Yesterday, we brought you the first installment of VH1 Album-Versaries: The Low End Theory at 20, reflecting on A Tribe Called Quest’s ground-breaking second album. Before VH1 Rock Doc Beats, Rhymes & Life airs tonight at 10p ET on VH1, dive into the second half of the group’s first joint-interview in 14 years and see what they had to say about what it was like making the film two decades later.
After assembling all four group-members in a joint-interview for the first time in almost fourteen years, we were able to share exclusive stories from Tribe’s recording sessions at Battery Studios and, with help from hip hop expert Sway, cultural critic extraordinaire Nelson George, and international journalist Boss Lady, lauded the album’s effortless ability to resonate with the masses. In today’s Part II, we delve further into The Low End Theory’s sonic framework, the roles of MC Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, and come full circle to set the group’s highly-speculated relationship issues straight.
THE HIP HOP BEATLES
“Coming off the first album, the question was ’well, what does HE do?'” recalls Phife, hyper-aware of what listeners thought of his seemingly-small contribution on the group’s debut project. Often referred to as his lyrical coming out party, The Low End Theory truly did give Phife the platform to hunker down and fully transition from (what Jarobi would describe as) being “young and crazy” to a focused, rhyme-writing, studio-attending MC. His high-pitched, witty lyrics complimented Q-Tip’s smooth vocal delivery, and Phife wound up on 9 of the album’s 14 tracks, a drastic and well-deserved upgrade from the four he appeared on with People’s Instinctive Travels.
Phife’s skills were fully on display on the album’s lead single and Billboard #1 Rap hit, “Check The Rhime,” a cut that both he and his St. Albans-hailing brother Jarobi claim as their favorite from Low End. The song’s high-energy video depicts the group performing atop a Queens dry cleaners, thoroughly repping their well-known Q-Borough loyalty (despite that fact that Ali, along for the ride, was the lone member from Brooklyn). “After ’[I Left My Wallet in] El Segundo,’ A Tribe Called Quest was pretty much in charge of what singles we were gonna drop, straight up and down,” states Phife, reminding us of a warrior proudly recalling a battle from which he emerged victorious. Already having been through arduous music industry dealings with everyone from the label, to groupies, to money-hungry promoters during the first album’s run, ATCQ openly presented their distaste for “the business” on The Low End Theory by revealing calm, warning-filled guidelines (see “Industry Rule #4080”) for survival.
When it came time to record the song that eventually became “Butter” in Battery’s Studio B, the Funky Diabetic harnessed that newfound sense of ownership and asserted himself with confidence, demanding that Q-Tip acquiesce and let him rock on it as a solo track. “We had a quasi little tiff over it,” remembers Tip, who, at the time, had already envisioned both MCs being on the song. After being commanded by Phife – “Nah! Nah! This is MY sh*t!” – Tip was convinced by his then-girlfriend Ahmedah to surrender the beat to his lifelong friend, since he was, as she put it and he quickly agreed, “a dope MC.”
Fast forward to the present day, Tip is pleased to reveal – “no bullsh*t” – that his favorite song on Low End is, in fact, “Butter.”
“How I was on the chorus and how [Phife] was doing the rhyme… it just felt like if it was The Beatles, and John would sing lead on one and then Paul would sing lead on another and John would be backing him up.”
Phife agrees, noting that, similarly to their renowned tag-team approach on “Check The Rhime,” “it would have the same effect no matter what.” Members of ATCQ referenced The Beatles a lot during our interview, probably because, outside of the British stars’ obvious impact on the music industry, they were constant totems in the studio since, as Q-Tip revealed, Battery housed the same Neve mixer used by John Lennon in the infamous Record Plant studios.
