The Low End Theory is the second studio album by American hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, released on September 24, 1991, by Jive Records. Recording sessions for the album were held mostly at Battery Studios in New York City, from 1990 to 1991. Largely produced by group member Q-Tip, it is a departure from the group’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), enveloping a minimalist sound that combines bass, drum breaks and jazz samples. Lyrically, the album features social commentary, word play, humor and interplay between group members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg.
Supported by the lead single “Check the Rhime”, The Low End Theory debuted at number 45 on the Billboard 200 chart. Upon its release, the album’s commercial potential was doubted by music writers and Jive record executives. However, the release of two additional singles, “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Scenario”, brought further attention and popularity to the group. On February 19, 1992, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), with shipments of 500,000 copies in the United States, and on February 1, 1995, it was certified platinum by the RIAA, with shipments of one million copies.
In the years since its release, The Low End Theory has garnered recognition from music critics and writers as a milestone in alternative hip hop. The album is regarded as Phife Dawg’s breakout and is credited for helping launch rapper Busta Rhymes’s successful solo career. The album’s influence on artists in hip hop, R&B and other genres has been attributed to the group’s lyricism and Q-Tip’s production, which bridged the gap between jazz and hip hop. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, appearing on many best album lists by music critics and writers.
A month after the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, group member Phife Dawg learned that he was diabetic and considered leaving the group. After a discussion with fellow member Q-Tip, they agreed to increase his participation on their second album and to “step it up in general as a group.” Recording sessions for the second album began when sessions from People’s Instinctive Travels kept creatively flowing. The group wanted to begin recording the album shortly after the completion of People’s Instinctive Travels, for which they still had to tour and film music videos. Phife Dawg later recalled, “Tip didn’t want to stop.” The album’s title, The Low End Theory, referred to both the status of black men in society and bass frequencies in the music, while the album cover featured a photograph of a kneeling woman painted in Afrocentric colors.
During the recording sessions, the group fired their manager Kool DJ Red Alert and joined Russell Simmons’s Rush Artist Management, with Chris Lighty serving as their new manager. They also fired their lawyer, who was Red Alert’s manager, and faced a lawsuit as a result. Both moves created tension within the Native Tongues collective, which was never fully resolved. After switching managers, the group demanded more advances from Jive, who eventually extended their recording contract for one more album. However, the negotiations between the group and Jive lasted over a year and strained their relationship. These events created a disillusionment with the music industry among the group, which affected “both material and approach” on The Low End Theory.
The majority of the recording sessions took place at Battery Studios in Manhattan, from 1990 to 1991, where the songs were recorded on a Neve 8068 mixing console. Like People’s Instinctive Travels, production on The Low End Theory was primarily handled by Q-Tip, while Ali Shaheed Muhammad provided DJ scratching and co-production. Skeff Anselm produced two songs, which were programmed at Jazzy Jay’s Studio in The Bronx. Producer Pete Rock created the original beat for the second single, “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, before it was recreated by Q-Tip, who credited Rock in the outro of the song.
Group member Jarobi White, who previously appeared on People’s Instinctive Travels, had verses recorded for The Low End Theory. However, he left the group during the sessions to study culinary art and his verses did not make the final cut. The song “Butter” was originally supposed to feature a verse by Q-Tip, but Phife Dawg insisted on rapping solo on it, causing a brief argument. It essentially became a Phife Dawg solo record, with Q-Tip performing the chorus.
Two posse cuts were recorded: the third single “Scenario”, featuring Leaders of the New School, and “Show Business”, featuring Lord Jamar and Sadat X of Brand Nubian and Diamond D of D.I.T.C. The former had several versions recorded, one of which included Posdnous of De La Soul and Black Sheep, as well as Chris Lighty, Jarobi White and future Flipmode Squad rapper Rampage, while the latter was originally recorded as “Georgie Porgie”, but was rejected by Jive for being “too homophobic” before being rewritten.
Q-Tip had a cold during the recording process and did not want to sound congested on the album; because of this he wanted to re-record all of his vocals and began doing so before people told him he sounded “fine” and convinced him otherwise.
The Low End Theory was one of the first records to fuse hip hop with the laid-back atmosphere of jazz, particularly bebop and hard bop. The album’s minimalist sound is “stripped to the essentials: vocals, drums, and bass.” The bass drum and vocals emphasize the downbeat on every song. Q-Tip credited the production on N.W.A’s album Straight Outta Compton as inspiration: “what resonated was just that bottom, that bass and the drive of it.”
