Rewind: A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)

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If David Starkey and like-minded cynics truly believe that hip-hop’s penchant for violence and materialism is the cause of Britain’s moral and social decline, it may surprise some to know that it wasn’t always like this. Detractors should reserve their criticism, at least until they spare a listen to the sophomore release of New York trio A Tribe Called Quest.

Released in 1991, The Low End Theory is a record that manages to debunk almost all of the genre’s negative stereotypes. Not only does it navigate with confidence past the difficult ‘second album syndrome’ that can squander the most promising rising stars in banality, but it proves that it is entirely possible to produce a groundbreaking hip-hop record without falling back on the all too common crutches of drug money, drive-bys, and misogyny.

As opening track ‘Excursions’ crackles over the speaker, group leader Q-Tip (AKA the ‘Abstract Poet’) muses on the shared origins of bebop and hip-hop, jazz’s spiritual grandchild. Veteran jazz double-bassist Ron Carter, credited with playing alongside everyone from Miles Davis to Paul Simon, agreed to play on the album on the condition that they refrained from drug talk and profanity on the album. Q-Tip reassured him they would be rapping about the issues that mattered. As he quips: ‘Get in the zone of positivity, not negativity/Cuz we gotta strive for longevity’, we are compelled to believe him.

It’s an attitude uncommon in today’s hip-hop scene. With few exceptions, the genre has descended into a creative quagmire, no longer reliant on talent or innovation for success. A fate ushered in by the advent of Auto-Tune and sealed by Justin Bieber, it’s distressing to watch the appropriation of an original and thrilling art form milked until it has all the excitement of washing-up water. Being offensive is one thing, but a true music fan should know that there’s nothing worse than being bland.

At times serious, often funny, always cool, Tribe place good vibes as a priority on an album in which no gang signs are thrown up and everybody leaves the party happy. The Low End Theory is an endlesslys energetic, pioneering, and intelligent release from a group who make the point that rap albums don’t necesarily arrive on the shelves with a parental advisory sticker as a standard. Write off hip-hop at your peril.

Written by Nile Davies

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    Aren’t ATCQ five percenters? I don’t think they’ve ever explicitly stated their beliefs but Brand Nubian and Busta Rhymes, who make guest appearances on The Low End Theory are definitely followers. To quickly summarise, the Nation of Gods and Earths are an offshoot of the black supremacist sect the ‘Nation of Islam’ (which has little to do with orthodox Islam), believing that they are the ‘5%’ enlightened members of the population whose duty it is to ‘civilise’ the unwashed ‘85%’ of the evil caused by the remaining ‘10%’. They also believe that white people were created as a deliberate genetic mutation by evil scientist Yakub (or the biblical Jacob). In a lot of early ‘90s hip hop you can hear references to this sort of doctrine like whenever Brand Nubian rap about ‘devils’ (read: white people). In their song ‘Drop the Bomb’ they essentially advocate the murdering of whites in these rather ugly lyrics:

    We gonna drop the bomb on the Yacub crew
    We gonna drop the bomb on the Cave-Man crew

    There was also the notorious censored lyrics of “fuck up a faggot, I don’t understand their ways, I ain’t down with the gays” on another song of theirs. Busta Rhymes has also been pretty public with his homophobia, I recall reading about an incident where he attacked gay fans at clubs.

    Also Q Tip might have promised Ron Carter that they’d stay off the drugs and keep their lyrics clean, but evidently they didn’t. Unless I’m misremembering they talk of ‘blunts’ and say ‘nigger’ pretty liberally throughout Low End Theory, though not as excessive as say, Ice Cube does.

    You can appreciate art even if the artist doesn’t share your views, as I imagine David Cameron feels when he (supposedly) listens to The Smiths. I enjoy ATCQ regardless of their (and their collaborators’) dubious views on race, the same as how I’d probably enjoy a country music group made up of members of the KKK if the music was good enough.

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