A Tribe Called Quest Sparked Hip-Hop’s Love Affair With Jazz on ‘Low End Theory’

“On many levels I don’t see hip-hop and jazz as different styles of music and The Low End Theory demonstrates why.”

A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest.

Senior year of high school is only as memorable as its soundtrack.

For the Class of 1992, it was raining masterpieces our senior year: Nevermind, Use Your Illusion I & II, Achtung Baby, We Can’t Be Stopped, Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, Cypress Hill, Badmotorfinger, Ten, Bandwagonesque, Steady Diet of Nothing, Laughing Stock, Metallica, Blood Sugar Sex Magick, Angel Dust, Check Your Head, Wish, the list goes on and on and on.

But perhaps no other record that year had more impact on the musical climate than A Tribe Called Quest’s legendary second LP, The Low End Theory.

Especially for this particular senior, who was driving to school for the first time. If you hung out in the parking lot before homeroom or after dismissal in 1991, The Low End Theory an unmistakable staple you heard everyone bumping out of their cars, especially if they had a nice kickerbox in the trunk.

What was it that made this most important Tribe LP sound so nice in a booming system? Well, those beats, of course. Those perfect, soulful grooves crafted by Ali Shaheed Muhammad for MC’s Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Jarobi White to drop science over, establishing rhythms so quintessentially aligned with each of their highly distinctive flows.

Almost none of us rolling around in the fall of 1991 were listening to much jazz, at least in my immediate circle of friends. But the funny thing is, while we were all wilding out to such faves as “Buggin’ Out”, “Check the Rhime”, “Everything Is Fair” and, undoubtedly the epic, epic posse cut “Scenario” that closes out the album, everyone who spent a significant amount of time with The Low End Theory was receiving a serious education in jazz appreciation, whether they knew it or not.

“Tribe influenced a generation of young people who had never really been exposed to jazz. They were trailblazers of a modern hip-hop generation not obsessed with violence.”—Jameio Brown

For the lay people who rocked this record back in the day, chances are the fact that every one of these songs features at least one jazz sample was of minimal concern. However, for anyone who was raised on The L.E.T., be it first, second or third hand, it was the quintessential gateway drug into the art form and its infinite universe of classic recordings comprising its genetic makeup.

Tribe were not the first hip-hop act to sample a jazz record. But they were certainly the first to feature a bonafide giant of the craft such as double-bass legend Ron Carter on a song like “Verses From The Abstract”. Carter even returns in pre-recorded form on “Skypager”, which lifts from Eric Dolphy’s “17 West” featuring the man on bass.

A quarter century later, The Low End Theroy is as ubiquitous to the language of modern jazz as Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, its seamless fusion of beats and bop providing the seeds for future greats such as Digable Planets, J Dilla, Madlib, Greg Osby, The Roots, Flying Lotus, Kamasi, Kendrick and D’Angelo to further blur the line between jazz and hip-hop in an even more organic way than in the early ’90s. In 2016, the genres are knotted beyond the point of no return.

In commemoration of its Silver Anniversary, the Observer spoke with several modern figures on the jazz scene, plus an exclusive quote from Carter on his experience recording with Tribe, about the impact The Low End Theory has had on this most distinctive American music as the craft enjoys one of its most innovative and exploratory periods since the disco/new wave era.

Ron Carter

Q-Tip had called me and said, “I’m trying to do a record and I’m a fan of Charlie Mingus and was wondering if you could record with us.” I didn’t know who they were, so I told him, “Let me get back to you.” And I called my sons, who were into hip-hop, and asked them who this person Q-Tip is and what do you know about this band A Tribe Called Quest?

They told me they were one of the more musical groups at the time and seemed like they were more interested in making music rather than simply utilizing beats and samples. So I got back to him and said, “O.K., my sons told me this is a good thing for me to do and I trust their judgment. But I do have some caveats here. If you guys start cursing and talking like everyone else does on these records, I’m gonna unplug and go home, because that’s not my point of view. I don’t like those lyrics, I hate those kinds of words and I think they are demeaning. So if that’s what you got me into, I’m not there.”

He was immediately like, “No, no, no, we’re O.K., we’re O.K.!”

