The Low End Theory vs. Midnight Marauders

Similar to all other music genres, hip-hop is filled with decades of groundbreaking artists and their associated work, which subsequently leads to entertaining discussions among the… (I’ll say it)… fanboys. Typical common debates on the surface include “Who is the better producer, DJ Premier or Pete Rock?”, or “Which Wu-Tang Clan member is the most skilled emcee?” If you dig a little deeper, you encounter more nerdy questions like “Which three New York natives would make an appropriate ‘Crooklyn’ sequel?”, or “What is the greatest song to ever sample James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’?”, or “What did Ras Kass mean in 1996 when he said two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left?” Okay, I’ll stop now.

With that said, my fanboy question of the minute is: Which classic album by A Tribe Called Quest was better, The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders?  This debate has been exhausted by fanatics everywhere, so I might as well add two cents to the piggy bank. 

Some of you may think, “Screw that, the best ATCQ album was their debut work People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm!” While there is good merit to this, it appears the general consensus is that ATCQ’s two greatest releases were Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Ever since I heard both albums back in the 90’s, I have always been conflicted on which one I liked better, so this past week I randomly decided to end this ongoing internal debate once and for all by conducting a random listening test.

How the listening test worked: On my way driving from Fresno to Los Angeles (a 3.5 hour drive, plenty of time to conduct this), I began my road trip by popping in my Low End Theory CD and listening to it from beginning to end. After I finished with the album, I “washed out” my ears by opening all four windows of my car so that I could hear nothing but boring, screeching wind for 10 minutes. After that, I closed the windows and then listened to my Midnight Marauders CD from beginning to end. Here are my thoughts on each individual album as I was listening to them in the car, followed by conclusions at the end.

The Low End Theory (1991)
This was the sophomore effort by A Tribe Called Quest, following their classic debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. To follow-up a critically acclaimed debut with a just-as-classic sequel is never easy, and even the most respected hip-hop artists have failed in trying (see Jay-Z, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, the list goes on). So what did ATCQ do in order to top their first classic? They turned a complete 180 on their style, which was certainly a risky thing to do. What made Low End Theory different from its predecessor was its much darker feel. From a lyrical standpoint, a lot of songs focused on personal struggles dealing with the music industry, relationship problems, and questioning society as a whole. You could tell that emcees Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were a lot more motivated and felt they had something to prove despite their newfound success. A partial contributing factor to this state of mind may have been fourth member Jarobi leaving the team before the album’s creation. Not to mention, Phife had been battling with a new diagnosis of diabetes, yet nonetheless fought through to make his most forceful presence ever.

Regardless of what sparked their drive to step it up several notches, this album conveyed a lot more emotion compared to their debut. From a beat perspective, most of producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s backdrops were heavily jazz-inspired and bass-driven (“Check the Rhime”, “Buggin’ Out”) as opposed to the happy, funky feel of the first album; it also didn’t hurt to have legendary bassist Ron Carter laced over a track (“Verses from the Abstract”). Ultimately, this album helped pave the way for future jazz-inspired works by The Roots and Digable Planets. Also, “Scenario” remains one of the greatest posse cuts ever, with a show-stealing, earth-shattering, breakout verse by a young and hungry Busta Rhymes (so much that Eminem incorporated the first 4 bars during a surprise performance at the BET Music Awards; it must be flattering to have mega stars paying homage to your work).

A Tribe Called Quest – “Jazz / Buggin’ Out” (from The Low End Theory album)


Midnight Marauders (1993)
A Tribe Called Quest struck gold with their first and second album, both deemed instant classics. To have a third straight classic album is like winning the Super Bowl three years in a row; it’s possible but statistically very low. Nonetheless, ATCQ pulled off the hat trick with Midnight Marauders. Not to anyone’s surprise, they still remained humble. Just look at the album cover, which features dozens of hip-hop artists who had absolutely nothing to do with the album, but are merely on the cover because ATCQ respected them.

