#153: A Tribe Called Quest, "The Low End Theory" (1991)

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In the summer of 2011, amid a public feud between A Tribe Called Quest’s leader, Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed, and the group’s documentarian, Michael Rappaport, I attended a festival screening of the film at the heart of the beef. I didn’t know Malik “Phife” Taylor, the group’s other lyricist, would be there, but I knew he’d picked a side, and that side was Rappaport’s.

Once I saw the film it was easy to see why. Unlike Tribe’s discography, which can at times feel like The Q-Tip Show featuring Other People, Rappaport’s crisp, cool-looking Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest grants equal time to both Q-Tip and Phife, positioning the two often-dueling childhood friends as a point/counterpoint for the group’s rise through the hip-hop 2.0 era of the late eighties and nineties. On one side: Tip’s controlled, not-inaccurate, I-willed-this-to-be take. On the other? Phife’s loose, who-knows-how anything-happens version, which is riddled with curious contradictions and counterfactuals. Of the two, Phife revels most in being heard. Where Tip is eager to show the careful, sonic building blocks of tracks like “Can I Kick It?” and “Lyrics to Go,” Phife wants it known that he wrote his now-classic verses for the now-classic album The Low End Theory while riding the F train, late to that day’s recording session. Tip positions himself as a slave to perfection (no one disagrees), leading the genre into artful, “lofty” territory. Phife confesses at one point, unconvincingly, that he could “do with or without” hip-hop, happy in his second career as a youth basketball recruiter. At a Rock the Bells reunion show in 2008, Tip rips his partner on stage for questionable maintenance of a diabetic condition that will, in eight years, claim Phife’s life. Months later, he wishes Phife private support, via text, before a high stakes kidney transplant. It goes on like this for the whole runtime: two lifelong friends oscillating between trolling one another then deeply regretting it.

But Phife’s the clear emotional core of the film, his touching, sometimes infuriating vulnerabilities on display, and he was, upon the film’s release, happy to indulge that result. He was the only one. By the time I saw it, Q-Tip had already teamed up with groupmates Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White to disavow the effort and publicly slam Rappaport’s billing practices. Phife showed up alone to the Sundance premiere then broke down in tears about the rift, maybe for an audience of one. “We’re 40 now,” he said, “and it’s time for [Q-Tip] to realize, recognize, and enjoy the benefits of what we worked for our whole lives.”

Five months into this entrenched friendship conundrum, the Q&A portion of my summer 2011 festival screening kicked off. Phife was composed onstage next to a shifting Rappaport. He was quick-witted and fair with the crowd, a flat-brim Orioles cap shadowing his eyes. Minutes in, the mic fell to a lanky guy in his early twenties, someone too young to have followed Tribe’s success in real time like I and half the audience had; who’d likely come to his fandom through an older brother’s trickle-down enthusiasm, or something like it. “Can you tell me,” he said, fueled with the tiring overconfidence of youth, “why everything Q-Tip does now is so goddamn wack?”

The crowd booed. We knew the pettiness he was after and moved to shoo it away. But Phife took that question seriously, and evaluated his old friend’s post-Tribe work. He liked Amplified, he said, Tip’s first solo album, then said the same about the efforts that followed. He rapped a bit of “Vivrant Thing,” easing a complex moment for everyone.

“You have to understand,” he said to the kid, “that’s my man.”

Phife sounded firm when he said it, but also sad and futile. What could someone this young know about how strangely our longest friendships can age? How could he know what it meant to maintain this stubborn, peculiar alchemy for so long? Phife could only put his hands up to this kid, then to us, surrendering to a sideways, pained allegiance to an old, busted kind of friendship that I’ve only now started to understand.

The Low End Theory is A Tribe Called Quest’s best album—you can either agree with this statement or be wrong—due to the blueprint it lays out for friendship at peak harmony. Tip and Phife share such a sharp, easy rhythm throughout. They tout their friendship’s history and bind their enthusiasms. They’re smart. They’re funny. They’re dicks. They have quippy verses about Skypagers and Chemical Bank and Dr. Pepper. They share in-jokes and insights, a hidden twin language for the young adulthood I was barreling toward when I bought it in 1991. It came in a CD longbox and my eighth grade friends and I enjoyed the album communally, as it seemed meant to be enjoyed. We asked each other you on point? and they assured us, yes, they were, all the time. Low End felt, also, like a careful argument for the strength of a good, loyal crew. Almost the whole last minute of “Jazz (We Got)” is a roll call for various interweaving, friendly factions of hip-hop. Q-Tip spends half of the four minute runtime on “Verses from The Abstract” detailing how Busta Rhymes appears in his dreams, or shouting out compatriots like Brand Nubian, and Big Daddy Kane, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and fourteen other people—among them, of course, Phife (twice). “Scenario,” Tribe’s entry in the “early 90’s cross-pollinated super crew track” category is also that category’s all-time best example (again, agree or be wrong) because it plays like an audio version of the very moment an evening with close friends slips into the sublime, shifting the weight of the air, transforming it into a lasting, joyful memory.

