How ‘The Low End Theory’ redefined my sense of cool

“Back in the days when I was a teenager/Before I had status and before I had a pager…”

I was 15 years old the first time I heard Q-Tip’s iconic opening lines on A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, following the pulsating rumble of that bass riff (sampling this very good Art Blakey joint). I didn’t listen to a lot of hip-hop before then, and what rapping I was exposed to was mostly relegated to a select handful of Eminem cuts, whatever Power 106 had on rotation from 2003 to 2006, and Linkin Park’s Meteora. I also loved Passin’ Me By by The Pharcyde.

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Excursions was like a slap in the face. It was one of those pieces of music that comes by all too rarely for me now. It made the world feel bigger, brighter, brimming with possibility. There would be more music I would listen to that year that made me feel the same way: In the Aeroplane Over the SeaPet SoundsPink MoonThe Lonesome Crowded WestFuneral, and so on and so forth. But The Low End Theory was the first, and it is indisputably the coolest.

Even 25 years later it feels as fresh and invigorating as it ever was, thanks in no small part to how the album repurposed grooves from jazz records, though Q-Tip allegedly bristled at A Tribe Called Quest being called “jazz rap,” and understandably so. There are just as many funk and R&B songs infused into The Low End Theory’s DNA. But to rework jazz, a genre with a reputation for being mystifying to some, and to make it ubiquitous is some feat of musical alchemy. Though they weren’t the first to do so, nor were they the last, it’s hard to argue they didn’t do it with terrifying effectiveness. The Low End Theory chiseled away at the likes of the Weather Report, stripping down to the bone free-form experimentation and anything else that obfuscated the groove. Ironically, imposing structure onto structurelessness made Tribe’s music feel so natural.

The Low End Theory is an album that is utterly effortless in its execution, something that few albums manage to achieve (Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted comes to mind). Its sequencing is seamless, and the way it rhythms transition into one another make it difficult to process as anything but a holistic piece of music. I’m hard-pressed to recall a time when I only listened to a single track by itself. And it’s not hard to imagine the writing process being Q-Tip and Phife in a room together, goofing off over their favorite records. How else could Phife come up with a line as funny as “Go get yourself some toilet paper ’cause your lyrics is butt?

But the laidback attitude of The Low End Theory is deceptive. It seeds its sense of humor and jazzy hooks into cautionary tales of date rape (“If the vibe ain’t right, you’re leavin’/Hit the road jack, and all of that“), rap industry vultures exploiting black artists (“Record company people are shady“), and consumerism (“Got our skypagers on all the time“). The Low End Theory isn’t cool because its aloof, it’s cool because it can be funny and self-effacing and still care deeply about the state of the world at the same time.

Nirvana’s Nevermind celebrated its 25th birthday yesterday too, and there’s a certain kinship in both of these albums. They’re both tremendously influential and funny, and personally they were huge gateways to how I listened to music. Hell, I didn’t really listen to music at all until I was given a mix CD, split down the middle with assorted Nirvana songs and cuts from The Cure and New Order. Lithium was probably my favorite song when I was 13. But it’s hard to imagine what life would be like if The Low End Theory didn’t completely uproot me from my entrenched teenage rockism.

Just the thought of it is a little terrifying, which is why the news of Phife’s death earlier this year affected me so deeply. For a lot of people, it was Prince or David Bowie, and rightfully so. But for me, it was Phife. In some ways, Phife felt tragically overshadowed by Q-Tip. I know the first time I heard The Low End Theory, I was entranced by Q-Tip’s voice, his flow, his timbre. But in retrospect, all my favorite lines came from Phife. And though it wasn’t until Tribe’s second album that Phife became a core member of the group, it was the contrast between him and Q-Tip that pulled everything together. Whereas Q-Tip bobbed and weaved seamlessly through every verse, it was Phife that delivered the hay makers, punchlines that made you stagger and grab your chest (“Now if you say my style is wack, that’s where you’re dead wrong/I slayed that buddy in El Segundo then Push It Along“). Q-Tip was essential to Tribe’s sense of cool, and with his effortless swagger, he felt like who I wanted to be. But Phife felt closer to who I probably was, self-deprecating and self-conscious, quick to clown on himself (“the five-foot assassin,” “the funky diabetic,” etc.). He was this model of self-acceptance that was comforting, the scope of which I don’t think I comprehended until he was gone.

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At Phife’s memorial, Kanye West talked about how The Low End Theory was the first tape he ever bought, and how he would listen to it on his walks to school, through class and through detentions. He said it better than I ever could:

“I’m sorry, but that’s what was on my fucking mind when I was sitting here thinking about how much these people inspire me and how powerful the influence of the music was and how it made that walk to study hall so short. How it meant everything. It is everything. Music was stolen from us and corporatized and anybody that spoke up was demonized. Anything I ever did wrong, blame Tip and Phife ’cause y’all raised me.”

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