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For The Record: A Tribe Called Quest's Groundbreaking 'The Low End Theory' At 30

A Tribe Called Quest

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For The Record: A Tribe Called Quest's Groundbreaking 'The Low End Theory' At 30

A 2021 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame inductee, 'The Low End Theory,' released in 1991, saw A Tribe Called Quest reinvent the wheel yet again, marrying the sounds of jazz and hip-hop and solidifying the group's artistic legacy

GRAMMYs/Feb 15, 2021 - 09:59 pm

In 1991, hip-hop was in a state of flux, and A Tribe Called Quest were searching for balance. Their 1990 debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, propelled the Queens, New York, group to new heights. Tribe tempered the growing gangster rap movement with their own breed of hip-hop, one full of humor, life, positivity and a more lighthearted approach to making music. Their style positioned them more as a group who loved being musicians over utilizing their rhymes to vent about the doom and gloom enveloping their environment.

Tribe, along with groups like De La Soul, Jungle Brothers and Leaders of the New School, were a part of the DAISY ("Da Inner Sound, Y'all") age of hip-hop. (De La Soul coined the term on their 1989 debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, in which they chanted the phrase several times throughout the project.) DAISY artists donned brighter clothing, used literal daisy imagery in their artwork, music videos and album covers, and punctuated their positive messages with poignancies on Afrocentricity. Even de facto A Tribe Called Quest leader Kamaal Fareed went by MC Love Child before he was given the name Q-Tip.

Intertwined with this bohemian take on hip-hop music, several DAISY artists, including Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, were also part of the Native Tongues collective, a loose network of East Coast hip-hop artists. But even if you weren't down with Native Tongues, if your music was the antithesis of the exploding gangster rap style of the time, you tangentially became a part of the DAISY Age.

DAISY artists diverged from what most considered then to be the sonic norm for rap music, which was a rugged exterior revealing street hymns and conspiracy theories, along with stories of police brutality and gang wars. N.W.A's 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton was mostly to thank, along with Public Enemy's 1988 album It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, a clarion call for the mobilization of Black people against the powers that be. It was raging against the machine at its best.

While artists of the DAISY Age discussed ways for Black people to find their own grooves and means to mobilize, albeit in a different way, Tribe and groups of their ilk were categorized under the "alternative hip-hop" subgenre, an industry move suggesting that discussions of anything other than gun talk were the exception, not the rule. They were all deemed "safe," nonviolent "alternatives," while also commanding a sound both parents and kids could mutually enjoy. It was a gift and a curse at the same time.

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It was a frustrating position for any critically acclaimed group paving their own path. Still, by the time A Tribe Called Quest got to work on The Low End Theory, they were more than ready to reinvent the wheel yet again. This would be the project that served as a reference point for A Tribe Called Quest as bastions of versatility. In order to prove that, they had to rework their whole style, right down to their image. There was also the added pressure of the sophomore slump. But that didn't faze lead producer Q-Tip in the least. Tribe weren't cocky—they were confident.

Tribe had a lot to prove on The Low End Theory while not coming off as tryhards. In 14 tracks, they had to somehow remove the stigmas attached to so many hip-hop artists at the time: You were either too street, too soft or too artsy, or you didn't understand a single instrument. Tribe aimed to strike that balance artfully.

Inspired by the hard thuds checkered throughout Straight Outta Compton, Q-Tip opted for bass-heavy beats on Low End.  Album opener "Excursions" oozes with those steady basslines, as does "Buggin' Out," "Check The Rhime" and closer "Scenario."

Q-Tip made it a point to masterfully bring the sounds of jazz and bebop to boom bap, where, for the first time ever, the instruments were front and center. You could listen to any song on Low End and hear every layer as it's being played, a rarity in the sample-heavy world of hip-hop. With Tribe, you experienced the masterpiece in full totality, while also seeing every stroke of the paintbrush. And despite their claims of having the jazz on "Jazz (We've Got)," Tribe didn't sound like some jazz ensemble in hard-bottom shoes anywhere on Low End. This was pure hip-hop in a new iteration by a group determined to make a mark on their own terms.

