Stripping something down to its bare essentials is often used as a way to explain something being done much simpler or equating to lesser. I think the the beauty of this phrase is much more prevalent than most would suggest. It is a way of saying that you can create the same outcome with less, or making do with what is given, nothing more. I think one of the greatest examples in music of a time when something was stripped down to the bare and ended up sounding like everything but was on A Tribe Called Quest’s album, The Low End Theory. In 1991, Hip-hop was finally reaching its potential as a genre at that time period. Artists were experimenting freely with their sound and pushing the envelope all around. It was really the middle of a golden era. While progression was in the forefront of most artistic minds at the time, A Tribe Called Quest was thinking back. Back to what hip-hop really started as, back to jazz, back to bass and back to lyrics.
There is no other way to say it. This album is a classic. It set the pace for the next decade of hip-hop music. The beats were a simple methodical combination of jazz and bass. The lyrics were complex and the rhyme schemes were dizzying yet incredibly focused. The group had all the essentials: Q-tip, the rapper with a soothing and direct voice that seems almost too easy to listen to and not mention a super-sized dose of lyrical ability. Phife Dawg, the Robin to Tip’s Batman. A perfect compliment and addition to Q-tip’s skills often lending to the songs where Tip may leave something out. Where Batman typically thinking of an abstract solution to a problem can be relative to Q-tip’s lyrical approach, Robin jumping in and charging head on can be equated to Phife’s knack..Finally Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ/producer behind the sound, the vibe creator.
Every song is minimal and created with a similar intention in terms of production, yet they all offer something completely different. A stand-up bass, plenty of drums and a lineup of brass horns and phones ready to go. This is that bareness that exudes confidence in the project. The rhymes are able to fall within every track’s beat-groove and all the bassy hits mirror the punch of the final syllable in the bar. Plain and simple, it is top-notch rhyming that could pass as classic even without the beat. The rhythm is in the verbal flow and it mutuality with the beat only proves to extend the album’s listenability into a whole new beautiful realm.
The lyrics span from abstract and intellectual to comedic and punchy. It is music not catered to hip-hop outsiders yet its appeal shows otherwise. The words depict a level of skill not often evident in most popular music yet it was all a perfectly fitted puzzle of an album that formed drew a picture anyone can vibe with without feeling alienated from the common genre tropes found in hip-hop. It gets political, speaks on social issues like date rape yet retains a completely upbeat sound throughout its entirety. Nothing is dumbed down, simply stripped to its basic parts. It is intuitive and shows how little it actually takes to create something that not only keeps pace with everything else, but pushes it all forward in terms of the effort put into it. The beats, the lyrics and the overall construction of the LP are all evident of the fact that The Low End Theory must have been to create some high end music.