As a product of 90s and early 2000s gangster rap, I was a loyal West Coast fan (no, not the football team, the rappers from the West Coast of America). With a couple of exceptions – Notorious Big, DMX and Xzibit – I had no real East Coast connection. I even recall seeing one of the early memes with a picture of Nas and Jay-Z that read, “Who is the real king?” and I laughed and thought it was satirical. Rap’s contest wasn’t between two East Coast rappers, it’s between Biggie and Tupac – East versus West.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was “back in the day when I was a teenager,” when taping things on VHS was still a thing. My mate D-Dubbs taped an episode of Rage that Xzibit was hosting, and the tape was then passed around our group of mates like a three-paper. He played mostly West Coast rap, lots of Ice Cube, Snoop, and Dre. He also played some rock, and some old school hip-hop. I remember vividly this one black and white video with three guys walking around a city. The first MC comes on, cool, calm and collected: “Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue / The aim is to succeed and achieve at 21.”
Compared to the gangster rap I was used to listening to, this was a wake up slap.
Then, a second MC comes in with a slight Caribbean patois, “Competition, dem Phifer come sideway / But competition, dey mus’ me come straightway,” before completing the rest of the verse in an American accent.
It was the smoothest rapping I had ever heard. There was an incredible chemistry between the two, and their lyrics said so much; they were intelligent, they weren’t violent, nor were they overly misogynistic.
Then came the end of the video:
“If this is a stinker, then call me a stink, I ask ‘What? What? What?’ – now check it out,” one rapper said.
“Check what out,” the DJ chimed in.
“Check this out,” the other rapper echoed.
The video leapt into full colour. One of the rappers was wearing these weird, bugged-out eyes, as he spat some more incredible rhymes. “Yo, microphone check one two what is this/ The five foot assassin with the ruffneck business.”
Once the clip had finished, Xzibit told me that I’d been watching Q-Tip and Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ), and the film clip was of their two songs meshed into one – Jazz (We’ve Got) Buggin’ Out from their album The Low End Theory. There was something so simple and beautiful about the way they traded lines with each other over the groovy, jazzy production. Ali Shaheed Muhammad (DJ and producer in ATCQ) was a genius in the way that he fused hip-hop with laid-back jazz.
I listened to The Low End Theory again and again when I was younger, and since I learned that Phife passed away this week, I have been thinking a lot about this album. Tracks like Verses from the Abstract, Jazz, Buggin’ Out, Scenario, Vibe and Stuff, and Check Them Rhime, were all flawless tracks, and became a benchmark for what I came to consider good hip-hop. I couldn’t really afford to get more than just that album until much later in life, so for a long time, the only Tribe album I owned was The Low End Theory.
This album is also directly responsible for my taste in music today.
It encouraged me to branch out, to learn about other rappers out there, to hear the flows and inflections coming from different parts of America. We are talking about 90s hip-hop here, the era of the name-drop and shout-out – Verses from the Abstract had the most extensive shout-outs, so I jotted all their names down on a notepad and went to JB Hi-Fi.
At JB, I was too poor to afford even one CD, let alone the huge list that Tribe had just curated for me. So I’d just look at the album covers and rank them in order of how cool they looked, hoping that when I had a birthday, or found some money at NRG (happened once or twice) I could easily decide which CD I was going to get firsy.
A Tribe Called Quest was schooling me on Busta Rhymes; De La Soul; Rakim and Eric B; Brand Nubian; Pete Rock and CL Smooth; and Diamond D, which in turn opened up a whole world of new rap music for me to listen to.
It is hard to look back on your life and think that if I didn’t do this, or if I didn’t see or hear that, I might not be the person I am today.
My life would be very different right now, if I hadn’t heard The Low End Theory. If I had never heard Jazz, I might not have fallen in love with old school hip-hop; I might not have wanted to tell my own stories, and I might not have written a poem or a short story; I might have never studied journalism as a way to tell those stories, and I wouldn’t be here writing about it right now. I may not have been truly affected by Phife’s passing, and I wouldn’t have realised just how much of an impact this album has had on me.
I am not the only one – ATCQ has inspired countless artist and musicians, from The Roots and Common to Pharrell and Kanye. Even today, you can hear DJs and producers combining jazz and many other genres with hip-hop. These guys brought such experimentation to the table that the rest were sure to follow.
Tribe’s Low End Theory turns 25 this year, and looking back, it is still as strong an album today as it was in ’91. There is no way you would be disappointed if you were having a beer and someone chucked on Check the Rhime. You would totally look at the person next to you and say, “You on point, Tip.”
The Low End Theory is one of the greatest albums ever produced. It’s hard to put words to how good it is, but the opening track Excursions does a great job of showing how good the album is.
Most people already knew how good of a lyricist Q-Tip was, from the Tribe’s first album, but this album was the first time the lyrical abilities of “The Five Foot Assassin” Phife Dawg were really showcased. He had an amazing ability to come out swinging. His first line of Buggin’ Out is still to this day the greatest opening line I have ever heard, but he had plenty more great intros on this album: “Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am / Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram,” on Check the Rhime, and “Heyo, Bo knows this, and Bo knows that / But Bo don’t know jack, ’cause Bo can’t rap,” from Scenario.
It pains me to know that Phife Dawg is no longer with us, and I owe a lot of the man I am today to A Tribe Called Quest’s influence. Rest in peace, Phife – your legacy and music will live forever and will continue to inspire many all over the world.
Rest in peace Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, 1970 – 2016.