Released on September 24, 1991, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory is the quintessential moment where hip-hop let its jazz muse fly. Others – most notably Gang Starr – had explored fusions between jazz and hip-hop, but Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad evoked a cool bebop ethos that none had achieved before. They metaphorically drew comparisons between their lyrical gems and jazz players like Lonnie Smith, Grover Washington, Jr. and Ron Carter, the latter joining the Theory sessions to add his supple bass notes to tracks like “Excursions” and “Buggin’ Out.” Numerous moments linger in hip-hop’s firmament, whether it’s Q-Tip’s “4,080” rule for record labels; oft-sampled lines like Q-Tip’s “wait back it up, wait, easy back it up”; or boom-tastic cipher session “Scenario,” which turned Busta Rhymes into a star and inspired years of rah-rah chants from Onyx, Black Moon and more.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest hip-hop albums, here are 10 things you might not know about The Low End Theory.
1. In order to make The Low End Theory, Q-Tip had to pull Phife off the street.
Many of us are still mourning the March 23rd death of Phife Dawg, whose vocal interplay with Q-Tip resulted in some of the most treasured music in hip-hop history. But back in 1990, he was still a Jamaica, Queens teenager more interested in having fun and chasing girls than pursuing a rap career. That’s why he only made brief appearances on the group’s debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Phife remembered, “A couple of months before we started working on Low End, I just happened to run into Q-Tip on the train leaving from Queens going into Manhattan. He was like, ‘Yo, I’m about to start recording this next album. I want you on a couple of songs, but you have to take it serious.’ … I took that into consideration along with the last couple of shows we did for that first album. I saw how fruitful things could get.”
2. N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton helped inspire Tribe.
The Compton squad’s studio debut is widely known as the greatest gangsta rap album of all time. Less remembered but equally important is how Dr. Dre flipped Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad’s barrage of funky noise to fit a West Coast aesthetic; making key interludes out of samples of black comedy pioneers like Rudy Rae Moore. It was Dre’s next-level production techniques that inspired Tip and Muhammad. “I remember driving with Ali, I was like, ‘Yo, we gotta make some shit like this,'” Tip told RBMA in 2013. “Dre is such a master the way it was laid out.”
3. Phife had to fight for his “Butter” spotlight.
Q-Tip originally planned for “Butter” to be another mic-trading session, but Phife wanted the track for himself. “We had a quasi little tiff over it,” the former told VH1 in 2011. Eventually, Phife wrested control, and turned “Butter” into a lyrical showcase where he ironically contrasted his “smoothness” with his frequent girl problems. Meanwhile, Tip rocked on the hook. “How I was on the chorus and how [Phife] was doing the rhyme … it just felt like if it was the Beatles, and John would sing lead on one and then Paul would sing lead on another and John would be backing him up,” said Tip.
4. Competition between De La Soul and Tribe led to Vinia Mojica’s hook on “Verses from the Abstract.”
Vinia Mojica is one of the great, unsung session vocalists of the Nineties, landing on tracks by Heavy D, Mos Def and many more. Although she appeared on People’s Instinctive Travels skits as part of the crowd noise, her breakout moment came when she sang the incandescently sunny hook for De La Soul’s 1991 summer hit, “A Roller Skating Jam Called Saturdays.” “The boys had a lot of love-hate rivalries. … They always wanted to one up each other,” Mojica said in a 2012 interview with Revive. “I think that’s why Q-Tip asked me to do something for their album, even though I was on their first album in the snippets in between.” More poignantly, Q-Tip also gave a dedication to Mojica’s mother near the end of “Vibes and Stuff.” “My mother had died during the time of the making of their second album,” she explained.
5. “Industry Rule #4,080” may refer to Jive Records.
