?”, and “Bonita Applebum” – all of which were in high rotation on MTV and Yo! MTV Raps at the time. ATCQ was a truly groundbreaking group, incorporating jazz and R&B with laid back, conversational lyrics. Between ATCQ, De La Soul, and Disable Planets, I found my favorite hip-hop style – one I still prefer 30 years later.
Over the next few years I wore my The Low End Theory tape out – it was my go to for almost every situation: skateboarding, playing video games, running track in high school. It was my soundtrack for the very early 90s.
Let's dig in to each track:
Excursions sets the stage for the whole album – great lyrics over a jazz/bebop influenced track. A great opening and introduction to ATCQ.
Back in the days when I was a teenager Before I had status and before I had a pager You could find the Abstract listenin' to hip-hop My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop I said, "Well, Daddy, don't you know that things go in cycles? Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael"
The beat samples “A Chant for Bu” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
A great song and Phife Dawg’s coming out party as a world class MC. The video for this track can be seen below with “Jazz (We’ve Got)”.
What an opening:
Yo, microphone check one, two, what is this? The five foot assassin with the roughneck business I float like gravity, never had a cavity Got more rhymes than the Winans got family
The bass is sampled from Jack DeJohnette’s song, “Minya’s the Mooch”. The drums were sampled from Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “Spinning Wheel”.
Rap Promoter is another track from ATCQ taking issue with the music industry (you’ll sense the theme by the end of the album.)
If there ain't no dough then there ain't no show So take your roly poly fat promoter (ass) To the Chemical Bank, and get my cash If you wanna see the people scream and laugh You best Quest, you ask the Quest, you ask real fast
“Rap Promoter,” is a pointed jab at the monetization of rap music in the music industry. Q-Tip warns up-and-coming rappers about venue promoters and their shady tactics of scamming money out of them
The drums were sampled from The New Birth’s “Keep on Doin' It”. The guitar sample is from Eric Mercury’s “Long Way Down.”
Phife Dawg takes this track with an autobiographical look at his girl problems:
1988 senior year at Garvey High Where all the guys were corny but the girls were mad fly Lounging with the Tipster, cooling with Sha Scoping out the honeys—they know who they are I was the b-ball playing, fly rhyme saying Fly girl getting but never was I sweating
The drum beat was sampled from Chuck Jackson’s 1968 rendition of “I Like Everything About You.”
Verses from the Abstract
Q-Tip takes this one solo (well, Vinia Mojica is featured on the chorus) with a very jazz/funk influenced flow that has since influenced many MCs:
I'm moving, yes I'm grooving cause my mouth is on the motor Use the Coast in the morning to avoid the funky odor Can't help being funky, I'm the funky Abstract brother Funky in a sense, but I play the undercover Once had a fetish, fetish for some booty Now I'm getting funky in my rap and that's my duty
The drums were sampled from Joe Farrell’s 1974 track “Upon This Rock”. The background instrumentation on the hook was sampled from Heatwave’s 1977 song “The Star of a Story”.
A cautionary tale about the record industry. The song was also the first song on the album to include guest artists/groups. For this one it’s Lord Jamar and Sadat X of Brand Nubian, as well as Diamond D of D.I.T.C..
Yo, I gotta speak on the cesspool It's the rap industry and it ain't that cool Only if you're on stage or if you're speaking to your people Ain't no-one your equal Especially on the industry side Don't let the gains just glide Right through your fingers, you gotta know the deal So Lord Jamar speak, because you're real
The drums are sampled from Aretha Franklin’s 1971 song “Rock Steady”. The bassline is from The Fatback Band’s 1974 track “Wicki Wacky”. The guitar break is a ssample from Ferrante & Teicher’s 1969 song “Midnight Cowboy”. Other samples were taken from James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” and Gerson King Combo’s “Mandamentos Black.”
Vibes and Stuff
Some more great lyrics and flow from Q-Tip and Phife Dawg on this laid back jazzy track.
Here I am ghetto, full with a lot of steam Think I gotta, I think I gotta, I think I gotta scream Cause that's how good it feels child Let your hair down, so we can get buckwild Do your ill dance, don't think about the next man We must have unity and think of the bigger plan Division we will fall, we must stick together, see I'd like to take this time to say what's up to Kool G
The song samples Grant Green’s 1970 song “Down Here On the Ground”.
Infamous Date Rape
1990 was an important year in the discussion of rape, date rape, and rape on college campuses in the United States. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg add their social commentary in this song, along with some casual jokes (maybe too casual for 2021) about sex in general:
Listen to the rhyme, it's a black-ink fact Percentile rate of date rape is fat
The drum samples are from Jackie Jackson’s 1973 song “Is It Him or Me” and the keyboard sample was taken from Cannonball Adderley’s 1972 song “The Steam Drill”.
Check the Rhime
One of my favorite songs on the album and a hip-hop classic. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg use call and response to celebrate their roots and how far they’ve come together:
Back in the days on the boulevard of Linden We used to kick routines and the presence was fittin' It was I, The Abstract And me, the Five Footer I kicks the mad style so step off the frankfurter Yo, Phife, you remember that routine That we used to make spiffy like Mr. Clean? Um… um… a tidbit, um… a smidgen I don't get the message so you gots to run the pigeon
The hook samples Minnie Riperton’s 1975 song “Baby, This Love I Have” and the horn sample comes from Average White Band’s 1976 song “Love Your Life”. The drums were sampled from Grover Washington Jr.’s 1975 song “Hydra” and Dalton & Dubarri’s 1976 song “I’m just a Rock N' Roller”.
