A TRIBE CALLED QUEST Midnight Marauders (Jive)

Affiliated with De La Soul via the Native Tongues collective, by the release of this, their third album, in 1993, there was little to connect them with the Day-Glo DAISY age psychedelic hip-hop of "3 Feet High And Rising", although admittedly there was little to connect the De La Soul of the day with their debut opus either.  Harder edged it may be, but compared to the gangsta rap of the time "Midnight Marauders" is an ocean of positivity.

The album uses as a framing device a kind of electronic tour guide disseminating facts and figures between tracks, beginning with, for example, the average beats per minute encountered during the programme but widening her scope during the programme to include advice and comment presumably targeted at the band's demographic. At its best "Midnight Marauders" is very fine: "8 Million Stories" is a narrative in the vein of the band's earlier "I Left My Wallet In El Segundo",  and "Sucka Nigga" builds a linguistics lesson on a sample from Freddie Hubbard's marvellous "Red Clay". However, much of the album seems repetitive, invariant in pace and tone, and the self-referential braggadocio becomes wearing.

Overall, then. "Midnight Marauders" wasn't the revelation others seem to hear it as, an impression compounded by an indifferent vinyl pressing that suffers from longish sides and unspectacular sonics ; maybe my ears just need more acclimatisation.

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST The Low End Theory (Jive)

A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, originally released in 1991, thrums throughout with the rich, resonant hum of sampled acoustic bass. However, the one track that conspicuously swings more than any other, “Verses From The Abstract”, features the real thing, provided by real live jazz bassist Ron Carter, famed for his work with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock amongst many others. His appearance was conditional on the record avoiding profanity, which might explain the occasional blasts of dead air that cauterise the MCs’ flows on occasion, almost as if you’re inadvertently listening to the clean version of the album.

Sourced from jazz samples (of which there are a plethora, plundered from the catalogues of Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Grant Green, Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard and Eric Dolphy, among many others) , alongside the more expected soul and funk steals, “The Low End Theory” is a key text in the jazz rap subgenre. There’s no gangsta braggadocio here: instead, subject matter includes the music business, teenage reminiscences, inner city life, interpersonal relationships and contemporary beauty standards. And it’s a rare tune that expresses concern as to whether the listener’s replay equipment is of sufficient quality to appreciate it, as “Jazz (We’ve Got)” does.

Even so, for all its style-splicing innovation, “The Low End Theory” begins to get a bit repetitive before being hauled into another groove entirely towards its conclusion. “Skypager” is perhaps the album’s highlight, an unintentionally hilarious paean to a primitive item of personal telecommunication item equipment that suggests the Tribe would happily devote a whole album to the joy of text messaging. It’s as different and distinctive as the tongue-twisting verbal dexterity of “What?” and the thunderous closer “Scenario”, with its Hendrix sample, gang vocals and a Busta Rhymes guest spot in which the bear-voiced rapper bounds gruffly from the speakers, considerably larger than life. If only the entire album were as forceful and varied.

The current vinyl incarnation of “The Low End Theory” generously spreads the album across two discs, consequently sounding much better than follow-up “Midnight Marauders” does when squished onto one. However, the generally sloppy standards of hip hop vinyl pressings conspire against it, with high (unintentional, presumably) levels of surface noise and conspicuous end of side distortion.