Before listening to more jazz, I listened to more Tribe Called Quest, the most effective and organic gateway drug. In junior high, I assumed all hip-hop production was entirely original. The Low End Theory sound came straight from Phife, Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who everyone assumed made all the beats because he was the DJ. This was decades before Wikipedia and Who Sampled it. The Source was still hard to find on the West Coast, so the majority of the information passed down to us came from liner notes and Yo MTV! Raps clips. I didn’t know Minnie Riperton from Minnie Mouse. There was no way I could’ve accessed Eric Dolphy without Tribe operating as spirit medium. I’m still thankful.
If other rappers appeared as florescent comic book heroes and wrathful myth, Tribe came off like laid-back friends, brimming with knowledge about music history, skypagers, shady promoters and the crooks at Jive. Low End Theory introduced a half-generation not only to rap but to music itself. In 48 minutes, Tribe distilled everything that made hip-hop and jazz great. Phife and Tip artfully weaved rhymes like a canonical horn section, timeless as movie theaters and popcorn. It’s New York at its core, the reggae flourishes, the guest spots from DITC and Leaders of the New School, Doug E. Fresh saying silence, Linden Blvd. flashbacks. The jazz is naturally omnipresent, modalities birthed in New Orleans, wending its way to Harlem clubs and speakeasies, passed down from record collections to eventually soundtracking Guru and Tribe, Digable and De La Soul. Tip’s dad was there to remind us how style evolves but always returns to the timeless.
The album achieved legendary stature almost instantly. One of those collections that automatically incites memories to a certain period of life. From 10 to 17, it was never far from the CD changer, often played back-to-back with Midnight Marauders, inspiring debates about which was better (I still say Low End). I remember watching “Scenario” play on the video screen at Junior High dances and a bunch of 11-year olds on the other coast doing their best attempts to growl every Busta bark. A half-decade later, driving around in the hills in my friends piece of shit Aspire, looking for a smoking spot where the cops wouldn’t roll up on us. If your friends couldn’t do the pass-the-mic car Karaoke version of “Check the Rhime,” they probably weren’t friends worth having. They were the platonic ideal of a rap group then and now.
Phife returned to the soil about six months ago. The name Low End Theory is now almost equally famous as LA’s beat scene mecca. We’re as far away from Tribe’s second album as it was from The Beatles’ Revolver. In honor of it’s silver anniversary, Hellee Hooper created this gorgeous mix that blends the original songs with the samples bubbling up in its broth. In its own way, it returns the record to its natural climate, immortal and destined to get kids into rap in 2041. They taught us that things move in cycles; they created something that could never go out of style.