The album is noted for its use of the double bass, “crisp” and “live-sounding” drum programming and “deftly placed samples or electric keyboards.” In addition, the group was praised for its “departure towards a live instrumental sound” and for using “jazz-infused samples with fat hardcore beats.” Q-Tip often layered drum sounds on the album, using as many as three snare drums or bass drums to create a single sound.Similarly, “Buggin’ Out” was the first song in which he layered two different drum breaks at once, which was uncommon at the time. The group hired double bassist Ron Carter for the song “Verses from the Abstract”. Q-Tip stated, “We wanted that straight bass sound, and Ron Carter is one of the premier bassists of the century.”
The Low End Theory is also regarded for its engineering. The mixing engineer, Bob Power, used several methods to remove “surface noise, crackles, or pops” from the samples, as the software at the time was unable to do so.He credited the group, saying, “Until that point, when people used samples on records, it was pretty much one loop that played throughout. With The Low End Theory … Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed were at the leading edge of a new wave where people started making elaborate musical constructions out of samples from different places that would not, and in many ways, could not, have been played by regular players.”
The Low End Theory is regarded for its socially conscious lyrics, which include subjects such as relationships, date rape, the hip hop industry and consumerism. Other lyrics are devoted to word play, humor and “showing off.” The album introduced the lyrical interplay and chemistry between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the latter of whom experienced a lyrical breakout. While acknowledging that Q-Tip had “already proven he is a highly skilled lyricist”, Reef of The Source also stated, “Those who questioned Phife’s microphone techniques on the first album will swallow those doubts as he practically steals the show on this one.” The album is also noted for its minimal use of explicit lyrics, as Ron Carter only agreed to record songs on the condition that the group avoid profanity, to which Q-Tip assured they were addressing “real issues.”
The duo’s lyrical delivery and styles contrasted each other; Q-Tip had a mellow voice and was philosophical, reflective, contemplative and esoteric, while Phife Dawg had a high-pitched voice and was comical, battle rhyme-ready, streetwise and self-deprecating. John Bush of AllMusic said the pair’s rapping “could be the smoothest of any rap record ever heard”, adding that they “are so in tune with each other, they sound like flip sides of the same personality, fluidly trading off on rhymes, with the former earning his nickname (the Abstract) and Phife concerning himself with the more concrete issues of being young, gifted, and black.”
The Low End Theory peaked at number 45 on the Billboard 200 and number 13 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Upon its release, the album’s commercial potential was doubted by music writers and Jive record executives, including label CEO Barry Weiss. However, on February 19, 1992, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), with shipments of 500,000 copies in the United States. On February 1, 1995, it was certified platinum by the RIAA, with shipments of one million copies.
Upon its release, The Low End Theory received widespread critical acclaim. It was awarded a perfect five mic rating in The Source, with reviewer Reef lauding their “progressive sound” and “streetwise edge”, adding that “there’s no sophomore jinx to be found here—only real hip-hop.”Iestyn George of NME praised the album as a “quantum leap” from People’s Instinctive Travels, noting, “Gone are the quirky samples that gave them their lighter edge, replaced by stark, hard-hitting beats.” George also credited Q-Tip and Phife Dawg for “trading lines like psychic sparring partners”, as they “pause, interject, charm and challenge with understated aplomb.”
James Bernard of Entertainment Weekly commended the group for its jazzy sound, which “perfectly complements their laid-back, raspy delivery”, but was critical of the album’s lack of danceable songs, calling it “the greatest hip-hop album that will never quicken my pulse.” The Village Voice critic Robert Christgau was reserved in his praise, believing the group delivered “goofball rhymes” from a “well-meaning middle class” perspective, later writing that “like so many ‘beats,’ Low End Theory‘s Ron Carter bass was really a glorified sound effect—what excited its admirers wasn’t its thrust, or even the thrill of the sound itself, so much as the classiness it signified.” He named “Check the Rhime” and “Buggin’ Out” as highlights, while giving the album a three-star honorable mention, indicating “an enjoyable effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well treasure.”
