As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Phife Dawg from the trailblazing rap group A Tribe Called Quest passed away last week. I had to take a few days and really think about what I wanted to say because this really hit home for me. Growing up, I didn’t really listen to hip-hop; I listened to pop music and watched Soul Train in grade school, and in high school I went through a really odd Daria from MTV/emo/grunge with a splash of preppy thrown in period; I even wore a watch with no hands because “time was meaningless.” Don’t ask. Anyway, I knew some rap songs, but it wasn’t really on my radar.
Fast forward to college, and in the student center, there was a used cd/tape store (yeah…I’m dating myself here), and I remember buying The Low End Theory on cassette, mainly because of the artwork. Now, this album was released in 1991, but I didn’t get around to listening to it until maybe 1994 or so. So I was WAY behind the curve. I get home, put in the tape, and the first track, Excursions, came through the speakers. Even now I’m not exactly sure what to say about it…first came the bass line, followed by Q-Tip’s voice. It wasn’t like anything I had heard before; it was stripped down with drums, bass, and rhymes. I started nodding my head to the beat, listened to the next few tracks, and thought, “yeah, this is good stuff.” But then “Check the Rhime” came on. I stopped reading whatever random book I was trying to take notes on, closed my eyes, and really listened to the lyrics. Phife comes in and says:
Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am.
Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram.
I’m like an energizer ’cause, you see, I last long.
My crew is never ever wack because we stand strong.
Taken out of context, this sounds pretty simple, right? But the way he was just in the pocket, and made it sound so effortless…it was brilliant. I must’ve rewound that song ten times in a row, and I thought that was the apex of the album. And in some ways, I suppose it could be…but then I heard “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, which for me, is THE ultimate Tribe song.
Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue
The aim is to succeed and achieve at 21
Just like Ringling Brothers, I’ll daze and astound
Captivate the mass, cause the prose is profound
Do it for the strong, we do it for the meek
Boom it in your boom it in your boom it in your Jeep
Or your Honda or your Beemer or your Legend or your Benz
The rave of the town to your foes and your friends
So push it, along, trails, we blaze
Don’t deserve the gong, don’t deserve the praise
The tranquility will make ya unball your fist
For we put hip-hop on a brand new twist
A brand new twist with the homie-alistic
So low-key that ya probably missed it
And yet it’s so loud that it stands in the crowd
When the guy takes the beat, they bowed
So raise up squire, address your attire
We have no time to wallow in the mire
If you’re on a foreign path, then let me do the lead
Join in the essence of the cool-out breed
That’s just part of the first verse…the word play and the rhythm of how Q-Tip and Phife rhyme is beyond reproach. And I would put this song against almost any hip hop song out now (hell, “Can I Kick It?”, “Award Tour”, and “Electric Relaxation” fits that bill as well).
This album turned me on to so many other groups, and opened up a whole world of music that quickly became a mainstay. Queen Latifah, N.W.A., Biggie, Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim, MC Lyte…these were just a few rappers that I have become lifelong fans of, and because of Tribe, I discovered passionate lyricists who painted vivid images and made me appreciate wordplay on a level that was unexpected. The $5 I paid for this cassette has provided me a wealth of memories over the past twenty years, and as Phife put it, “I take off my hat to other crews that intend to rock/But the Low End Theory’s here/ it’s time to wreck shop.” And wreck shop they did.