But like Q-Tip says on "Rap Promoter ("Not too modest and not a lot of pride"), Tribe had to be bolder with their messaging this time around, while still maintaining their stance on peace and positivity. On "Excursions," an idyllic intro to that creative approach, Q-Tip makes it clear that Tribe is playing the long game in rap, in the right way, while still switching the sound up. He does the same on "Verses From The Abstract," in which he takes the reins on the group's collective messaging.

This was also the moment, however, where Phife Dawg would step forward and do just enough posturing and bragging on the group's behalf. His presence was barely felt on Tribe's debut album since Phife's head wasn't all the way in the game until Q-Tip centered him. The yin to Q-Tip's yang, Phife was a 5-foot-3-inch sh*t-talker and bona fide comedian who helped the former not take the game too seriously. On "Buggin' Out," Phife is in the spotlight, and he keeps it going on "Butter" where he talks about pulling girls like "Flo" while simultaneously shining on his own for once.

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Low End is also full of music industry cautionary tales. On "Rap Promoter," Q-Tip waxes philosophically and questions why rap promoters will invite hip-hop heads to a wack show. Tribe then expose the ills of the biz on "Show Business," with the help of Brand Nubian and Diamond D, and continue that sentiment on "Check The Rhime" where Q-Tip births the now-infamous line, "Industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty / Record company people are shady."

Tribe's storytelling is in clear view on "The Infamous Date Rape" and "Everything Is Fair," with the former carrying a real sentiment of exposing criminal acts. It's heavy without being too dark, while tracks like "What?" are light without being too whimsy. "Skypager" sees Tribe dissecting their many reasons for carrying a beeper. At face value, the concept would seem like a whole lot of nonsense about an inanimate piece of technology. But the song ultimately places the group alongside the same beeper-carrying drug dealers from whom the industry and the media attempted to forcibly disassociate them. While Tribe aim to show they are different and unfazed by fancy gadgets, "Skypager" still echoes their main message: We are all in this together.

Then, of course, there's "Scenario." With the help of Leaders of the New School and the soon-to-be legend Busta Rhymes, the track is heavy on basslines, trash talk, braggadocio and bars. The perfect closer to the album, "Scenario" is so bullish and so energetic, it almost serves as a celebration of Tribe's accomplishment: the martini after a cinematic piece has wrapped.

The Low End Theory was somewhat of a swan song for A Tribe Called Quest in more ways than one. It was their diversion from the Native Tongues and the DAISY Age scenes, especially after the group signed to Russell Simmons' Rush Artist Management, under manager Chris Lighty, a move that would take their message to a bigger, more mainstream hip-hop audience. However, the album was also a farewell to the pigeonholed style and sound they were wedged into the first time around. After The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest could fly, and the sky was the limit.

"Loops Of Funk Over Hardcore Beats": 30 Years Of A Tribe Called Quest's Debut, 'People's Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm'

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Doja Cat

Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Find out who's bringing the heat to the hip-hop fest returning to L.A. this December

GRAMMYs/Oct 2, 2019 - 12:11 am

Today, Rolling Loud revealed the massive lineup for their final music festival of 2019, Rolling Loud Los Angeles, which is set to take over the Banc of California Stadium and adjacent Exposition Park on Dec. 14–15.

This iteration of "the Woodstock of Hip-Hop," as the all-knowing Diddy has called it, will feature Chance the RapperLil Uzi VertJuice WRLDYoung Thug and Lil Baby as Saturday's heavy-hitting headliners. Sunday's headliners are none other than Future, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, YG and Playboi Carti.

L.A.'s own Blueface, Tyga and Doja Cat, are slated to perform, as well as representatives from the diverse rap scenes across the country, including Wale, Juicy J, Lil Yachty, Megan Thee Stallion, Gunna, Tyla Yaweh, Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy.

The lineup announcement follows the successful wrap of Rolling Loud Bay Area in Oakland this past weekend. The event's flagship Miami event took place in May this year, and the New York and Hong Kong debut editions will both take place later this month.

Tickets for Rolling Loud L.A. go on sale this Friday, Oct. 4 at 11 a.m. PST. The complete lineup and more info on this event and their other fests can be found here.

Where Do You Keep Your GRAMMY: Fantastic Negrito

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.

ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Ant Clemons

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home.

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

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