In the years since its release, The Low End Theory has received further widespread acclaim from music critics and writers, many of whom regard it as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, writer Mac Randall lauded it as a “hip-hop masterpiece.”AllMusic writer John Bush, who declared it “the most consistent and flowing hip-hop album ever recorded”, stated that the record “outdid all expectations and has held up as perhaps the best hip-hop LP of all time.”Bush also praised the group’s use of the double bass, drums and samples: “It’s a tribute to their unerring production sense that, with just those few tools, Tribe produced one of the best hip-hop albums in history, a record that sounds better with each listen. The Low End Theory is an unqualified success, the perfect marriage of intelligent, flowing raps to nuanced, groove-centered productions.”Writing for The Quietus, Angus Batey summed up the album’s broad appeal:
The Low End Theory took Tribe to that fabled “next level” hip hop acts always bang on about by performing the trick every authenticity-obsessed artist most dearly wants to execute. They crossed over without selling out – in fact, they crossed over while retrenching. Contrary to what [Barry] Weiss and colleagues thought at the time, …Low End… is harder-edged, darker, and, in terms of its adherence to established hip hop codes, actually a little bit conservative … The record became beloved of fundamentalist b-boys because it rooted itself firmly in the music’s core sonic, conceptual, lyrical and artistic values, yet managed to increase the band’s appeal to listeners who generally shunned rap for sonic or ideological reasons. Here was a group from a still outsider genre, uniting hardcore fans and curious outsiders by making music that worried more about integrity, commitment, creativity and resolve than it did appealing to the mainstream.
Dave Heaton of PopMatters stated that the album is “the point where their sound truly came together”, also describing it as a “remarkable experience, as aesthetically and emotionally rewarding as any work of music I can think of.” Preezy Brown of Vibe called it a “tour de force of groundbreaking rap tunes” and a “signature record in the group’s superior discography.”For Time‘s All-Time 100 Albums, writer Josh Tyrangiel described the album as a “grand exception” to jazz rap being “more wishful thinking on the part of critics than anything actual”, also calling it “socially conscious without being dull.”
Since its release, The Low End Theory has been included on several “best of” lists compiled by music writers and journalists. The following information is adapted from Acclaimed Music.
About.com U.S.Best Rap Albums of 1991 200 84
The Arizona Republic U.S.8
Albums That VH1 Missed2001*
BigOSingaporeThe 100 Best Albums from 1975 to 1995 1995 78
Blender U.S.The 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time200253
Dance de Lux SpainThe 25 Best Hip-Hop Records 200 110
Ego Trip U.S.Hip Hop’s 25 Greatest Albums by Year 1980–9819992
Fast ‘n’ Bulbous U.S.The 500 Best Albums Since 1965*
Kitsap Sun U.S.Top 200 Albums of the Last 40 Years 2005151
LostAtSeaU.S.90 Albums of the 90’s200072
Music UnderwaterU.S.Top 100 Albums 1990–200320045
Paul MorleyU.K.Words and Music, 5 x 100 Greatest Albums of All Time2003*PitchforkU.S.Top 100 Favorite Records of the 1990s200356Popblerd/bLISTerdU.S.Top 100 Albums of the 1990s20126Robert DimeryU.S.1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die2005*Rock de LuxSpainThe 150 Best Albums from the 90s2000128Rolling Stone
(guest article by
Chris Rock)U.S.Top 25 Hip-Hop Albums20059
Rolling StoneU.S.100 Best Albums of the 90s201036Rolling StoneU.S.The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time2012153Rolling StoneU.S.The Essential Recordings of the 90’s1999
SpinU.S.100 Alternative Albums19958 7SpinU.S.Top 100 (+5) Albums of the Last 20 Years200538SpinU.S.Top 90 Albums of the 90’s199932
StereophileU.S.Top 40 (+94) Essential Albums2002*The SourceU.S.100 Best Rap Albums of All Time1998*TimeU.S.The All-TIME 100 Albums2006*Tom MoonU.S.1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die2008*TrebleU.S.Top 100 Albums of the 90s (10 Per Year)20083
VibeU.S.100 Essential Albums of the 20th Century1999*VibeU.S.51 Albums Representing a Generation, a Sound and a Movement2004*ZundfunkGermanyThe Best Albums of the 90’s200016(*) designates lists which are unordered.
