In celebration of A Tribe Called Quest’s VH1 Rock Doc Beats, Rhymes & Life hitting VH1 air tomorrow night at 10p ET, we’re unearthing VH1 Album-Versaries: our tribute to the group’s Low End Theory album turning 20 in 2011. In the pages below, revisit commentary from Sway and Nelson George and immerse yourself in Tribe’s first joint-interview in 14 years – one that was conducted just as the Michael Rapaport doc was hitting theaters.
A Tribe Called Quest dropped their second full-length album, The Low End Theory, in late September of 1991. Widely recognized as a ground-breaking work today because of the manner in which it experimentally weaved layers of sampled jazz elements into its sound-bed, the album earned a spot in Time’s All-Time 100 Albums List, was named the #154 album of all-time by Rolling Stone and was celebrated at 2007’s VH1 Hip Hop Honors. The group recalls that early chapter of their career vividly, and last week, for A Tribe Called Quest’s first joint-interview since 1998, all four members of the group spoke exclusively to VH1 to mark the 20th anniversary of The Low End Theory’s release.
Aside from our celebration of this Album-Versary, ATCQ has been in the news quite a bit recently. Michael Rapaport’s award-winning documentary film, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, played the festival circuit earlier this year, is due on DVD next month, and managed to kick up quite a media dirt-cloud in the process. In addition to providing an inner glimpse of the film’s starring group-members’ intertwined history, Beats, Rhymes & Life used issues surrounding a 2008 miscommunication-turned-scuffle between MCs Phife and Q-Tip as its second focus. Tribe’s fractured support of the film triggered cascading rumors of residual intra-group turmoil, but once content and contract disagreements and an intercepted-email incident were sorted out, the doc was finally released with ATCQ’s blessing.
For Questers, music fans and students of hip hop culture, Beats, Rhymes and Life is a must-see, but the effect it had on the lives of everyone involved in the project and the press frenzy that lingers might still be a bit misleading to the outside world. In order to help contextualize this landmark album’s impact, we spoke with MTV’s in-house hip hop expert Sway, cultural critic extraordinaire Nelson George, and international journalist Boss Lady about the resonance that this LP had then, and also now, 20 years later. And while A Tribe Called Quest appears to still be somewhat re-acquainting themselves with each other after dissolving in 1998 and wrestling with the last few years’ shell-shocking chain of events, it was clear from the time we spent with them that Kamaal “Q-Tip” Ibn John Fareed, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, Ali Shaheed Muhammed and, yes, even Jarobi White are still very much an unbreakable Tribe of brothers.
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.
BLOWING SPEAKERS IN BATTERY STUDIOS
“The snares used to spank so hard in Battery, it used to hurt my teeth,” confesses one-half of the group’s music-production team, Ali Shaheed. “The bass was just so aggressive.” Interjecting with laughter, Tip agrees. “Ali definitely blew some speakers in there, a lot! That’s the other thing,” he adds on, still feeling somewhat-tricked into putting money from their recording budget back into the pockets of Jive (instead of working elsewhere), “I think that’s how we was paying them motherf***ers back!” Alongside fellow-producer Q-Tip and engineer Bob Power, Ali would help surgically stitch pieces of (mostly) jazz samples into the album’s bass-heavy sonic fabric. “It seemed like we wasn’t doing it right unless we blew a speaker,” he says, recounting the twice-weekly occurrence fondly.
In addition to Bob and the guys, Battery Studios was constantly filled with ATCQ’s like-minded, artistic peers. Knee-deep in the Zulu Nation-infused Native Tongues movement brewing at the time, groups like Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and Busta Rhymes-included Leaders of The New School were aligning themselves with other eclectic artists like Queen Latifah, The Beatnuts, Common, Brand Nubian and Mos Def, and Battery became a clubhouse for them all to congregate in. But Jive employees? Besides their beloved A&R man Sean Carasov, Phife maintains that “the label wasn’t even allowed to come three, four floors down.”
