BY CARL JACOBSON
|On the 20th anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low
End Theory, the legendary producer/engineer reminisces
about recording the landmark hip-hop album|
Twenty years ago, rapper/producer Q-Tip, DJ/
producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and rapper
Phife Dawg, collectively known as A Tribe Called
Quest, returned from the studio with The Low End
, a watershed album that ushered in a new
era of hip-hop. Sounding fresh even today, the
record has gone on to earn “top albums of all time”
recognition from no less than Rolling Stone
, The Source
, Pitchfork Media
, the All
, and countless artists. The group is also
now the subject of a new documentary film directed
by Michael Rapaport entitled Beats
, Rhymes & Life:
The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
. With rekindled
interest in the group on the 20th anniversary of this
groundbreaking recording, what better time to dig
deeper into the making of The Low End Theory?
This summer I had the pleasure of interviewing
Bob Power, who engineered this landmark album.
Power has produced, recorded, and mixed thousands
of recordings (including numerous Grammy
winners) for the likes of Erykah Badu, D’Angelo,
India.Arie, Ozomatli, Common, Miles Davis, The
Roots, Macy Gray, Curtis Mayfield, David Byrne, and
Citizen Cope. He’s also now a faculty member at the
Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York
University, but in 1991, he was a young man engineering
one of the most influential albums of all time.
How did you come to work with A Tribe
In the later half of the ’80s, this new wave of hiphop,
The Native Tongues, started coming through
the studio—De La Soul, Black Sheep, the Jungle
Brothers—and in 1989, Tribe Called Quest came in,
with another engineer, Shane Faber, to make their
first record, People’s Instinctive Travels. We all got
along really well, and I ended up splitting that first
record with him. I then went on to do four records
|A Tribe Called Quest (left to right)—Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.|
What’s so special about The Low End Theory?
The Low End Theory was an interesting record;
in a way, it was The Sgt. Pepper’s of hip-hop. It’s a
record that changed the way that people thought
about putting music together. I’m not a big hiphop
historian; I just know the stuff that I worked
on. Until that point, when people used samples
on records, it was pretty much one loop that
played throughout. With The Low End Theory,
and People’s Instinctive Travels, to a lesser extent,
Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed were at the leading edge
of a new wave where people started making
elaborate musical constructions out of samples
from different places that would not, and in many
ways, could not, have been played by regular
players. It was a big growth time for all of us. I
was learning a lot, they were learning a lot, so it
What do you mean by, “could not have been
played by regular players”?
Musicians study all their lives how to fit into a
track, stylistically and tie-wise. With elaborate
sample constructions, these sounds weren’t made
to go together in the first place, so the time feel
would be very unique to the specific combination
of samples from different records. If you told a
musician, “play this part on this track,” he would
play to the track and it wouldn’t have the “rub” of
the parts that were never meant to go together.
I used to get hired to replace guitar samples, to
replay them for copyright concerns. When I first
started doing this, I played the part to the new
track and it never sounded right. Once I started
playing to, and only listening to, the source track,
and playing with that time feel, all of a sudden it
worked. That’s probably a good tip for anyone who
has to re-record a sample.
How were these records realized in the studio?
I took a lot of pains to make sure it worked. They
would often bring in stuff sequenced on an E-MU
SP-12 or the early Macs. You couldn’t slip tracks on
the SP-12, so I’d say to them, “Let me go away for
45 minutes with this.” I’d then take it into my Atari,
running Creator (the precursor to Logic), where I
could do track slipping and slide things around until
it felt good, but not so much that it took all of the
soul out of the music.
I also spent a lot of time on The Low End Theory
taking extraneous noise out of the samples—
something I’d never do today—which is one of the
reasons why it sounds very dimensional. If you listen,
you won’t hear a lot of surface noise, crackles, or
pops. Back then, we didn’t have software that did it,
so I did all sorts of nutty things. Among other things,
I used an esoteric piece of gear called the Burwyn
Noise Eliminator, and some high-end home stereo
components that took clicks and pops out. I brought
those into the studio, got an impedance-matching
box, went through the tracks.
How about the process of the recording itself? Do
you remember how the sessions were structured,
the order that things were laid down, etc.?
That record was tracked mostly at Battery Studio
[in New York City]. In most cases, the drums and
bass would go down first, then layering in other
elements. One of the issues at that time was sample
memory. A standard Akai S-900 had, I believe,
less than two seconds of sample time—750Kb or
something. So we’d have to lay down tracks, load
up a different sample, and repeat. I mixed the
record on a Neve 8068.