I got to the studio on time, went to the control room, plugged directly into their board, did three takes and went home. I was sorry to see them break up, but that’s what success does. However, they were really good guys and they all wanted to play piano and learn about chords. At the time, they seemed like the only ones who understood the relationship between the rhythm and the beat.

And by the way, I’m still available to anyone who wants to make some music. They keep on sampling my bass lines, but I’m still available for some live recording with hip-hop acts. So if there’s any top dog/big fish kinda guys who want to have an old man playing an antique, have them give me a call.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxN4nKk2cfk&w=560&h=315]

Robert Glasper

Tribe was my gateway to hip-hop. Literally I got into rap music because of A Tribe Called Quest. The funny thing is that it was the jazz connection, because the first thing I heard when I was like, “Wait, what’s that!” was the joint they did with Freddie Hubbard’s “Suite Sioux” off Red Clay…“Jazz (We’ve Got)”!

Being from Houston, Texas, I was listening to The Low End Theory when it came out when I was in elementary school, so I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about [laughs]. They were from Queens, while I was in Geto Boys country. So for me, it was all about the beats, and when I heard Low End Theory and “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, it just blew me away. It was really intriguing to me.

Derrick Hodge

The cool thing about The Low End Theory is that it all starts with Q-Tip and his mind, and his appreciation for, in the moment, what might be considered abstract and an abstract way of thinking. Q-Tip’s always been drawn to certain elements that he could hear the new dope thing within. Even if on the surface you might not hear it all, Tip has a knack for not only hearing it, but gravitating towards it as well.

It’s no surprise that marriage between J Dilla and Q-Tip happened. It’s just no shock, man. But it all started with Tip’s appreciation for those types of minds and that type of thinking.

And because of that, I think the music—especially on Low End Theory—has a musicality to it where an instrumentalist, whether its classical or jazz or rock or R&B or gospel, you can go do your instrument and pick up and play these songs because they’re cut up in a way that an actual horn player or bassist can play along. Songs like “Check The Rhime” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)” have a certain familiar way about them where you can play it and everybody will recognize it. The album really inhibits that feeling of natural playing.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6TLWqn82J4&w=560&h=315]

Jameio Brown

A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory was one of the most influential albums of my life. I was not only influenced by the music, but by the culture they represented. As an African-American they reinforced the idea that to be cool was to be laid-back and intelligent, which was a contrast to groups like N.W.A. at the time. They had courage to promote being an individual.

Tribe influenced a generation of young people who had never really been exposed to jazz. They were trailblazers of a modern hip-hop generation not obsessed with violence. Sonically they fused the ’60s and ’70s with hip-hop drums. Even though my father was a jazz bassist, I didn’t feel connected to the acoustic bass until I heard them use it.

Musically and culturally they showed us the common denominators. I don’t know if I would have pursued a career as a jazz musician if it were not for what they introduced. Sampling has played a large part in the music that I have been passionate about creating because of Tribe. There are certain emotions and sounds that can only be achieved by sampling and I see that as an art. On many levels I don’t see hip-hop and jazz as different styles of music and The Low End Theory demonstrates why.

Jason Stein

Jazz has a problem finding a way to fit comfortably into contemporary culture in a way that has meaning and is not anachronistic. The Low End Theory is a great example of a band using elements of jazz in a way that felt exciting, and significant.

It also just plain sounded dope and spent months in my Walkman when I was 15. It remains an important influence to me by helping me to remember the infinite potential in the raw materials of jazz to move people’s minds, souls and especially their feet.

A Tribe Called Quest.
A Tribe Called Quest.

Jeremy Pelt

While I think Low End Theory was a record that stood out in its time, I don’t necessarily connect its brilliance with having a direct or even indirect impact on jazz when it came out. However, when you look at what some jazz artists are doing with their music now, i.e., Glasper and others, one can make an argument that there are certain elements contained in their music that harken from the things that A Tribe Called Quest incorporated in their tracks.

Makaya McCraven

Hip-hop has a long history of drawing from jazz from its inception but jazz hasn’t always been so accepting of hip-hop. Often purists question hip-hop’s musical integrity. Low End Theory was a major step in bringing respect and interest from the jazz community. Now many players of my generation grew up listening to this classic record, and it, as well as hip-hop in general, have shaped the way we hear music, approach groove, sound and composition.

