Band: A Tribe Called Quest
Album: The Low End Theory
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Like De La Soul before them, Tribe made smart, literate hip hop that took a lot from jazz. While gangster rap was gaining steam, Tribe was rhyming about stuff like the music industry ("Rap Promoter" and "Show Business"), violence in music ("Vibes And Stuff") and regular hip hop stuff ("Check the Rhime").
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd be lying if I didn't say it sounded a little dated. Q-Tip's rhyming cadence has changed a great deal, Id say, to its benefit. The beats are sparser than your average hip hop song from 2007.
Best song: "Scenario" not only is an awesome Tribe song, it also has the star-making guest rap by none other than Busta Rhymes.
Worst song: "Skypage" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes.
Part of my vision of early '90s New York is painted by groups like Tribe. I imagine a group of young teenagers gathered around a big boom box while they freestyle good-natured (always good-natured) battle raps against one another, always in the spirit of competition.
"Scenario" is the soundtrack, basically.
I don't know if there are a lot of rap listeners who listen to Tribe. I used to work with a large black man who had grown up in a housing project and he said Tribe made music for white kids. I don't know that what he said was wrong; I'm not black. I really enjoy Tribe, but they don't seem to fit into the template N.W.A. had been creating during the same time period.
Our good friend Wikipedia says record "established alternative rap as a definable genre, distinguished by aware, often abstract or political lyrics, and a light-hearted sense of humor, along with jazz and other unusual sampling sources." I'll be honest, I've not heard music of the term "alternative rap" music, but I was 10 in 1991, when it came out.
Nevertheless, the bass lines are jazzier and define the album, basically. Relying more on jazz than funk, "The Low End Theory" sounds like a something you could hear the Roots do (though, the Roots don't sample, but rather do their own music). Q-Tip even calls music "cyclical" in the opening track, comparing jazz to rap:
You could find the abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don't you know that things go in cycles
The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin like Michael
"Buggin' Out" has easy rhythms and some great flow from Q-Tip (as I crack the, monotone/Children of the jazz so, get your own/Smokin R&B cause they try to do me"). The organ on "Butter" makes the song sound romantic, with Phife name-dropping Heavy D's "I Need Somebody." "Scenario" has been called the best posse rap song ever and I'd say it's close. Busta Rhymes' final verse is fantastic and more than makes up for Q-Tip's relative absence from the song.
Yes, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip's cadences sound really dated (and similar to one another). Yes, they dressed really stupid. Still, it's a great record and, lyrically, influence countless backpack hip hoppers.