Six Degrees of The Low End Theory
It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it's not. It's the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we've deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory wasn't the first time that hip-hop and jazz collided (props to Pieces Of A Dream, circa 1982), but it was definitely the most effortless pairing of the genres. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad captured the essence of jazz, as opposed to just capturing snippets of it in their samplers; The Low End Theory was the first rap record to truly understand be-bop's unique... tension between comforting moods and tense expressionism, between bohemian cool and unflappable bad-assery. That it was voraciously devoured by college kids was simply inevitable. Tip called himself the Abstract Poet, and his evocative rhymes perfectly balanced both ends of that equation, never leaning too experimental or too plainspoken. The adenoidal Phife Dawg was more than a playful foil, he was the Wayne Shorter to his Miles: a powerful force always there to add an entirely new dynamic and color. Ali Shaheed Muhammad added elegant turntable scribbles in tracks like "Jazz (We've Got)" and the call-and-response of "Rap Promoter." Most of The Low End Theory's immediate appeal was right there in the title. Well before The Chronic dropped, Q-Tip and engineer Paul Booth were overloading their records with gut-busting low end and lurching, slow-and-low basslines a stark contrast to the frantic, trebly, Walkman-ready New York hip-hop of the time. Q-Tip was a record geek born into the hip-hip generation by a jazz-freak dad. He painted with samples using a perfectionist's ear, working with only the funkiest, skeletal, most arresting '70s jazz a woofer-warping bassline borrowed from an Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers or Jack DeJohnette track, a wash of cosmic smoke from Weather Report, an ecstatic groove from Grant Green or Paul Humphrey or Grover Washington, Jr. Accordingly, the album spawned a swath of jazz-rap throughout the mid-'90s that ranged from the classic (Digable Planets) to the ubiquitous (Us3) to the unfortunate (the Solsonics). Just like the be-bop greats Q-Tip paid tribute to, the style was imitated but never duplicated.more »
Within Low End Theory's first 20 seconds, Q-Tip cleanly and clearly draws the comparison to his beloved hip-hop and his dad's be-bop records. Completing the circle is an appropriately circular bassline from upright player Mickey Bass, sampled from Art Blakey and Jazz Messenger's "A Chant For Bu." Like ATCQ, drummer Blakey and his Jazz Messengers were genre-mashing mavericks, injecting be-bop with the punch of R&B and gospel a visceral style that made... them the pre-eminent "hard-bop" band in the '50s. On 1973's Buhaina (reissued and resequenced on Vol. 2, Mission Eternal), his funky, propulsive style isn't as aggressive as it once was (he redoes his classic "Moanin'" with friendly '70s-fusion-era keyboards), but songs like "A Chant For Bu" perfectly accompany the chillaxed vibe of Tribe. The group ingeniously retrofitted the song's 3/4 bassline to fit their funky 4/4 world.more »
"What is the youth if it ain't rebellin'?" asks Q-Tip in "What?" And what is hip-hop without the Last Poets? Far beyond a pre-cursor to the "consciousness" movement that A Tribe Called Quest were often lumped into, the Last Poets emerged from the early '70s with pretty much everything that would define hip-hop intact complex rhymes, hypnotic beats, Molotov-tossing political discourse, severely pro-black rhetoric that elevated listeners and frightened the government. Their... second album, This Is Madness, is one of their more incendiary slabs (it earned them a spot on President Nixon's Counter-Intelligence Programming list), including their infamous screed "White Man's Got A God Complex," the claustrophobic anti-drug tirade "O.D." and the hyper-funky rap "Black Is." Tribe sampled the manic "Time" for the caffeinated rant at the end of "Excursions," providing a window in the rage that lurks under Tribe's relaxed demeanor and giving a nod to another group who perfectly blended elaborate rhymes with jazz. Most importantly, Tribe echoes the Last Poets' message of carpe diem: When Q-Tip says "We gotta make moves," it's akin to Last Poet Ben Hassen shouting "Time is a ship on a merciless sea."more »
The most tangible link between classic jazz and The Low End Theory is the live, flesh-and-blood guest appearance from bassist Ron Carter, who adds some graceful counterpoints on "Verses From The Abstract." Carter has donated his majestic, colorful playing style and ingenious countermelodies to thousands of jazz records starting in 1960: Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Eric Dolphy, Wayne Shorter and even Harry Connick, Jr. have counted on... him to add lively low end that never overshadows. But Carter is best known as a member of Miles Davis's second classic quintet, holding court from 1963 to 1968. Before they dove fully into reflective, subdued, impressionistic landscapes like 1967's "free-bop" double shot of Nefertiti and Sorcerer, the Quintet attacked 1966's transitory Miles Smiles, a speedy tumble that showcases Carter's timeless groove and dizzying intricacy. The bass intro to "Footprints" could have easily been left on the cutting room floor of the Low End Theory sessions, and his interplay with drummer Tony Williams in the devilishly grooving "Freedom Jazz Dance (Evolution Of The Groove)" forecasts the funky fusion that pianist Herbie Hancock would eventually forge on his own.more »
The Low End Theory wasn't just about smooth grooves and "Vibes and Stuff." There was a hectic bustle on its outer fringes the anger boiling beneath "Show Business," the unease of "The Infamous Date Rape," the monumental screamo bug-out of "Scenario." The subway car rattle of "Everything Is Fair" gets its rock 'n' roll refrain ("Everything is fair when you're living in the city") from Funkadelic guitarist Gary Shider, who sings it... on Funkadelic's two-minute headbanger "Let's Take It To The People." The track is from 1976's Tales Of Kidd Funkadelic, an acid-drenched collection of leftovers to honor the funk-rockers' contract with Westbound. Although dwarfed by the success of follow-up Hardcore Jollies, the Kidd is swamped with the same booty-hypnotizing grooves, trippy crunch-fuzz and mind-warping Michael Hampton solos mainly because the tracks come from the same session!more »