Everything is Fair
Look at Miss Elaine who runs the fast lane Barely knows her name, struck by fame She just got a Benz, she rides with her friends Gotta keep her beeper in her purse to make ends Rollin' down the block, checkin' out the spots She winks at the cops, always give her props She knows she's the woman, can't nobody touch her Hangs with the elite, makes her papes from the gutter
“Everything Is Fair” is a social commentary about crime and survival in New York City in the early ’90s.
The hook was sampled from Funkadelic’s 1976 song “Let’s Take It to the People”. The drums were sampled from Willis Jackson’s 1972 song “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The bassline was sampled from Willis Jackson’s 1972 song “Don’t Knock My Love”.
Jazz (We’ve Got)
Another one of my favorite jams on this album. The lyrics are top notch.
Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue The aim is to succeed and achieve at 21 Just like Ringling Brothers, I'll daze and astound Captivate the mass, cause the prose was profound Do it for the strong, we do it for the meek Boom it in your boom it in your boom it in your Jeep Or your Honda, or your Bimmer, or your Legend, or your Benz The rave of the town to your foes and your friends
The video combines two songs: “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Buggin' Out” from earlier in the album.
The drums were sampled from Five Stairsteps 1968 song “Don’t Change Your Love”. The keyboard sample twas taken from Jimmy McGriff’s 1972 song “Green Dolphin Street”. On the beat, three samples are manipulated on the turntables from The Dells 1972 song “Segue 2: Funky Breeze/Ghetto Scene”.
ATCQ’s commentary on the importance of pagers in the early 90s. I know that probably seems crazy to younger people, considering what we have now. But yeah, pagers were a thing well into the 90s.
Those who don't believe, see you're laid behind Got our skypagers on all the time Hurry up and get yours cause I got mine Especially if you do shows, they come in fine
The drums were sampled from Sly and The Family Stone’s 1967 song “Advice”. The jazz sample heard in the hook was taken from Eric Dolphy’s 1960 song “17 West,”, featuring jazz bassist Ron Carter.
A short, uptempo track with many rhetorical questions from Q-Tip.
The sparse track entirely consists of a loop of the Paul Humphrey song called “Uncle Willie’s Dream” (1974). The track’s bouncy momentum culminates into a group shout of “What!!” that leads directly into the album’s crown jewel posse cut, “Scenario.”
Another classic and my favorite ATCQ song. What a way to close out the album. The song was my introduction to Leaders of the New School and Busta Rhymes, who went on to massive success as a solo artist.
The verses and interplay between everyone involved is simply quite amazing. I could quote all of the lyrics – they are that good – so check out the Genius page to read along.
The drums on “Scenario” were sampled from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1967 song “Little Miss Lover”. The bassline and other elements heard throughout were taken from Brother Jack McDuff’s 1970 song “Oblighetto”.
This album is now over 30 (?!?!) years old, which makes me feel very old… but I am very happy that it has stood the test of time. It may not fit with current radio play and trends, but it is truly a classic record that is 100% listenable today. It’s hip-hop, creativity, and lyricism at it’s finest. A true piece of art.
Since A Tribe Called Quest is this month’s featured artist, we’ll focus on hip hop from 1991. Enjoy! Listen on Apple Music.
- Check the Rhime by A Tribe Called Quest
- Mistadobalina by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
- If My Homie Calls by 2Pac
- Mind Playing Tricks on Me by Geto Boys
- How I Could Just Kill a Man by Cypress Hill
- Check the Technique by Gang Starr
- The Choice is Yours by Black Sheep
- I Shouldn't Have Done It by Slick Rick
- The Creator by CL Smooth and Pete Rock
- Case of the PTA by Leaders of the New School
- Can't Truss It by Public Enemy
- OPP by Naughty by Nature
- Live at the Barbecue by Main Source
Here are some new releases I’ve been listening to and enjoying:
- Sour by Olivia Rodrigo (Listen)
- Perfect by Mannequin Pussy (Listen)
- Between the Richness by Fiddlhead (Listen)
- The Off-Season by J. Cole (Listen)
- Seek Shelter by Iceage (Listen)
- Just Until... by Cordae (Listen)
- Thank You for Being Here by cursedtheknife (Listen)
- Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast (Listen)
- Unscrew My Head by Ekulu (Listen)
- Path of Wellness by Sleater-Kinney (Listen)
- GLOW ON by Turnstile (Listen)
- CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST by Tyler, the Creator (Listen)
- Piecing it Together by Free Throw (Listen)
- Distant Populations by Quicksand (Listen)
And some older releases that have made it back into regular rotation:
- Red Medicine by Fugazi (Listen)
- Copper Blue / Beaster remastered 2xLP by Sugar (Listen - Copper Blue and Listen - Beaster)
- Show Me How You Disappear by Ian Sweet (Listen)
- Crush by The Doughboys (Listen)
Follow me on Last.fm to see more!
Musical Moving Pictures
LIVE MUSIC?!?! Since the last issue I had the pleasure of attending two concerts: an indoor show with the twin bill of Japanese Breakfast/Mannequin Pussy and an outdoor show with Wilco/Sleater-Kinney/NNAMDI. Both were very good.
The Japanese Breakfast show was thankfully vaccine + mask required, which definitely helped us relax. It was truly amazing to see live music again. Before the pandemic I definitely took it for granted. I’ve seen hundreds of bands over the years and the thought of standing in a hot sweaty room, packed in with other people was not appealing any longer, in most cases. That show 100% changed my mind. The best part of that show is we took Lu and two of their friends and they were blown away by Mannequin Pussy. Such a great, in person experience to give young kids.
- Ode To Joy: How Japanese Breakfast Made The Sounds Of 'Jubilee' : NPR
- Rock, Roll, Riot, Repeat: An Oral History of Kill Rock Stars | SPIN SPIN