If The Low End Theory served as Phife’s coming out party as an MC, Q-Tip’s innovative production on it was the invitation to the after-hours festivities. Fusing welcoming, relaxed, and lighthearted lyrical content with the pulverant, fat bass lines that define the album was crucial for Q-Tip, and having sampled Miles Davis on Low End, he made it a point to bring up how the passing of the jazz great just four days after the album’s release impacted the group. The idea of juxtaposing hard and soft, both sonically and theoretically, is another thematic takeaway from The Low End Theory, and stirred up an opinionated “balance of life” conversation among the guys during our interview – one of many moments where the Tribe would catch a wave of nostalgia while reminiscing about the sessions.
“I don’t think we were soft!” -Tip
“When I say soft, I mean we were touching on the topic of love, nah mean, and there’s a delicateness to that which is beautiful.” -Ali
“I think there’s more strength to that. You know what I mean? I mean, that’s just me.” -Tip
“I understand where both of y’all are coming from actually.” -Phife
“I just felt like a conduit… like I wasn’t even conscious, sh*t was just happening,” recalls Q-Tip. “It was just like energy that we didn’t even plan on, we just got in and it was almost just like how a band jams.” While the organic flow between the group members was most prevalent, they occasionally went outside the family for a fresh perspective. Producer Skeff Anselm worked on two of the album’s tracks, and the legendary Pete Rock laid the blueprint for “Jazz (We’ve Got)” before passing it to Tip and Ali to re-work. Taking a hands-on approach to incorporating the album’s flowing, jazz-influenced aesthetic themes, Tip also recruited acclaimed upright bassist Ron Carter to appear on one of Ali’s favorite tracks, “Verses From The Abstract.” “The groove is so deep I almost crashed my car one day listening to it so intensely,” recalls Ali, who in addition to working on production, is also the group’s DJ. “I just was drawn in: the shout out at the end for those who aren’t there, the beat was just so knocking and so rugged, but the content and Q-Tip’s cadence on there is so hypnotic, I find myself getting lost in it.”
For good reason, Ali’s other favorite track on Low End is “Buggin’ Out.” Already pioneering his way through layering a myriad of mostly-jazz samples, on that song was where Q-Tip first merged two drum tracks together, and Ali’s mind was officially blown. “I was just so accustomed to taking empty drum loops and leaving them solo or layering them with other electronic sounds and give ’em a fill, but man, when he did that, it was next level, like “OH, you can DO that?!?” Equally impressed by the song was Neptunes producer Pharrell, who, in Beats, Rhymes & Life, reenacts the moment when he first heard Phife’s verse, and of Tip’s never-before-seen techniques, plainly states “We’re all his sons.” A clear disciple of the cutting-edge sound, Pharrell also goes on to admit “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Tribe albums.”
MY CREW IS NEVER WACK BECAUSE WE STAND STRONG
“I’m still trying to grasp that it’s 20 years, that’s crazy in itself!” remarks Phife toward the end of our interview. Amidst multiple laughter-filled outbursts, you can tell that the group’s close-knit energy is still extremely tangible, even after squabbles from before, during and after the taping of Beats, Rhymes & Life. Looking back on their connection, Jarobi would argue that it’s human nature for long-lasting relationships to hit conflict-laden speed bumps, and if they don’t, “Then what the f*ck are you doing? You’re not challenging each other at all.” Ali, on the other hand, has learned a different lesson from the last few years’ events, and wanted to leave the loyal Tribe fans with the following thoughts.
“What we’ve been going through specifically with the documentary, there’s so many behinds the scenes things that I won’t go into, but ultimately, the message is that when you have something that’s beautiful -be it a talent, what we do as musicians, it could be anything, you could be a writer- if you’re blessed with something, there are people who will try to deter you from that which you’ve been given. We come from our ancestors having [a] real great difficulty in this country, and there are people who will, for their own benefit, try to undermine everything that encompasses you- even going back 400 years. But believe in yourself, and try to align yourself with those people who are like-minded in your thinking, who encourage you, your beliefs, your dreams. Stand strong and firm, and remain faithful because it will pay off for you. It will, guaranteed, it will pay off for you. No one can hush what God has made to be.”
[Photos via Getty Images, MTV Archives]