Using Ron Carter on bass as well as the heavy sampling of jazz greats including Jack Dejohnette, Art Blakey, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Gary Bartz, The Last Poets and more, really opened up hip-hop as a genre with real musical integrity and value to some it’s harsher critics. A cosign from a legend such Ron Carter carries weight in a genre where purists often look down at people who “cross over.” This was especially true in the ’90s when these types of cross overs were more radical. To younger musicians who played jazz but were at home listening to hip-hop this record opened up the possibilities of pursuing new sounds and collaborations.

Low End Theory was one of the very first cassette tapes I ever purchased. Riding the line as a player and a hip-hop head was not always easy. I constantly had to try to prove that hip-hop was worthwhile musically. Low End Theory was a record I could always come back to when addressing elitists about hip-hop as a genre, pointing to the material sampled, its musicality and the depth of the rhythmic and lyrical content. Low End Theory definitely had a profound impact on me as an artist as my introduction to hip-hop and encouragement that I could follow the sounds I want to.

Anwar Marshall

The Low End Theory works as a bridge between the Jazz and Hip Hop worlds in a very unique way. The use of the upright bass, the samples that were used, and the overall sound of the mix, this record relates to jazz musicians like no other hip-hop record has.

I personally remember realizing that one of the main samples for “Butter” was Weather Report’s “Young and Fine”, which appears on their 1978 release Mr. Gone. I feel like Tribe went to great lengths to relate to instrumentalists in ways that other hip-hop groups were’t concerned with. I thought it was telling for them to feature Mr. Ron Carter on the second song of the record.

Unfortunately, the importance of the upright bass is over looked in live jazz performance and on jazz recordings, but with Bob Power on the mixing board, Tribe accentuated that sound and presented it to younger audience in a way that was palatable and really groovy.

Also, there’s at least three or four tracks that are just bass, drums and vocals, which functions as a jazz trio of sorts. This was one of the first hip-hop records that I was introduced to, and it took me years to realize how unique and ground breaking it is!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries?list=PL7XIASbNY0t6pbJPoZJajH0JK6UpgIxRk&w=560&h=315]

Macie Stewart

To help put things in perspective, Low End Theory and I are about the same age. That means my view of the record has always been from its future looking back, and at the age of 15 it was my gateway into hip-hop.

There was something about it that resonated with me beyond the music I had been studying and listening to at the time, catching my ear with its samples of my father’s favorites like Weather Report, Cannonball Adderley and Funkadelic. It made that music seem like something I had discovered on my own, and encouraged me to delve deeper into the world of jazz and all that it entails.

Like Q-Tip says in ‘Excursions”:

“You could find the abstract listening to hip-hop/ My pops used to say, it reminded him of bebop/ I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles/ The way the Bobby Brown is just ampin like Michael.”

Music moves in cycles. Jazz is creeping its way back into the mainstream time and time again, I can see it in the recent music of Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper, Thundercat and even David Bowie.

The Low End Theory and Tribe sampled jazz in such a unique way that it enabled their voices to solo effortlessly over the track much like Dizzy or Coltrane would. That record defied boundaries and created a space for music to exist just for the sake of itself. It took something familiar to the youth (hip-hop) and made it accessible to the previous generation by paying homage to all of the great artists that came before them, and pushed the generations after them to explore what it means to make music. In that way it continues to feed future musicians, encouraging them to create by building on traditions of the past.

Eric Slick, Dr. Dog

I remember first hearing The Low End Theory in 2007. My best friend Dominic turned me onto it. We went to jazz school together, but I soon dropped out. I thought the whole thing was just so square. Dom stuck it out and ended up playing on countless sessions with Dice Raw, Peedi Crakk and members of the Roots Crew. He was aghast that I had never heard Tribe, so we drove around and listened to all of Low End Theory.

I remember thinking that the album was somehow simultaneously futuristic and stark. I was also disappointed in myself that I’d never given it a shot before.

Over the course of the next few years, I would go to Silk City Diner in Philly every Monday night for a live jazz/hip-hop improv night. I’m fairly certain The Philadelphia Experiment started there. Another jazz/hip-hop bridge! Questlove, Anthony Tidd, Spanky and many MCs and other luminaries would come through and devastate the place.

I remember sitting in and feeling so inspired to try something different. It was a jazz school education that I didn’t have to pay tuition for. It’s hard to think of sessions like that happening without the forward-thinking influence of Low End Theory, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

A Tribe Called Quest.
A Tribe Called Quest.

