THE LOW END
As demonstrated by countless nostalgic headlines that have been running over the past few weeks, the musical landscape of the 1990s was both competitive and exceptional. In particular, September 24, 1991 was an especially intense day, one that saw The Low End Theory released alongside Nirvana’s Nevermind and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. In the hip hop world, the legendary “golden age” was in full swing: N.W.A. was serving up in-your-face, Dr. Dre-produced West Coast gangsta rap, the South boasted Florida’s crass 2 Live Crew and Houston’s Geto Boys, and New York was a hotbed for successful artists like Public Enemy, De La Soul, Boogie Down Productions, Run-D.M.C and Beastie Boys. A transition from drum machine-led minimalism to more curated sampling techniques had already begun when A Tribe Called Quest arrived on the scene with even more pioneering soundscapes than previously heard.
“It was a dope time,” recalls Q-Tip of music’s impact during the early nineties. “N.W.A. was crushing it, and I just remember being influenced by that, how it sounded sonically.” The aggressive, sometimes-violent lyrical approach that went part and parcel to the Gangster-funk era, however, was lost on Tribe. Different but equally as significant, the group fancied a strategy that embraced optimistic Afrocentric energy, laid-back, snarky cleverness, and a confident demeanor that simultaneously asserted their collective emotional maturity. “Like Tip said earlier,” says Phife, adding to a thought started by his fellow MC minutes before, “a lot of people will scare you into believing certain things or liking their material, but it was never like that with us. We just spoke on how we felt at the moment and it was the truth. We were one of those groups that didn’t have a problem admitting that we cried in front of our mothers.”
Linguistically speaking, “low end” is a nod at the grittiest bass frequencies possible, but if you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find references to socio-economic class first; the opposite of flashy chain-flaunting rap crews of the time, A Tribe Called Quest tried to stay grounded and make music for listeners who could relate to their everyday – to borrow the title of the album’s intro track – “Excursions.” Within that song’s first few lines, Q-Tip sets the tone and calls upon words from his father who, before his passing, had likened the improvisational nature of jazz’s bebop to hip-hop’s own freedom-filled sonic architecture. Those married concepts and their symbolic relationship to “low end” bass would be explored thematically throughout The Low End Theory and, if you look at the album’s iconic cover artwork – red and green painted stripes outlining a kneeling female figure – you’ll see the album title sauntering down a lady’s spine, with the group’s name written in a circle, landing playfully, well, at her low end.
Recording for The Low End Theory began organically when studio sessions from the group’s first album, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, kept creatively flowing. Still high from the artistic groove that spawned what Tip would call their early “mild” but “folkloric” turntable hits “Bonita Applebaum” and “Can I Kick It?”, the foursome was forced to tour and shoot videos instead of working on what would become the second album’s material, and as Phife clearly makes note, “Tip didn’t want to stop.” Signed to Jive Records at the time, ATCQ recalls being convinced by the label to anchor their recording sessions at the Jive-owned basement studio, Battery Studios.