Thirty years ago Friday, one of the most consequential days in modern music history occurred when Nirvana, A Tribe Called Quest, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden all released seminal albums. To celebrate the occasion, we’re looking back on September 24, 1991, by diving into the legacy of Nevermind and The Low End Theory, plus using math to determine whether any other release day in the past three decades stacks up.
The drumbeat is as old as us and has seen nearly as much. Before European contact, the kingdoms of West Africa tapped it for many tasks: at secular and religious assemblies, to mark celebrations and the threat of war. The Akan people of present-day Ghana and the Ivory Coast were said to be so dexterous that they could mimic their very language with nothing but a tightly wound drum, communicating through meter from village to village. When they and others were bound to freighters and shipped across the Atlantic, the drumbeat followed. “Exercise being deemed necessary for the preservation of their health, they are sometimes obliged to dance,” noted one onlooker of a transatlantic slave voyage. “Their musick, upon these occasions, consists of a drum, sometimes with only one head.”
The first Africans enslaved in the Americas channeled the beat on makeshift instruments. In a life of unfreedom, percussion provided both release and relief. Rumors spread of rhythm’s potential for disruption. The 1740 Slave Codes of colonial South Carolina outlawed the “using or keeping of drums” among the enslaved, particularly those “which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.” In Jamaica, captives employed congos and rattles at festivals and holidays. “But making use of these in their Wars at home in Africa,” wrote the Irish trafficker Hans Sloane, “it was thought too much inciting them to Rebellion, and so they were prohibited by the Customs of the Island.”
The masses found other mediums. Hands and feet carried on the work, the body itself serving as instrument. The drum of West Africa mixed with European brass and strings—took on innumerable roles across the years, and like the people who birthed it, created innumerable priceless goods in whole genres of sound. It wasn’t the only contributor to the different ranges of Black music (our language has always mattered) but it was distinct, in at least one way. Slavery meant to strip subjects of their cultures, their bonds, their very memory. But the drumbeat remembered. Though it made new things, it was not new. The beat had always been. The beat remained unchanged.
Hip-hop is said to be the music of drums and I think that is true, though not in the way that is commonly meant. Rap has, since its creation, relied on rhythm and the sonic possibilities it forms. And yet what most links the genre to the sound at its core is the fact that hip-hop, more than than any other American art form, uses the past to reflect the present. It’s music made possible by melding together other kinds of music into something different, something new. (What doesn’t change helps form what is constantly in flux.) Released 30 years ago Friday, nothing in the history of rap music embodies that ethic quite like A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory.
The meaning of the album’s title is still a trick question of sorts. The rapper and producer Q-Tip—who joined DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the late, great Phife Dawg (friends with Tip since childhood), and sometimes-Y member Jarobi in the group—has long said its thesis is twofold. First, The Low End Theory refers to the low end of the sound spectrum, the bass frequencies, and the consistent and delicious fashion in which they are employed throughout the project. Second, it refers to Black people, and how, as he once told Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution, they are at “the low end of the totem pole” in U.S. society. This, though, is where things get sticky. Because, although The Low End Theory does veer at times into political concerns, it is not really a political album. There are spates of social critique on the project that have aged decently in some instances (see: “Show Business”) and less decently in others (see: “The Infamous Date Rape”); and there is a strain of early-’90s Pan-Africanism that surges through the tracks—but The Low End Theory is never just, or even mainly, that.
Over the years, because of its sample-heavy sound and Ron Carter feature, folks have taken to calling it a love letter to jazz, a claim that is kind of true (I can’t imagine the record without the influence of jazz music), but also a takeaway that its creators have rebutted. (“Just say A Tribe Called Quest makes good fuckin’ music,” Ali told Spin in 1991, when asked about being labeled “jazz-rap.”) And yes, the record worships at the altar of the low end of the sound spectrum, but it revels just as much in brotherhood and laughter and braggadocio and “Vibes and Stuff.” The truth—the thing that really makes the album what it is—is that there isn’t just one answer. The Low End Theory uses jazz, particularly its bass frequencies, to communicate something that was a certain kind of political but also a bit undefinable and entirely unique. In other words: A Tribe Called Quest.