While this third effort contained a few dark bass-driven elements from Low End Theory, it was a much more positive album. Quite an upbeat album, I might add. Actually, some of the songs are even danceable. Case in point, during my brother Milin’s wedding, the DJ mixed in “Award Tour” and people filled up the dance floor. It seemed like ATCQ was more content during this time period. Everyone respected them by this time, and it was time to celebrate; their lyrics definitely didn’t sound as angry and bitter. From a beat standpoint, the melodies were more smooth and rhodes-based. I was particularly intrigued by the 3-bar style of sample-looping used in “Electric Relaxation” and “Lyrics to Go” (the latter which samples my favorite Minnie Riperton song ever, two thumbs up for that). This 3-bar style of looping is very uncommonly used in most modern songs regardless of genre. Speaking of “Electric Relaxation”, what a timeless song it is; shame on Lupe Fiasco for stumbling over the words while attempting to perform it at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors show. Anyways, I like to think of this album as ATCQ’s version of Outkast’s Aquemini. That is, in hindsight “Midnight Marauders” can be viewed as a transition point between ATCQ’s dark bass-driven style from Low End Theory and the smooth Soulquarian style that would heavily influence their fourth album Beats, Rhymes and Life.

A Tribe Called Quest – “Award Tour” (from Midnight Marauders album)

Surprisingly, after the one-on-one listening test, my personal decision was clear: Low End Theory is better than Midnight Marauders. Before going further, these two albums both remain in my Top 50 list (oooooh how special), so I don’t mean to take anything away from Midnight Marauders. With that said, Low End Theory is clearly more groundbreaking and spurred by the motivation to continuously improve, to lash out at all frustrations and personal struggles, to embrace the raw organic feel of jazz music, and at the very least, to avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx. Key things remain unique to this album, including Phife’s emergence from Q-Tip’s shadow, one of the greatest posse cuts in “Scenario”, the obvious classic “Check the Rhime”, and the drive behind creating an album completely different from what earned them respect in the first place. In contrast, Midnight Marauders seems to be spurred by the motivation to keep the high quality ball rolling, to generate feel-good songs, to embrace a smooth rhodes-driven style, and at the very least, to commit a rare feat of making a third straight classic album.

I’m not sure what took me so many years to decide which was the better album. Actually, I think I know what the problem was. Although Low End Theory edges out Midnight Marauders in terms of being the better album, I’ve always listened to Midnight Marauders more on a regular basis. Then again, I probably listen to Midnight Marauders more because it’s easier on the ears and much more easy going, which often complements my baseline state of mind. While I can listen to any Midnight Marauders song in the background while compulsively organizing my hard drive, I have to be in the right mood to listen to Low End Theory…. you know, that mood that makes me want to pay attention to every detail of the song even if I’m in the middle of doing my taxes. While I don’t listen to Low End Theory as often, it’s a far more accomplished album and leaves a slightly more ingrained mark in the traditional hip-hop listener’s soul. For example, as much as “Electric Relaxation” is one of ATCQ’s most cherished classics ever, you can’t really deny that “Check the Rhime” and “Scenario” hold a little more weight as far as game-changing classics go.

Some of you might think neither Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders is A Tribe Called Quest’s best album. For me, the best ATCQ albums rank as follows:

1) The Low End Theory (1991)
2) Midnight Marauders (1993)
3) People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)
4) Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)
5) The Love Movement (1998)

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Maybe I’ll do another listening test on my drive back to Fresno: Which Vanilla Ice album is better, To The Extreme or Mind Blowin?

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24 Responses to The Low End Theory vs. Midnight Marauders

  1. DJIA says:

    The Low End Theory is sooo good…. damn man… not a single bad track. Easily their best album.

  2. Jo-Sue Next Rapper says:

    The Low End Theory didn’t have one bad song. Midnight Marauders had a couple. But it doesn’t matter thier both classic and both by ATCQ

    • jesse says:

      midnight had a COUPLE bad songs??? are you kidding? please enlighten me…

      sure there are some songs that aren’t as good as others, but to say that ANY song on that album is “bad” is just ludicrous.

      • timbo says:

        lol i didn’t think there was a bad song on Midnight Marauders either. maybe some not as powerful as others. for example “8 million stories” is fine but not as good as “electric relaxation”, but there wasn’t necessarly any bad songs. of course everyone has their own opinions, so i’d be curious to know what songs people think are actually bad

  3. Kartik says:

    Dear Mr. Precise,

    I purchased a CD from your old PayPal store [link is in my name], however I’m unsure that the site is current. Will I get the CD in the mail?

    Thanks, and I wish you and all the crew the very best.

    • Markis Precise says:

      Kartik, much apologies for any inconvenience. The product you ordered has been sold out for a while now, so I’ll make sure you receive a full refund. I’ll also e-mail you a link to a ZIP file containing the album you purchased, as well as the follow-up album to that.

