Wow, this is a heavy throwback. I have been compulsively nodding my head to this classic hip hop album from the 1990s, wondering how in the world I missed this gem back then. Stripped down to rap vocals, bass, drums and an eclectic range of samples seamlessly fused into the mix, this album is probably as close as a jazz album as hip hop can get. In fact, jazz is overtly referenced and utilized in many ways. First of all, consider the presence of the upright bass, which graces the songs with thumping warmth and power right from the opener “Excursions”. From the start, you know you’re not exactly on conventional rap territory. The bass line here, in all its glorious simplicity, is actually, well… not that simple. Once I had it figured out on my upright, I decided the time signature was a weird kind of 4/4 (5/4 + 3/4), and left it at that.
Released in 1991, Low End Theory is an important document of a decade that saw rap come into prominence and blaze its way into mainstream culture. In that way, I’m stunned that its agenda seems so far removed from the nascent gangsta rap of the time. If there is any message here, it has to do with the aspiration for honesty and soul-searching, as on songs like “rap promoter” or “butter”. Sure, rapper Phife Dawg expresses black male frustration with “good girls (that) are hard to find” but also his desire to see them embrace their natural looks and not tinker with their appearances: “If your hair and eyes were real, I wouldn’t have dissed ya, but since it was bought I had to dismiss ya”.
Though not as aggressively political as say Public Enemy in the late 80s/early 90s, the band can be credited with compelling takes on a variety of important issues, including the very business they were getting gradually involved in: Show Business, track 6.
Filled with memorable grooves, there isn’t a weak point on an album that addresses social and personal issues with cutting rhymes and tight beats. “The infamous date rape” is a gritty statement on a subject rarely tackled in any genre.
The way the rappers trade lines and pick up their flow after the breaks brings to mind the very jazz practice of trading fourths or, more generally that of interactive improvisation. Even the samples, largely borrowed from jazz and funk, act like timely punctuation marks.
Rarely has the lineage of jazz been so clearly celebrated on a non-jazz record. On “Jazz (we’ve got)”, the standard On Green Dolphin Street serves as the chorus for the rapping verses. The band even invited jazz bassist Ron Carter to lend his funky voice on “Verses from the Abstract” (how many records of jazz or any genre is Ron Carter NOT on? ). Also, the natural sound of the drums here is particularly pleasing to this listener.
This is obviously a bass-heavy album I had to stumble on at some point. In another life, I wish I had come up with the title Low End Theory, as any bassist would, I guess. More broadly, any fan of music will recognize the multiple qualities of an album that is one of hip hop’s greatest milestones.
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Zomba, 1991)
PS: check out Vijay Iyer on The Star of a Story, a cover of the Heatwave song sampled on the Quest’s “Verses From the Abstract”