Bob Power is here and he was there for The Low End Theory too. I ask the esteemed producer and sound engineer what Tribe were like in their youth, and he’s got to be real with me. Bob worked with Erykah on Baduizm, laced D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar. Bob’s been around the block. Bob doesn’t bullshit. “I just saw a bunch of kids—literally—coming in the door who happened to be really good people, really nice people, straightforward, not stiff, funny,” he recalls, a touch of nostalgia in his voice. “I was fascinated by it.”
They weren’t supposed to work together. In 1990 Power was an engineer at a studio in New York called Calliope. He’d picked up a job there a couple of years earlier after a few decades that included a career as a jazz musician, bouts in academia (undergrad at Webster College in St. Louis, a master’s at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco), and a couple of years scoring TV shows. Tribe was working out of Calliope when their sound engineer had to leave town for a few weeks and Power filled in. He was old enough that he didn’t worry about trying to be buddies. “You’re there to make their thing work well,” Power says, erudite as always. He struck a bond with the group and helped engineer and mix the rest of their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
The record was a launching pad to an era. In 1990 the industry was at the precipice of an inflection point. The titans of late-’80s rap—LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and N.W.A—were all, to varying degrees, still potent forces in the game. (A week before People’s Instinctive Travels was released, PE dropped their seminal Fear of a Black Planet.) The hot winds of change were starting to rise, though. Ice Cube had just gone solo. LL was about to go on a two-and-a-half-year break. The first golden age couldn’t continue forever. People’s Instinctive Travels didn’t outsell any of rap’s ruling powers, but along with fellow Native Tongues member De La Soul’s debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, it did usher in a new sound. The album was light and airy, with hits as smooth as soft serve. A track like “Bonita Applebum,” luscious and flirty, or “Can I Kick It?,” with its hypnotizing Lou Reed sample, portended a different kind of rap, one built as much on melody and vulnerability as gusto and brute strength.
On People’s Instinctive Travels, Q-Tip ruled the mic—Phife appeared sporadically and Jarobi, who left the group midway through the making of The Low End Theory, rarely rapped on record—but for their follow-up he wanted that to change. As the story goes, in the wake of the album’s release, he ran into Phife at a train station leaving Queens. He told his friend they were going to make a second album but he needed him to be more committed this time. “I took that into consideration along with the last couple of shows we did for that first album,” Phife told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I saw how fruitful things could get and I said, ‘OK,’ I made up my mind that ‘this is what I want to do’. I wanted to take care of my family, so it was all systems go.”
Power could see the difference in approach and control, even if they had gone only from teenagers to early 20-somethings. “Having made one record, their conceptualization was much more developed,” he tells me. “Rather than just thinking, ‘OK, let’s put this music down. Let’s get this music there,’ they were hearing multiple things at the same time and they were hearing them before they were able to be realized.”
This is the part where one must remember that it was only 1990. The technology that enables the majority of hip-hop song-making today—digital audio workstations and A.I.-assisted beat machines—was less than a glimmer in anyone’s eyes. Their tools were limited mostly to samplers with memory restriction and EQ’s and basic effects. If Q-Tip and Ali (the group’s two main producers) wanted to make a track with multiple samples, layered not as a collage of sound but a puzzle board of tunes, they had to do it first in their heads. “The memory of the samplers wasn’t great. It was impossible to hear all the elements that you wanted to put on a record,” says Power. “If you were constructing a few samples, you could hear little pieces at a time, but you couldn’t hear how it would all go together until you recorded all of the elements.”
