Hip-hop in ‘91 was at a tussle with the world around it. Socially-conscious gangsta rap was catching eyes as LL Cool J and Geto Boys looked their opps up and down, and Public Enemy scowled at America's socio-political issues. Amongst the dogfight, New York group A Tribe Called Quest opted to look behind them, reflecting their community and heritage back into their music.
Lyrical wunderkid Phife Dawg, beat conductor Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and dual-wielder Q-Tip came through as a part of the refreshingly Afro-centric Native Tongues collective, but their community spirit had to be fought for. It took a chance subway encounter sealing the incredible dynamic between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, layered over a bleeding-edge slew of jazz-loaded production on their second album.
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From the mission statement inscribed in the record’s first lines – “Back in the days when I was a teenager…” – ‘The Low End Theory’ brought rap closer to its origin point than ever before, seeping with accentuated double-bass and bebop horn breakdowns at the bookends of verses. Tip and Phife’s flows slump into a thick wall of low-end fine-tuned for horizontal listening, and its implementation of jazz was refreshing at a time when the genre’s relevance was waning. Tracks like ‘Butter’ and ‘Jazz’ exemplify how Tribe pulled crisp samples from genre classics and left their beating heart preserved. Consequently, the album was a bellwether that signalled a new, artful alternative to brass-knuckled gangsta rap, sealed as a rare combo of ground-breaking ideas, executed to perfection.
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Jazz is not the only sector of black culture the group pays homage to. The Dashiki-wearing tribe also wore an overarching influence of Nigerian Afrobeat artist and political revolutionary Fela Kuti – compare the artwork here to Kuti’s iconic record sleeves, and the pan-African painting could fit right in. Deeper than that, Tribe were at the core of a community of alternative New York hip-hop in the early 90s, just as Kuti was the spokesperson for a galvanised Nigerian population that sought a change from the country’s authoritative government.
The group were already hyper-aware of progressive politics for rookie emcees, yet in the music itself, Tribe’s politics were never overt. They recognised that the role of the ‘outspoken rap group’ was taken care of by Public Enemy and N.W.A., and preferred to be griots showing the world’s workings through characters you could find on the streets. The love story-turned mob thriller ‘Everything Is Fair’ stars Tip as he becomes involved with an enchanting businesswoman’s criminal activities after the two find themselves unemployed, indicative of the survival tactics required in the cutthroat urban jungle.
Working in the aftermath of the highly-publicised Rodney King assault, Tip and co. knew that simply being themselves was an act of political activism. Nevertheless, they welcomed all listeners into their world and met them at eye level, even refraining from the usual materialistic boasts to instead brag about never having a cavity as Phife did on ‘Buggin’ Out’. Tribe found rare success in reaching all groups by infiltrating youthful hip-hop into time-withered jazz, which was their intention; “Do it for the kids, the elders and the rap peers”. It’s why every artist in hip-hop today that makes a splash is doing so with Tribe’s hand-me-downs. The inspiring forefathers of hip-hop today – Kanye, Pharrell, OutKast, Dilla – are all outspoken in their love of Tribe, christening them the grandfathers of modern hip-hop. ‘The Low End Theory’ began that family tree.
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Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
R.E.M. – Out Of Time
Nirvana – Nevermind
De La Soul – De La Soul Is Dead
Cypress Hill – Cypress Hill
In The News:
JANUARY: The Gulf War begins, following Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait the previous year. Fighting lasts for five weeks, before Iraqi surrender.
JUNE: South African government ends the Apartheid laws, beginning the process of ending discrimination against Black South Africans.
JULY: Boris Yeltsin becomes the first freely elected President of the Russian Republic.
SEPTEMBER: The Big Issue is launched, aiming to help and empower homeless people across the country.
OCTOBER: Bryan Adams makes history when his song ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ tops the British singles charts for 15 weeks.
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Words: Nathan Evans
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