Legacy and influence
The Low End Theory is regarded as one of the most influential albums in hip hop history, with Corbin Reiff of Complex declaring that it “broke major ground and pushed the sonic envelope of the entire rap genre.” It has been stated to have helped shape alternative hip hop in the 1990s, as the group’s “mellow innovations” helped jazz rap gain significant exposure from 1992 to 1993. The group is credited with showcasing how hip hop was made before commercial success influenced many rappers’ creativity, and for challenging the “macho posturing” of hardcore and gangsta rap.
The album is regarded as Phife Dawg’s lyrical breakout, as he established himself as a formidable MC. A breakout verse by Leaders of the New School member Busta Rhymes, on the single “Scenario”, led to stardom and helped launch his successful solo career.Praised for his improvement “both as an MC and a boardsman”, Q-Tip’s rhyme on the single “Check the Rhime”: “Industry rule number 4,080 / Record company people are shady” is one of the most quoted lines in hip hop,while the album has been called the “Sgt. Pepper’s of hip-hop” for its groundbreaking approach to hip hop production and engineering. The album cover is regarded as one of the greatest and most iconic in hip hop history; on a top 50 list by Complex, it was ranked number one.
The album is credited with establishing “the musical, cultural, and historical link between hip hop and jazz”,and is regarded as a “successful fusion of opposites: the complex musical textures of jazz and the straightforward boom-bap of rap.”Writer Joseph Patel called it “a consummate link between generations”, which took the essence of jazz and hip hop, and “showing they originated from the same black center.”Rolling Stone ranked the album at number 153 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, stating that people “connected the dots between hip-hop and jazz”, as both were revolutionary forms of black music based on improvisation and flow, however, “this LP drew the entire picture.”Writing for the New York Observer on the album’s 25th anniversary, Ron Hart stated:
A quarter century later, The Low End Theory is as ubiquitous to the language of modern jazz as Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, its seamless fusion of beats and bop providing the seeds for future greats … to further blur the line between jazz and hip-hop in an even more organic way than in the early ’90s.
The Low End Theory has influenced many hip hop and R&B musicians. Producer 9th Wonder described the album as his “personal soundtrack” while growing up, also stating that the group “changed my life.”He further commented on the influence of the group: “It’s safe to say, for me, as well as Phonte, as well as Slum Village, Mos Def, Kweli, The Roots, Pharrell, you name it, Outkast, we could go on forever to say if you look at the A Tribe Called Quest family tree, they got a lot of offspring.” The album has also influenced Kanye West, Common, D’Angelo, Jill Scott,Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Logic,Havoc, Madlib, Robert Glasper, and Dr. Dre, who produced his solo debut The Chronic after being inspired by the album.Musicians from other genres have also cited it as an influence, including rock musician Jack White and electronica musician James Lavelle.
- All songs produced by A Tribe Called Quest, except tracks 6 and 10 produced by Skeff Anselm and co-produced by A Tribe Called Quest.
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1.”Excursions”Jonathan Davis 3:55
3.”Rap Promoter”Davis, Muhammad 2:13
4.”Butter”Davis, Muhammad, Taylor 3:39
7.”Vibes and Stuff”Davis, Taylor 4:18
8.”The Infamous Date Rape”Davis, Muhammad, Taylor 2:54
9.”Check the Rhime“Davis, Muhammad, Taylor 3:37
10.”Everything Is Fair”Anselm, Davis, Muhammad, Taylor 2:58
11.”Jazz (We’ve Got)“Davis, Muhammad, Taylor 4:10
12.”Skypager”Davis, Muhammad, Taylor 2:12
Total length: 48:03
Credits are adapted from AllMusic. Performance credits
- Bass – Ron Carter
- DJ – Ali Shaheed Muhammad
- Vocals – Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown, Diamond D, Dinco D, Lord Jamar, Sadat X
- Arrangement – A Tribe Called Quest
- Design – Zombart JK
- Engineering – Pete Christensen, Eric Gast, Rod Hui, Gerard Julien, Jim Kvoriak, Tim Latham, Anthony Saunders, Bob Power, Christopher Shaw, Marc Singleton, Jamey Staub, Dan Wood
- Mastering – Tom Coyne
- Mixing – Bob Power, A Tribe Called Quest
- Photography – Joe Grant
- Production – A Tribe Called Quest, Skeff Anselm
Charts and certificationsn
Chart (1992)PositionUS Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums (Billboard)23
*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone
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