After going through a lot of British trip-hop in the last few years, I wanted to check out more of the American jazz-rap scene. Both styles seemed to have peaked in popularity during the 1990s, but anyone who is tired of a lot of this decade's hip hop cliches can find respite in groups like A Tribe Called Quest.
Quest is a trio formed in 1988 from Queens, New York. Q-Tip is apparently the most famous of the three, known for his low-key rapping style and alter ego "The Abstract Poet" due to his conceptual verse tendencies. Phife has a deeper voice and raps more energetically, often in concrete narrative as opposed to Q-Tip's preference for generalities. The third one in the group is DJ and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The Low End Theory is Tribe's critically acclaimed 1991 album, and it features a nice blend of rap and jazz. The jazz tendencies may be a bit overstated by some reviewers, but you can still definitely hear the influence on over half the tracks on Theory. Additionally, people who want to enjoy hip hop beats but don't want to hear grim stories of gang violence will definitely like Tribe since they focus more on life's positive aspects without being ridiculously cheesy about them. They do rap sometimes about sex, and as Q-Tip states on "Buggin' Out," sometimes he will "curse to get my point across" - but by and large, these guys won't offend many people.
"Excursions" works great as the album's intro since it encompasses several of Tribe's tendencies: the pseudo-monotone but intriguing style of Q-Tip, a strong, low end bass, themes of Afrocentricity (accentuated by African drum percussion on this particular track) and hope, and the inclusion of a jazz instrument in the chorus (a trumpet, in all likelihood). Next, "Buggin' Out" opens with a Phife verse where he defines himself: "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." The gritty funk bass complements Phife's style best, though both he and Q-Tip get two verses on the mic during "Buggin' Out."
A very simple bass line and minimal overall production feature on "Rap Promoter," which borders on dull compared to the prior two songs; together with a lyrical output that is merely average, it's skippable filler. By contrast, "Butter" is one of the standout tracks on The Low End Theory - jazz returns to the forefront, and it's smooth, cool, and chilled. Phife weaves a long narrative about his varying experiences with women, bragging that he's "smooth like butter" with amusing clarification from Q-Tip: "Not no Parkay, not no margarine / Strictly butter baby, strictly butter."
"Verses from the Abstract" is Q-Tip at his best. His steady cadence simply glides over jazz legend Ron Carter's complex double bass lines for some of the coolest, laid-back jazz-rap committed to record. His rhymes are also strong, including unique lines like "Women love the voice, brothas dig the lyrics / Quest the people's choice, we thrive it for the spirit / If you can't hear it, then get the wax utensils / Write my rhymes straight up, don't get with no fancy stencils / The rhymes we get is sweet, we stay away from tart / Our perfection is at work, perkin' up the art / If you want to battle, I suggest you check your clock / Your demise is comin' up, and I want your man to watch." "Show Business" adds some variety, with guest appearances from Lord Jamar, Diamond D, and Sadat X, as well as music that's closer to energetic James Brown funk than mellow jazz. Though Phife and Q-Tip have their time, my favorite line - "Eat from the tree of life and throw away the verbal ham" - comes from guest Sadat X.
Q-Tip reveals again on "Vibes and Stuff" how well his delivery meshes with calm jazz, even when it's woozy and trancelike as it is on this number. He also rhymes "vital parts" with "recital arts," which is a rhyme I have definitely never heard before from anyone else and helps establish himself as at least a capable lyricist, even if he isn't usually considered one of the greatest emcees. On "The Infamous Date Rape," the group also proves they can discuss very delicate subjects, like miscommunication and confusion between men and women over casual sex (and to think this was 12 years before the Kobe Bryant rape case).
"Check the Rhime" comes out banging with big band horns and in-your-face bass before settling into a quieter ambient mood without sounding jumbled. There's a simple exchange between Q-Tip and Phife that is exceptionally catchy somehow, perhaps due to the easy-flowing rhythm: "You on point Phife? / All the time Tip / You on point Tip? / All the time, Phife." "Everything is Fair" contains a P-Funk sample ("Everything is fair when you're living in the city!"), and Q-Tip is the guy giving a Phife-like narrative this time, one which tells a story about a woman trying to do what she can to survive.
But my favorite track on The Low End Theory, hands-down, is "Jazz." Light, tranquil, slow-swaying jazz unite with Q-Tip again, as on "Vibes and Stuff," but it's even more hypnotic than it was there. Q-Tip almost blurs the line between melody and rhythm, and the sweet horns in the chorus float to an upper atmosphere in one's mental plane. Nothing could effectively succeed it, so a throwaway filler about pagers (remember how popular these were in the 1990s when cell phones were still very expensive?) follows in "Skypager." It's hard to improve on greatness. Nonetheless, the final two offerings don't fail. "What?" is a funny and often overlooked bit where Q-Tip asks all kinds of odd rhetorical questions such as "What's a child birth, without the umbilical? What's United Parcel, without the deliverer?" And "Scenario" finishes out Theory with hyper fun, group shouts and chants, and a few more well-placed guest appearances - including the comical Busta Rhymes, whose line "When I travel to the Sun I roll with the squadron / RRRRRROAW RRRRRRROAW like a dungeon dragon!!!" is one of the silliest and most entertaining things I've heard in awhile.
Whether or not this is A Tribe Called Quest's best record, it's definitely one that any hip-hop fan should have, and even one that some people not otherwise fond of hip-hop might enjoy since it's so different and creative. It's very close to five stars.