For The Low End Theory, Tribe set out to have each sample serve a purpose. So on a song like “Excursion,” when the listener hears the hopscotching rhythm of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ bass from the 1973 track “A Chant for Bu,” what they’re registering is only the acoustic bass pattern. It’s hard enough to identify a sound that will fit in such a manner without the technology to test it out in full, but to find the right one that is completely isolated—without a stray horn, a singer’s voice, or just general distortion—could be impossible. “You’re taking pieces of different records that were never meant to be together in the first place,” Power says. “So there’s always some stuff you say, ‘Well, I’m interested in this element in the electric piano on this record, but there were also drums playing and basses playing, etc.’ Making that work sonically was challenging. … How can I clean it up so we really could concentrate on the element that they intended to use? I would never do that now.”
Percussion took on a heightened importance in this light. Tracks like “Check the Rhime” relied on multiple samples of piercing drum patterns that had to fit on top of one another while maintaining their own sonic integrities. “To get presence on the other instruments when the bottom is really kicking away and pumping out so far in front of the rest of the music is challenging,” says Power. He, Ali, and Q-Tip were able to make the whole design work only by threading each sound with the utmost care.
What Tribe was trying to do on The Low End Theory was at once hip-hop at its essence and, invariably, unheard of. When I ask Power how the group pulled it off, he points to the members themselves—the people behind the music. “There’s an intangible thing that happens at a place and a time and with certain people, and you can’t bottle it and you can’t re-create it. You can try—what happens as a professional is [as] your chops get better, as your skill set gets better, you can get closer to faking it—but magic happens at its own speed.”
And magic is what they called it. The reception to The Low End Theory was, at least within the walls of hip-hop, rapturous. The Source awarded the album five mics, hailing it as a classic. The album peaked at no. 13 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and reached no. 45 on the Billboard 200, but sales were never the optimal measuring point for Tribe’s reach. There are children, like myself, who have been raised on it and have spent their whole lives bathed in it and an entire strain of music it birthed. When Dr. Dre, years later, discussed his sonic inspiration for The Chronic with Q-Tip, he cited The Low End Theory. When Kanye, speaking at Phife Dawg’s 2016 memorial service, revealed the first album he ever purchased, he didn’t hesitate: The Low End Theory.
We’ve known the record for so long that it’s easy to forget what it sounded like on first listen. How Phife’s “YO!” at the top of “Buggin’ Out” resembles the arrival of some mighty and celestial being. The way that Q-Tip speaks in triplets over the xylophonic shuffling of “Vibes and Stuff.” The tenor of love coursing through “Check the Rhime,” every handoff between the two showmen at its head (“Yo, Phife, you remember that routine” … “Yo, Tip, do you recall when we used to rock”) melding the song into a whomping stew. “Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue,” Tip lulled us on “Jazz (We’ve Got)” with its modal funk, and we never questioned the veracity of the message, because over those horns, how could anyone disagree with anything? By the time the album-closing posse cut “Scenario” arrived—with Phife breaking the track’s orbital bone and Busta engulfing it in flame—there was no choice but to swoon. What The Low End Theory did—what it still does to this day whenever it’s played—is make listeners feel like they are in league with someone at once familiar and unlike anyone they have ever known before.
And that feeling can’t be divorced from the drumbeat itself—how Tribe wields it on the record but also what that pattern means to the receiver; what it conveys and how it multiplies all the things stored up in a collective memory. Because the beat sirens Tip’s charge on “Excursions” (“Come on everybody let’s get with the fly mode”), the beat makes “Butter” positively vibrate and “Jazz (We’ve Got)” absolutely coast, the beat hurls “Scenario” to no closer than the outer reaches of the Andromeda. Percussion gives The Low End Theory its punch—makes it rise, hugs their voices, and lifts them up. The record’s message would be stifled without the rhythm’s amplification. The bass frequencies that litter the project wouldn’t work without a kick and a snare. Jazz doesn’t exist without the tapping of a drum. It’s the trick of the album, but it has always been right there. “My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop,” Q-Tip recounts on the opener, and then giving it all away, finishes, “I said, ‘Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles.’” On The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest knew what Tip’s father knew before them, an evergreen truth—if ever there was one: The beat never dies.