      • Kartik says:

        Ah, I see. Thanks very much Markis. I appreciate it a lot. Not surprised it’s sold out. All CDs are fire! Wish you and all the crew the very best. It’s surely some of the most intelligent, intricate, and meaningful music I’ve heard in my life. Peace.

      • Claudine says:

        Every time I hear phonte I wdoenr why LB never blew up like they shouldve blew up. It’s not like I mess with LA radio that much but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a LB track anywhere but online. BTW I think I saw a post on 2dopeboyz or nah right today about a new big pooh mixtape. It had a naked chick on the drop so I skipped over it lol but I’m pretty sure I saw something about big pooh

        • illadelphia says:

          phonte is one of the greatest emcees of all time. i think LB had success in their own right. phonte still making successful music and featured on big artists (like the roots), 9th wonder still making bangers for big artists too, big pooh also still doing his thing

  4. illadelphia says:

    great article, very good points but i must say i think midnight marauders barely edges out low end theory. for sheer difficulty it would have been tough for MM to be deemed as another classic and for tribe to have pulled it off really puts MM in a special place especially given they still managed to take their music in a different direction. lyrics to go? electric relaxation? the method they were sampled was crazy and i dont even know if anything had been done like that before. both albums are incredible though and just one of the reasons they are my fav group of all time!

  5. Ortiz says:

    Low End Theory is definitely my pick. Midnight Marauders is definitely a classic too but Low End Theory was released at a time when I just started listening to hip hop and had too many classic tracks..Buggin’ Out, Scenario, Jazz..the whole album basically. Nice read Markis.

  6. DH says:

    Great writing. Great depth and reason. I agree 100%. lyrically, TLET is far better. MM was epic. It not only did great for Tribe, but brought similar tracks that today can be viewed as contenders on a track to track basis. meaning, (imo) for example, one can say “Check the Rhime” would be hard to beat if it went against “Oh My God” on an individual track basis beacuse those tunes both have the same inspirational jazz, smooth flow. same can be said on “Bugging Out” Vs. “Award Tour”. both seem to be the heavy beat-jump tracks of the albums. Again, both classics and putting track vs track individually could put out MM a champion. But as an album whole (flow wise from start to finish, history and transition as you mentioned) TLET wins. what I would like to see is this writing also for Digible Planets (between Reachin and Blowout). those albums were 1 year apart so should be an interesting contrast to break down. OR if not Digiable, do one for Common “One day it will all make sense” VS. “Like water for choclate” since none of his albums following Like Water can stand a chance against anything he did on that album or before it.

  7. Ultraman says:

    low end theory! groundbreaking. a classic sophomore effort, arguably eclipsing the 1st effort, esp. in content and tightness of theme(s). like derelicts of dialect by 3rd bass, it takes a nation of millions to hold us back, and ATLiens.

  8. Augustin says:

    Nice job Markis. Your assessment about Midnight Marauders being easier on the ear is probably the exact reason why I think Midnight Marauders is better. Can you do the same test on Cuban Linx vs Liquid Swords? That’s my internal conflict haha

  9. Rizo says:

    for me this has never been a question…. always been low end theory. but nice writing, you should submit it to a magazine… oh never mind, its too intelligent for them

  10. Eddie says:

    very well written piece about 2 of my favorite albums. keep doing what you are doing, hope to see more posts like this.

  11. BRL says:

    Beats Rhymes and Life. Not their greatest, but highly underrated.

  12. nikey says:

    THIS is a good post. In my opinion, Midnight Marauders gets the slight edge.

  13. louis says:

    I love the way you compared the two albums. I hope you intend to write more of these types of articles. I suggest Liquid Swords vs. Cuban Linx.

  14. Treyz says:

    Glad to see articles like this which respect history.

  15. Monster says:

    i disagree, people’s instinctive travels and the paths of the rhythm tops both low end theory and midnight maurauders

  16. J-Man says:

    i didn’t grow up in the 90s. the only way i found out about tribe called quest was when i heard electric relaxation as an intro song of the wayans show. i had to google “wayans brothers intro song” which led me to tribe called quest, when then led me to listening to midnight mauraders, when then led me to listening to low end theory. these 2 albums are my fave tribe albums so i definitely enjoyed this post. midnight tops in my book though lol

  17. Sir Chuck says:

    awesome piece. midnight marauders is my number one. i listen to beats rhymes and life the most, but i think it just reminds me of a good period in my life or something like that

  18. Avelina says:

    I was gonna say… I always liked Low End Theory the best