Self-proclaimed “perfectionist-at-work,” Q-Tip would often spend the night in Battery, and after running into Erick Sermon at Russell Simmons’ office one day, even wound up listening to EPMD?s “new group,” Das EFX, for the first time at Battery, too. Spontaneous moments like that were standard, and it almost seemed as if creative magnetism was a built-in part of the space; when Bob first began experimenting with a ProTools rig and sequencing program Atari Notator in the studio, Ali remembers embracing the “future”-leaning technology with an open mind, even despite the fact that ATCQ hadn’t used anything like it during the recording sessions for their first LP.
A TRIBE CALLED STRATEGY
In the Rapaport doc, Q-Tip states that Tribe’s in-and-out fourth member, Jarobi White, is “the real spirit of A Tribe Called Quest.” Unconcerned with critical reception at the time (with the lone exception being The Source’s coveted 5-Mic rating), Jarobi insists that ATCQ’s main goal was to be “flyest dudes around the way” and “the flyest dudes in New York City,” especially among their group of super-talented friends/competitors. “Yeah, that was the main sh*t,” agrees Tip.
Admittedly absent from promo images and videos during the Low End era, Jarobi, the fun-loving 19-year-old aspiring chef, was still very much in the picture. “To be totally honest with you, I was always around. Especially during the recording processes. I think that’s probably where my value was. I just wasn’t on camera and doing press and interviews.” Instead, Tip, Ali and Phife testify that Jarobi Wan Kenobi was playing the role of the outgoing strategist; cracking jokes in the studio to help the guys get in their creative zone, and maneuvering the club scene at night to actively serve as the “fun” face of Tribe in the process.
Many of those nights, Jarobi’s partner in club-hopping crime was his younger, Leaders of The New School buddy (who he affectionately refers to as “Buster”), Busta Rhymes. “I took him everywhere I went,” regales Jarobi of his fellow Long Island native and friend, whose anchoring verse on The Low End Theory’s posse cut third single “Scenario” made a mammoth impact and is still regarded as one of his best today, word to Nicki Minaj. Hitting parties almost every night of the week, Busta and Jarobi were far from shy, and introduced themselves to as many people as possible to build relationships.
Attempting to explain his statement about Jarobi in the film, Q-Tip makes a list of reasons why the group’s publicly-clandestine member might have been, in reality, the most essential during that early period. “Jarobi embodied the wisdom, the intelligence, the humor, the b-boyness – you know what I mean? Whereas all of the rest of us were kind of like individual parts, he probably encompassed all of our qualities.” Known to be an avid sports enthusiast, Phife echoes the same sentiment: “It’s like you have different components to your team, but your head coach knows how to use it, knows how to strategize and put different people in position to play their parts. That was Jarobi. And Ali too. That’s like our Phil Jackson and Tex Winters, right there.”
“Throughout the recording of the first three albums,” reveals Jarobi, “me and Tip spent a lot of time together record shopping, and being in the studio doing pre-production. That’s probably the part that I was around for most.” During our interview, Q-Tip also confesses that his only regret for The Low End Theory is not including more of Jarobi’s vocal presence. He recorded verses for “Scenario” and “Buggin’ Out,” but they never made the final cut, and neither did Jarobi-heavy unreleased songs “Pina Colada Margarita” and “Mystic Man” (which was Jarobi’s nickname). As far as the “spirit” and strategic “head coach” analogies made of him, personality-packed Jarobi will cop to the title. “My mom used to always say “You’ve got to broaden your horizons!” and as a kid who spent much of his youth listening to a super-diverse mix of music and reading National Geographic when sent to his room for punishment – “my house had a fish pond!” – he constantly sought to do just that.
Continuing with our Beat, Rhymes and Life celebration, tomorrow’s Part II installment of VH1 ALBUM-VERSARIES: THE LOW END THEORY AT 20 will dive deeper into the album’s innovative craftsmanship and address A Tribe Called Quest’s ever-evolving group dynamic.
[Photos: MTV Archives]