Music of Our Live: The Low End Theory
By Nathan Ambrose (Host of Music of My Mind, thursday 5:00-6:30PM)
The Low End Theory (LET) is not my favourite Tribe Called Quest album. That would be Midnight Marauders. But, it was certainly the most influential of their first three for me, all of which are certified classics today. LET was the first Tribe album I listened to and its one of few hip-hop records I can still listen to from beginning to end. It was also my true introduction to the Native Tongues, the 90s collective that included Tribe, De La Soul, Brand Nubian, Leaders of the New School and more. What LET did was expand my senses as to what hip-hop could be. No longer did it have to be overtly political, gangster or have 808 beats. It could be cool (“Jazz (We’ve Got)”), fun (“Check the Rhime”), laid back (“Butter”), and community minded (“Show Business”/”Scenario”), yet still braggadocious (“Buggin’ Out” + most album tracks). And by the way, what was this “jazz” all about? The sparse production on the record, limited mostly to drums and bass gave MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg room to develop their chemistry, trademark styles and playfulness on the mic. On LET they had no trouble proving that they were serious MCs, but ones that did not take themselves too seriously. The selection of rich samples used on this record created a musical landscape that helped changed the landscape of hip-hop production forever.
I was a teenager when I first heard this album. At the time, I was just beginning to explore hip-hop in a larger sense. I was a big Public Enemy fan and also listened to NWA, Ice-T, Ice Cube and LL Cool J and other more successful rap acts of the late 80s and early 90s. My friend had borrowed the cassette from our high school’s resident hip-hop head and brought it over to my house over a noon hour. My parents had recently invested (with my input) a new hi-fi stereo and I was anxious to test out the bass response. If I remember correctly, we had to rewind the tape to the beginning of Side One. Even if I would have only listened to the first song, I was hooked.
The first track on the album “Excursions” is one of the finest album openers in hip-hop history. The Low End Theory would not be The Low End Theory without it strategically placed where it was. I had little to no knowledge of jazz at the time, but as soon as the first two bars of its thick, rolling jazz bass-line comes in, it’s clear the listener is about to be taken somewhere unexpected but very comfortable nonetheless. The sense of urgency the song presents through its tapestry of incredible samples, including the vocal sample of The Last Poets “Time,” spoke to me. It told me that music (not just rap music) could be different.