Throughout the years, Q-Tip has been somewhat coy about the inspiration for his memorable “Check the Rhime” line: “Industry rule number 4,080, record company people are shadyyyyyyy.” In the excellent The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, Dan Charnas speculates that the widely quoted “rule” resulted from Tribe’s increasingly fractious dealings with Jive Records, as well as changes in their management. “The members of A Tribe Called Quest were teenagers when they signed,” he writes. “It was only after their first album was released and they began reviewing the budget for their second that they became aware of the tangle of deals to which they were bound.” When the group switched from Red Alert Productions to Rush Artist Management, Tribe demanded more advances in order to deal with the resulting costs of separation, so Jive extended their contract to one more album. The red tape took over a year to untangle, and left an air of mistrust between Tribe and Jive, resulting in bitter Theory cuts like “Show Business.” Meanwhile, “4,080” has entered rap lexicon as shorthand for record label chicanery.
6. Phife Dawg’s stray shots almost led to bloodshed.
It’s a legendary tale of beef from hip-hop’s pre-Bad Boy vs. Death Row days: When Phife Dawg rapped “Strictly hardcore tracks, not a New Jack Swing,” Teddy Riley’s protégés Wreckx-N-Effect, who landed a major pop-rap hit in 1990 with “New Jack Swing,” took offense. On March 16, 1993, their crew retaliated by punching Q-Tip in the eye outside a Run-DMC concert at Radio City Music Hall. To avoid further violence, the Zulu Nation brought the two factions to the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque #7 in Harlem, where Minister Conrad Muhammad brokered a truce. However, no one seemed to mind Phife Dawg’s Vanilla Ice dis on “The Scenario (Remix)”: “Vanilla Ice platinum? That shit’s ridiculous!”
7. Pete Rock made the original “Jazz (We Got).”
The song heard on The Low End Theory is a rearrangement of a beat Q-Tip heard while visiting Pete Rock. “One time the ‘Jazz’ beat was already playing in the drum machine. I went to answer the door and left the beat playing. He came downstairs like, ‘What the fuck is that?'” Pete Rock told Wax Poetics in 2004. “He knew what I used and took the same elements, and made it the exact same way.” Tip, for his part, claims that he got permission to remake it. His shout-out on “Jazz (We Got)” – “Pete Rock for the beat, ya don’t stop” – was a tacit acknowledgement of the beat’s origins.
8. “Scenario” originally included more members of the Native Tongues.
As Tribe and Leaders of the New School worked on “Scenario,” word spread amongst the Native Tongues fraternity. Eventually, Posdnous from De La Soul, Dres and Mista Lawnge from Black Sheep, group manager “Baby” Chris Lighty (who passed away in 2011), and even enigmatic fourth Tribe member Jarobi snapped on it. In Brian Coleman’s book Check the Technique, Tip remembered, “We didn’t know which one to use. We wanted to get everybody on there, but it was still obvious which one was the best, and we went with that one for the final album version.” A subsequent remix featured Kid Hood, a previously unknown rapper who was murdered two days after recording his verse. The rest of the Native Tongues’ raps remain unreleased.
9. Q-Tip wrote part of Busta Rhymes’ iconic rap on “Scenario.”
Busta Rhymes’ legendary “rawr rawr, like a dungeon dragon” fireworks at the end of “Scenario” is all his. However, Q-Tip wrote the handful of bars – “I heard you rushed, rushed and attacked” – in the middle of Tip’s verse. “He had his rhyme written and he told me to say his part. He did it in a Busta Rhymes style so when I did it, it sounded like it,” Busta told XXL in 2012. “He wanted me to come in on his part, set me up.” In turn Busta concluded “Scenario” with one of the greatest rap verses of all time.
10. The Low End Theory marked the beginning of the end of Native Tongues.
During the recording sessions for The Low End Theory, Q-Tip decided to switch from pioneering New York DJ and Native Tongues mentor Red Alert to Russell Simmons’ Rush Management, with Chris Lighty as their point man. The split opened wounds that never truly healed between Tribe and De La, and on the other side, the innovative, perpetually underrated Jungle Brothers. “Jungle didn’t fuck with us [after the switch]. Everybody was hurt,” Tip told Vibe in a 2007 story on the rise and fall of the influential crew. In the same article, Afrika Baby Bam added, “[People] have been trying to erase the Jungle Brothers out of the books, when I was the one that started the whole thing.”