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?