Ten Most Influential Albums: The Low End Theory

This is post #3 in a 10-post series.  If you missed the first two posts and would like to read them, here they are:

Thriller

He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper

Did you read them?  Yes?  Good.

At this point it’s about 1989.  I’m listening to any hip hop I can get my hands on, which is not much because it wasn’t easy.  The obvious reason is that I was 13 years old and didn’t have a job.  The internet didn’t exist.  When the one local radio station that wasn’t playing classic rock 24/7 took a break from hair bands they didn’t stray far from Fresh Prince, Young MC, and Tone Loc.  My band camp friends got me in to LL Cool J, Kid N Play, Public Enemy, among others.  It must’ve been strange seeing a 13-year-old white kid reciting lyrics like, “Every brother ain’t a brother ‘cause a black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man…”  On the complete opposite end of the hip hop spectrum, my band camp crew also turned me on to a rapper from Oakland by the name of MC Hammer.  This was pre-“U Can’t Touch This” Hammer, so I felt pretty cool when he blew up and became a household name because I could be like, “Oh, MC Hammer?  Yeah, I’ve been listening to him for a while.”  I was rocking “Turn This Mutha Out” long before anyone I knew heard of him.  Except Joy Pochron.  She knew her shit, too.

One memory I’ll never forget from that time was getting to DJ our junior high dances with my guy Ben Andre.  Between the two of us we had the equipment and enough popular music to entertain everyone for 2-3 hours.  Ben had the rock covered and I had the hip hop/R&B covered.  We were a good team.  To DJ those dances I was buying tapes that were equivalent to the current Now That’s What I Call Music compilations.  MTV started putting out the Party To Go compilations that were great for parties/dances because the music was already mixed together so you just pressed play and let it go.  I loved those CDs.  I wonder if I can find them now…  Anyway, I had another tape that was the most random mix of current rap music you could possibly imagine.  No idea where I got it or why, but the only two songs I remember on it were “We Want Eazy” by Eazy-E and “Me, Myself, and I” by De La Soul.

De La caught my attention immediately.  They weren’t trying to act hard.  They weren’t wearing the usual gold chains and Adidas track suits.  They were bohemian rappers and on top of it, they were funny.  They wore bright colored clothes and called sex “buddy”.  They sampled Hall & Oates and Schoolhouse Rock.  I was the white dude who felt like I didn’t relate to my surroundings and they seemed like rappers who didn’t relate to their surroundings either.  I felt a kinship with them.  I got their debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” and it was a cool alternative to the Fresh Prince and MC Hammer, but never unseated them at the top of my rotation.

De La’s amazing follow-up, De La Soul is Dead, came out at the end of my freshman year in 1991.  Of all the difficult omissions from my 10 Most Influential Albums list, leaving De La Soul is Dead off the list was probably the most difficult.  If the list was 11 albums, that would be the 11th.  Here’s why I didn’t choose it: That album didn’t completely click with me until I was a bit older.  I just wasn’t ready for it.  De La Soul is Dead is a masterpiece and an album I still go back to frequently almost 30 years later.  At the time I wasn’t ready to appreciate the samples, lyrical content, and humor in it like I was just a few years later.  Don’t get me wrong, I played the hell out of songs like “Bitties in the BK Lounge”, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa”, and especially “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturday”.  I loved the album, but it took me years to fully appreciate it.

Quick tangent: If you want a brilliant, heavy piece of music and songwriting that you’ve likely never heard of, much less listened to, I can’t recommend “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” highly enough.  The name sounds silly, but it’s the complete opposite.  I’ll leave the tease there and hope that you’re intrigued enough to seek it out.  I even linked it, so just click on it and listen.  You won’t regret it.

Shortly after discovering De La Soul, that led me to seek out their Native Tongue brothers and frequent collaborators, A Tribe Called Quest.  I had heard a song or two from Tribe’s debut album, but nothing really moved me.  Seriously, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and “Bonita Applebum” are amazing, but they’re…unique.  For a kid who was more concerned about trying to find jams to play at the next school dance, Tribe’s first album didn’t work.

In early-1992 my brother arrived for a weekend home from college and dropped two CDs in front of me and said, “You’ve gotta listen to this.”  It surprised me that one of them was A Tribe Called Quest.  I’ve heard those dudes before.  They’re weird as hell.  I wasn’t really interested.  But, it was a new hip hop CD to listen to, and if I trust anyone’s advice when it comes to music it would be my brother’s.  So, I removed Tribe’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, from the case and inserted it in to the CD tray.  I was treated to “Excursions” and one of the all-time epic opening verses in the history of hip hop.

Back in the day when I was a teenager
before I had status and before I had a pager
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 that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael.’
It’s all expected, things are for the looking
If you got the money Quest is for the booking

Holy shit.

Just an MC and a bass line.  “Excursions” was followed by a streak of hip hop perfection rarely achieved before or since.  29 years later I still challenge anyone to find an album that’s as close to perfect from the opening note all the way until the end like Low End is.  It’s the ideal album for vinyl heads or “album listeners” like me because you just drop the needle and let it play.  No skipping around necessary because every track is essential.  By the end of the fourth track, “Butter”, I knew that everything else I had been listening to up to that point had been silly.  MC Hammer and LL Cool J didn’t sound the same anymore.  This was…heady?  Intellectual?  It’s not really fair to label Tribe as intellectual because I feel like that term implies that the music is serious and less enjoyable.  Couldn’t be less true.  If there’s a hip hop venn diagram somewhere with one circle labeled “fun” and the other circle labeled “smart” Tribe sits in the overlap with few peers.  Like De La, they prove that being fun and making smart music aren’t mutually exclusive.

Speaking of music, Low End sounded completely different from the hip hop I was used to at that time.  The drum machines and scratching were absent.  Replaced by jazz samples, complicated bass lines, and stripped down production.  More melodic.  Warmer.  In my opinion, they took the brilliance of De La Soul is dead, stripped it down, and perfected it.  Ultimately, I had to choose Low End as one of my biggest influences because as soon as I heard it my hip hop CD collection was reset.  I had little use for anything I owned before that didn’t sound like it.  Tribe didn’t completely kill Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, MC Hammer, and Kid N Play for me.  They just made them obsolete.  In fact, on “Check the Rhime” Tribe disses MC Hammer and it wasn’t quite the conflict for me one might’ve assumed at that time.  I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yeah, Hammer’s wack.  I get it.”  I still had love for him.

One more note: I mentioned above that my brother dropped two CDs in front of me that weekend.  Low End Theory was one of them.  Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head was the other.  I had a similar initial reaction to that one.  “The white boys who sang ‘Fight For Your Right to Party’?  No, I’m good.  Don’t need to hear it.”  Wrong again.  Paul’s Boutique got no radio airplay in Green Bay and I rarely got to watch MTV, so as far as I knew Beastie Boys had fallen off the face of the Earth.  Check Your Head was a revelation.  The lesson: Listen to Andy when he recommends music.  He brought two certified classics home with him that weekend.

I’ll end this post now and tease the next post by saying that album #4 on the list was actually released a few months before Low End.  It just took me longer to find it.  The next album was my gateway to a genre that is still a guilty pleasure of mine: 90s R&B.

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