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A Tribe Called Quest: SPIN’s 1991 Feature, ‘The Last Poets?’

a tribe called quest, the low end theory, q-tip, phife dawg

This piece originally ran in the October 1991 issue of SPIN. In honor of the 25th anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, we’ve republished this article here.

It was the week of the New Music Seminar and I was Hip-Hop Love Slave. Like most women who love too much, I went from one abusive rap relationship to another, carelessly leaving pieces of myself behind. Leaders of the New School had the verve, the Nubians had the whip appeal; De La stole the Soul, Cube and Yo-Yo vic’ed the vocals, and KRS took whatever was left of my mind. So understand that when the UPS man rang the doorbell bearing more B-boy ballistics, I was not trying to hear it—not even if the it was The Low End Theory, a much-coveted copy of the new A Tribe Called Quest album. (Nothing personal, pretty babies, but the temp is 105 and I gots no more to give.) But, as Ntozake Shange says, “The love space demands.” So I took a cold shower, laid my broken, silenced, nude body on the edge of the futon, closed my eyes, and prayed for a quickie. No can do, Boo—what I got was a groove that went on and on and on. Laced with some of the sweetest, simplest, funkiest jazz riffs evah to be put on hip hop vinyl, The Low End Theory danced me across my room, cradled me to sleep, coaxed me back to consciousness, and did me lovely all over again.

Despite much pressure from its label, Tribe has refused to make the new album a sophomoric regurgitation of material past. Much less busy than People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory is an attempt to give rap a much-needed shove back to basics. “Rap is starting to not be rap anymore,” reflects a somber Q-Tip. “It’s turning into something else. Somebody does something and everybody else follows and the whole thing is getting way off mark. We had to try to bring it back a little bit. The last album was introductory; we wanted to show that we could do a conceptual album. This album is just basically songs, it’s straight-up rap. The subject matter is more straight-forward, less riddle-y, and the beats are harder.” 

But harder beats do not mean that the trio has abandoned its trademark coolness to bow before the god of gangsta bass—the ruling bass here is acoustic. Veteran jazz man Ron Carter lends singular flavor to DJ Ali Shaheed Mohammed’s raw elemental riffs, the perfect backdrop for Tip’s abstract improvisational poetics. Get ready for the megaendorphin release as Tip drops shit such as “Girls love the jim cause it causes crazy friction / When it goes up in, it fluctuates the diction.” Meanwhile, Phife’s kick-ass rhyme style proves he is one of the fiercest MC’s ever to flex on the M-I-C.

Despite the apparent nuptial bliss of this jazz-hop-hop marriage, Ali hopes that critics will resist the temptation to classify the group as jazz-hip-hop artists and “just say A Tribe Called Quest makes good fuckin’ music. It was never our intent to make a jazz-hip-hop album; we chose the samples ‘cause we liked the music.” Tip concurs, saying, “Ali is right, but there are a lot of similarities between jazz and hip-hop. Like rap, jazz was never really given the credit it was due and when it was, it was exploited. You’ve got artists like Kenny G and Najee, who are good and all, but when you listen to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, you know there are two different sects. That’s how rap is now: MC Pop and the Go-Getters versus MC Street and the Do-Wrongers. We also chose it because as an instrumental music, jazz speaks. The tracks we used set moods and they speak to people along with the lyrics.” 

But speak to whom? No longer novices to the ills of the industry, the trio is aware that they are in an era where gangsta-, pop-, and booty-rap rule, and general consumer tastes leave much to be desired. Scary but true, this hip-hop classic may never get the commercial success it deserves. “I’m not really worried about it,” says Phife. “I know a lot of people are going to expect us to repeat what we did before. I’m just hoping they’ll let us grow.” Then he smiles. “I know Tip is worried; he worries about everything. One second he’s running out the studio smiling and saying this shit is def. The next day he’s sulking and everything sucks … He’s sooooo insecure.” Is the silver-tongued Smooth Operator really the Manic Depressive MC? “I’m not going to front,” confesses Tip. “I worry a lot. Kids today aren’t passionate about the music; they don’t really pay attention to it the way our parents used to. I worry that they won’t get what I’m saying, or worse—they’ll think they do when they really don’t. Nowadays everybody wants you to have a gimmick or a catch. You just can’t be a poet.”