One Band, One Week: Verses From The Abstract

A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album The Low-End Theory is considered classic material for a number of reasons: the production style, the visual aesthetic [best album cover ever], the perfection of the chemistry between Q-Tip and Phife, but topping the list would have to be what the album meant to the art of the sample.  Before its release, the musical vocabulary of hip-hop was very firmly entrenched in the funk and soul of the 70’s.  There were notable exceptions before TLET [Afrika Bambaataa’s building Planet Rock around Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising using everything from The Turtles to Hall and Oates], but Tribe had grander ambitions, building a bridge between the two distinctly Black artforms of hip-hop and jazz.  Q-Tip lays out the theme explicitly in ‘Excursions,’ the album opener:

Back in the days 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.

Delivered over thudding drums and the a subtly chopped bassline from Art Blakely and The Jazz Messengers, spiced up with some Last Poets spoken word, the mission statement is clear: Tribe was out to change the game.

Every song on the record is amazing [even Skypager], but I’ve always had a special fondness for one of Q-Tip’s solo songs, ‘Verses From The Abstract.’

It’s a fairly straightforward beat.  The drums, from American jazz saxophonist Joe Farrell’s 1974 song ‘Upon This Rock,’ are the sort of gift from heaven hip-hop producers live for.

Not only is it four full bars of drums, but the staccato way they’re played are perfect for chopping and sampling.  That’s just a no-brainer.

Less obvious is the song’s other sampled component, that clean guitar strumming that runs throughout.

British funk/soul band Heatwave would have been a standard in many Black households in the 70’s and 80’s.  Not only did they have a disco hit with the song ‘Boogie Nights,’ but their ballad ‘Always and Forever,’ is in the slowjam hall of fame.  But both of those songs featured on the band’s 1976 debut.  For ‘Verses,’ Q-Tip’s ear spotted a two-bar measure of guitar back in the mix of ‘The Star of the Story,’ from Heatwave’s 1977 sophomore album.

That’s some crate digging expertise there.

The song starts with Q-Tip’s odd, almost giggly confession that he had a dream about Busta Rhymes visiting the studio they were working in, foreshadowing Busta’s later starmaking appearance on album closer ‘Scenario.’ 

The lyrics in the first verse are almost scat-like in their content, not exactly making sense, but accenting the music going around it, Tip’s vocal inflections, his timing, his cadences are as percussive as rhythmic as the beat they’re being rapped over.

I’m movin’, yes I’m groovin’ ‘cuz my mouth is on the motor,
Use the coast in the mornin’ to avoid the funky odour.
Can’t help bein’ funky, I’m the funky abstract brother
Funky in a sense, but I play the undercover.
Once had a fetish, fetish for some booty
Now I’m gettin’ funky and my rappin’, that’s my duty.

Moving to the second verse, Q-Tip takes the opportunity to offer spread some positivity to the listeners, maintaining the vocal standard he set in the first.

I must regroup my thoughts and kick the next ones for my people
Please don’t be deceived by ugly slice of evil…
The thing that men and women need to do is stick together,
Progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever.

All of this would make the song a pleasurable album track easily outshined by other songs on the album, but the presence of two guests elevate to something great:.  Vinia Mojica, a vocalist who worked closely with the Native Tongues throughout the 80’s and 90’s, lays a beautiful melody over the chorus informing listeners ‘this ain’t an RnB song’;  and legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter plays live double-bass on the song, which I think is the first time jazz and hip-hop musicians worked together on an album.  Carter reflected on the experience to Stop Smiling magazine in 2008:

“…when these guys called me about this record, I didn’t know who they were. I knew the genre, but I didn’t know them. So I asked my son who these guys were and he said they were the most musical guys in that zone. So I called the guy [Q-Tip] up and told him I’d do the record. But I told him, “Listen, you gotta stop using this cursing language with the drugs. I don’t do that, and I will be gone before you can spell the word exit.” He assured me they were talking about real issues and they’d make sure the language was okay for me. It turned out their language was much less crooked than everybody else’s. So I went in for two hours, made some tracks and came on home. I’m embarrassed to say this but I’ve never heard the record after all this time. I bought it last month and I’m going to listen to it.”

Whether Carter ever heard the record or not, an entire generation of kids got their first exposure to jazz when they heard, “my man Ron Carter on the bass.”

‘Verses,’ and TLET as a whole, inspired projects from Guru of Gang Starr’s Jazzmatazz series, to The Brand New Heavies ‘Heavy Rhyme Experience,’ and sparked a whole genre still practiced by DJs like Freddie Joachim from the Bay Area and California, and about two-thirds of most Japanese producers working today.

Tribe may have perfected the formula on Midnight Marauders, but The Low End Theory went down roads no one had thought to go down before them, leaving footprints artists are still tracking twenty years later.

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