Shabaka Hutchings, Shabaka and the Ancestors

One of the remarkable aspects of this album is the opening phrase from Q-Tip—”You could find the abstract, listening to hip-hop/ my pops used to say it reminded him of bebop/ I said well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles.”

This is an artist overtly positioning his music, and the music of his generation, within a lineage stemming from jazz yet manifested through a music form championing a very different set of aesthetic values.

This quote made me think at a young age about how the musical sensibilities of a given community can be represented in differing forms/genres across generational lines. It also made me start considering the role of the artist himself in framing the way his music is perceived (as opposed to academics and “historians”). This has definitely influenced my desire to take the reins in articulating the historical forces, which comprise the music I make.

Mark Guiliana

Low End Theory is a modern day masterpiece. The carefully selected samples, often from seminal jazz records made decades earlier, provide a warm and organic sonic foundation for Tribe’s masterful rhymes.

Corey King

This album was definitely a defining moment in my life. I remember listening to it in my uncle’s car and knowing instantly that I would pursue music. This record not only brought my generation to love hip-hop but also, to a certain degree, educated my generation on jazz music. The bass lines sampled on this album were genius and the delivery from Phife and Q-tip was reminiscent to a horn player’s phrasing over a blues.

In high school, my friends and I would try and arrange jazz standards with ideas inspired by The Low End Theory. This was years after this record was released and it was still buzzing in my network of friends. The Low End Theory’s colors and layers were ahead of its time. In my opinion, it was a total game changer.

Matt Moran, Slavic Soul Party

When I was a student at Berklee College of Music I read that a hip-hop group called A Tribe Called Quest had put out a jazz-influenced record, and I went out and bought it almost immediately (on cassette). I listened to it about three times in a row, trying to figure out what was going on.

For me, deep in an obsessive and still immature relationship to jazz, the album was a bit of a revelation: while it sampled a lot of jazz records—and what a thrill to hear a shout-out to Ron Carter in popular culture!—it didn’t feel at all like jazz to me, in fact it felt like its opposite. It started with an MC saying that hip-hop today was the be-bop of its day, but I wasn’t hearing it, and that was a shot across the bow.

It was my first visceral awareness that what I loved about jazz was not what most of America heard in jazz; to me, the digital looping of a few notes or bars was the very opposite of jazz, and the expressionist spirit of those instrumentalists had been harshly confined. It was a lesson in orchestration: the instruments used and how they sounded was more important to listeners than what was actually played.

Over the years I listened to the album occasionally, and gradually gained an appreciation for the cultural significance of the album, and the artistic goal of creating a new African-American music that showed respect for jazz. I came to love that there was a contemporary dance music being made that did use the orchestration of jazz, when those sounds were being increasingly sidelined in popular culture.

A Tribe Called Quest (Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images)
Jarobi White, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest perform in Austin, Texas, at SXSW.

Ben Wendel

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, I had a record/tape/radio player. Most of what I listened to was jazz LPs that my neighbor gave me and hip-hop from a 24-hour AM station called KDAY. When you are 13, you don’t necessarily categorize music—you listen to everything with open ears. I was moving between John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis and Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Busta Rhymes. It felt seamless—even then I felt like there was a connection between these two art forms.

I can look back now and see that in fact there has been a long history between jazz and hip-hop. I would argue that hip-hop is jazz in the larger context, or at least part of the continuum of improvised music. Tribe was the first group I discovered using jazz masters like Ron Carter in their recordings. Since then, there have been so many more examples of this connection, and not surprisingly those artists/albums tend to be my favorite.

A few collaborations that come to mind include Mos Def working with Robert Glasper, Q-Tip working with Kurt Rosenwinkel, Snoop Dogg working with Terrace Martin and Kendrick Lamar working with Kamasi Washington and Thundercat.

Thanks to Terrace Martin, I actually got to tour with Snoop Dogg briefly. The feeling I came away with from that experience is that all music is interconnected and, at the highest level, free of genre. That’s what I feel I have learned from groups like Tribe Called Quest—that true creativity is open to any and all input.


A Tribe Called Quest Sparked Hip-Hop’s Love Affair With Jazz on ‘Low End Theory’