If you read Time Is Illmatic with in regularity you already know how much I’m in love with A Tribe Called Quest. They are easily my favorite hip-hop group of all time. But even with my deepest devotion to ATCQ, my ears weren’t fooled by love. Their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was a critical success (and a mouthful) as The Source even gave it a 5 mic rating. People’s was a solid debut that showed ATCQ’s potential but there is no way it should have earned the 4 man crew a 5 mic rating as there were a few too many lows along that journey to give it that high of a rating.
ATCQ would return in 1991 releasing the sophomore effort The Low End Theory. TLET picks up where People’s left off blending, jazz loops over hip-hop beats. While Phife had a limited role on People’s he would have an increased presence on TLET that would bring an added flavor missing the first time around.
TLET was a commercial (it would eventually earn the Tribe a gold plaque) and critical success at is has been crowned by many reputable critics as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It also received a 5 mic rating from The Source, making ATCQ the only artist to receive 5 mic rating on consecutive albums.
Side note: In Brian Coleman’s book Check The Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, Q-Tip explains that he originally wanted Naomi Campbell to be a painted model on the cover, kind of as homage to all of the Ohio Players’ albums. The label wasn’t able to get her, so they went with plan b, the virtual model that would dawn the next three ATCQ album covers.
Excursions – TLET opens with a dusty bass line loop playing for about 10 seconds, before Q-Tip comes in and drops his first few bars. Shortly after, the rough drum beat drops to complement the sick bass line. The hook incorporates a vocal sample from the Last Poets mixed with a sorrowful yet beautiful trumpet loop. Q-Tip goes for delf as he drops two verses and comes off like a poetic sage on this one. Brilliant.
Buggin’ Out – “Excursions” end and goes right into another sick bass line that plays for a few seconds before the beat drops and Phife grabs the mic and shows the world that he actually has some spit in him. He and Q-Tip each get two verses and provide a perfect example of why they’re my favorite group and arguably one of the best emcee duo to ever grip microphones.
Rap Promoter – Q-Tip opens this one up declaring “this is a fly love song”. Actually it’s not. It’s more so Tip letting any show promoter trying to get Tribe to perform at their venue that “the only shorts they take are the ones that they wear”, so come correct with the loot. Solid joint.
Butter – Phife gets his only solo joint of the evening and uses this one to discuss his game with the ladies. His lyrics are pretty witty and amusing, but the instrumental is king on this one. I love the rough drums under what sounds like guitar licks falling from the sky. The cherry on top is the sick saxophone sample that feels as warm as 100 degrees in Shreveport Louisiana in the middle of June.
Verses From The Abstract – The song title pretty much sum this one up: Q-tip talks about everything from his fetishes to the importance of unity. The beautiful guitar sample is complimented by live jazz bass played by Ron Carter and long time Native Tongue collaborator Ms. Vinia Mojica lays down a sweet vocal during the hook.
Show Business – For years I’ve thought this bouncy feel good instrumental was produced by Diamond D, but it was actually produced by Skeff Anselm (yeah the “produced and arranged by my 4 man crew, and oh shit, Skeff Anselm, he gets props too” Skeff Anselm). As legend has it, originally Q-Tip, Phife, and Brand Nubian used this beat for a song they wrote called “Georgie Porgie”(Google it). The song was about a kid growing up in the hood that discovers he’s gay. The label felt the song’s content was too controversial so they forced ATCQ to pull it from the album. Tribe decided to keep the beat, scrapped the original song idea, added Diamond D in place of Puba (who was so pissed that the label pulled the original song he didn’t want to partake in the remake) and used it instead to address the shadiness of the record industry (which can also be seen as a shot at the folks at Jive for pulling the original song). I’m curious on how “Georgie Porgie” would have been received had it made the final cut of TLET. Without a doubt, they would have been crucified if this was released in our current climate. But I digress. All in all, solid song.
Vibes And Stuff – I mentioned on the Cypress Hill review that ATCQ used the same Grant Green sample that Cypress used on “Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk”. This is that song. Tip and Phife share mic duties as they skate lovely over this sick instrumental.
The Infamous Date Rape – They avoided controversy by changing “Georgie Porgie” to “Show Business” but TLET is not without its controversial moments, thanks to this song that addresses date rape. Tip hooks up a dark instrumental to set the mood for this song’s touchy (no pun intended) subject matter. Not my favorite ATCQ song but it’s still solid.
Check the Rhime – The lead single from TLET is probably the most popular song in all of ATCQ’s catalog. The bouncy bass line, tremendous trumpet sample on the break, and the back and forth chemistry of Tip and Phife had hip-hop heads stuck in the summer of 91′ and it still hold up well almost 25 years later. Classic.
Everything Is Fair – This is probably my least favorite song’s on TLET, which coincidentally was produced Skeff Anselm. Tip rides solo over this average instrumental. It’s pretty short and it fades right into this…
Jazz (We’ve Got) – Which is my favorite song on TLET. According to a quote from Tip the instrumental was originally produced by Pete Rock and intended for a collabo with himself, PR, and Extra P. The collaboration never happened and since the instrumental was still available PR gave Tip permission to use it for this ATCQ song. The combination of Pete Rock’s signature heavy drums mixed with the melancholy vibes and the sorrowful trumpet sample during the hook is almost heavenly. When you add Tip’s cerebral lines and Phife’s playful boast, you’ve got a masterpiece. In my opinion, this is one of the top 10 hip-hop song of all time. Yeah, I said it.
SkyPager -This is probably one of the few songs on TLET that people forget about until they go back and listen to the album. Tip and Phife use this one to address the “importance of a SkyPager”. Remember those things? The beat is harder than what you’re accustom to hearing on an ATCQ record, but it’s hot. The subject dates the song but it still makes for a decent listen.
What? – Over a stripped down backdrop that reminds me of the Stanford & Son theme song, Tip spits one long verse filled with rhetorical questions that range from comical to serious but the song maintains a light-hearted feel. This one sound just as good today as it did back in the day.
Scenario – This posse cut, which features Leaders Of The New School, will forever be remembered as the song that would begin Busta Rhymes launch into super stardom as his undeniable energy brought the record to another level. He easily outshines Tip, Phife, Brown, and Dinco. Any true head has to include this in their top 5 posse joints of all time.
ATCQ used the time in between People’s and TLET to their artistic advantage. They tweaked and fine tuned a few things just enough to create arguably the finest hip-hop album of all time. While the overall production was solid on People’s, they managed to perfect their jazz infused instrumentals on TLET. Q-Tip and Phife are rarely mentioned in the conversation of greatest emcee and there is no doubt they’re both top-notch in their own right; but when they join forces their chemistry in undeniable. If you don’t own this album please render your hip-hop head credentials to me, immediately.
Did The Source Get It Right? Is that a rhetorical question? The Low End Theory is a frickin’ masterpiece!