What does it mean, then, that The Low End Theory’s prime friendship architects fell so loudly out of favor with one another, for so long? Their brief reunion shortly before Phife’s death in 2016 to make We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service came a half-decade after Michael Rappaport aired Tribe’s dirty laundry. The album is fantastic, but its function as a side-door eulogy sadly clouds any true attempt to articulate what may have fed the rift. Tip’s admission on “Lost Somebody” that “I would treat you like a little brother that would give you fits / Sometimes overbearing though I thought it was for your benefit,” feels at once too effacing and too eager, a regret couched lightly in a defense. Phife, in that 2011 documentary, gives it his best shot. “I can’t ever put a finger on Q-Tip even though we’ve known each other longer than anybody in this world outside of our respective families,” he says to start the film, and Rappaport comes back to that quote at the end of the film, seeming stuck on the idea, repeating it—perhaps frustrated, after so long, with its stunning resistance to clarity.

I’m 40 now, too, and too many of my longest, closest friendships have grown inexplicably toxic, lodged, like Phife’s and Tip’s was, between acrimony and allegiance. I still have strong, healthy friendships that stretch back to my teen years and before, and I’m thankful for them daily. But there is also my close friend from childhood who, during an otherwise pleasant text exchange in our early thirties, threatened to punch my teeth down my throat if he ever saw me again. And there’s my other old, good friend who, a few years back, invited me out for a night of overdue catch-up then confronted me, in a way that seemed planned, about how cruel I’d always been to him and his family. I discovered recently that the best man at my wedding thirteen years ago got married a few years back and, to this day, has not told me.

To be fair, I’ve blocked and trolled and cut off good friends from my youth, too. I’ve hurt people I care about. I’ve done callous things with longtime allegiances. I’m aware of my contributions and the bruised, idiot logic that led me to make them. But I’m no longer interested in the unsolvable, useless debate of who may be at fault in a toxic relationship. What about the toxicity itself? It feels so independent, hovering in the space between my most volatile friendships, especially my oldest ones; this half-formed, poisonous thing that begs for an old friend and I to link up so that it can activate then punish us both. How to describe it? I feel so incapable in the grips of that toxicity, pulled—against my deepest wishes—towards hurtful impulses. Whatever destroys that person is the only thing I can do, and I feel that same, reticent pull toward destruction from the other side. We become two people succumbing to the same terrible social gravity, apologizing and meaning it while, for no reason, we watch ourselves slowly, painfully brand one another. What’s the point, in the face of that smothering force, of determining who did what?

Instead, I’ve been wondering about the evolution of that kind of toxicity, and what might keep us so obedient to the concept of our friendship, despite very apparent failures. Three years after he made the threat to knock my teeth out, my friend and I apologized and reconciled (again, through text, where our conversations have stayed since). For a while, I thought it might be a result of stale loyalty. Time put in. But that feels easy, too bound by cliché. Our friendship did, at one time, work extremely well. It taught me how to take life less seriously and draw strong bounds; how to smoke cigarettes and play spades; that it was OK to be cynical. My friendship with the old friend who confronted me about my cruelty taught me, ironically, a functional, real-world kindness; that I could, at times, trade my cynicism for generosity and get a better result. My best man at my wedding helped me, while young, to believe I had more worth than my harshest family entanglements led me to believe, and I hope at many points I did the same for him. There was, believe me, a good intoxication to these friendships then, a natural call and response that enriched us both. You on point? All the time.

And yet, consider the degree of difficulty for old friends like Q-Tip and Phife, for whom that era of good intoxication was recorded. The Low End Theory is, in this way, a bittersweet case study in it, forged on vinyl and burned onto a CD in 1991 that was put in a longbox and sold, at National Record Mart, to an eighth grader. It got ranked on best-of lists and turned into mp3s. You can dial it up and stream it with a good connection.

I suspect, for them, the hard evidence of that once-good time falsely advertised the possibility of returning to it. I wonder if Q-Tip and Phife kept spiraling, horribly, in their broken rotation year after year because an effort as good as The Low End Theory tricked them, cruelly, into thinking some grand relationship reversal was possible. Unlike mine, their friendship lacked the lone benefit of an evolving toxicity: a clear-eyed view of what it’s become. They lacked the luxury of the present truly replacing the past; of getting sad, remorseful texts from someone who once threatened to assault you and deciding, without malice or love, to wait days to respond tepidly, if at all. I suspect neither Tip nor Phife knew the privilege of dialing up the Facebook page of someone they once knew as generous and ruled by an infectious kindness, only to see a stream of Blue Lives Matter memes and James O’Keefe videos, or vlog posts recorded by angry men in their parked cars, railing about women. There is a seismic, private clarity to these moments that Kamaal and Malik’s widely recorded past may have denied them access to. Maybe they never got to understand, in any pure way, what I am beginning to understand now: that when the best man in your wedding declines to inform you about his, there is no good era in that friendship to return to. You are both here now, and only here.

—Mike Scalise