The Low End Theory is noted for introducing
people to the connection between hip-hop and
jazz. Legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter played on
the song “Verses from the Abstract”; what was it
like to work with him?
Let’s start with an engineering tip: If the
musicians are good and studio-savvy, always ask
them what they do and what sounds best on their
instrument. They know how they sound best, and
if you do that, they’ll play better and make you look
very good as a recordist.
I said, “Ron, this is how I’m going to record you; is
that okay?” I was going to compress him a little with
my old Neve 2254E, but he said, “no compression.”
So I just put my old Neumann U47 on him, and he
loved it and sounded great.
Tip had a bass-line riff from a record that he
wanted Ron to play. Ron sketched it out on staff
paper and went into the booth. He started playing,
and a couple of notes weren’t right. Tip, Ali, and I
all looked at each other, and were all like, “No, you
tell him.” This is Ron Carter, after all. We were all
shaking in our boots, but I went in and said, “Ron,
look, the last 16th note, it’s an Eb, not a Bb” And he
simply said, “Okay,” and played it right.
For me, that track was a great lesson in
professional musicianship. We were worried about
Ron being a bit prickly, but discovered that he’s
really just a super-pro working musician. If the
circumstances are professional and he’s not cast
adrift . . . if you have a chart and know what you
want, he comes in, does his job, and is great.
Talk a bit about “Scenario.” That’s a hugely
influential track and might be the greatest “posse
cut” of all time.
“Scenario” was huge for A Tribe Called Quest, and as
far as I know, a real breakout track for Busta Rhymes,
formerly of Leaders of the New School.
There was electricity in the air that night. What
you hear is really what went down in the studio: all
the MCs feeding off each other, one after another.
To get the best, sonically, but also to keep the flow
going, I set up five different mics in the booth. Each
MC would come in, and I’d ask, “Say the same thing
on each one.” They’d go through the mics; I’d say,
“number 4,” and we’d cut the vocal.
Everyone did their rhyme and then Busta came
in with one of the great recorded MC performances
of all time: “Oh my God! Oh my God!” I remember
being blown away by the pure, visceral energy, and
Busta’s feature raised the bar considerably that night.
Speaking of “Scenario”: Miles Davis, Ohio
Players, Kool & the Gang, The Emotions,
Hendrix . . . so many samples. Do you think that
that record could be made today?
It could be, but I don’t know if it would be made
today. Nor would it have the same resonance. I know
you’re speaking about something different, but
records are a moment in time; you can’t re-create
that moment in time. So many different things come
together—the place, the social and musical ethic of
the times, the personalities, and also the intangibles,
like, “wow, it was a good night.” These things
generally never happen in the same way twice,
especially in different musical eras.
People have done and continue to do records like
that since then, but they don’t have the same resonance.
I wonder how much of it is that the newer record
doesn’t have universal appeal or that those sounds were
fresh and more appealing to us at the time?
Another example: People say, “Why doesn’t Stevie
Wonder make the kind of records he used to?” But
if he did, they’d say, “Oh, he’s just doing the same
thing,” and then if he changes too much, they’d say,
“That’s not as good as the old stuff.” It’s tough to call
that one. One of the wages of success.
How did The Low End Theory affect your career?
It hugely affected my career. Partially because Tip
called me out on the record a couple of times, and
there was that funny little, “Bob Power . . . you
Often, when MCs were doing takes, I wasn’t
really listening to the words; I was listening
to the music, paying attention to the console,
making sure that everything was happening
sonically and technically . . . but this time, I
was really into his rhyme he was doing, and he
goes, “Yo, my mike is sounding bug; Bob Power,
you there? Adjust the bass and treble make my
shit sound clear.” After the take I said, “You
should have me on the talkback going, ‘Yup,’ and
answering you,” and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I
meant.’ So it was a funny synchronicity.
It was also a big growth time for me as an
engineer. I took a lot of time with the sonics of that
record. I have a certain way that I go about things,
and it’s hard to explain verbally, but it’s nice
when you have a big, full low end but there’s still
definition within it. It was fortuitous that I did so
much hip-hop early on, because it forced me to get
a handle on low end, which is usually the big, final
frontier for engineers. It’s often the hardest thing
to really get together.
Is there anything different in your approach to
how you’d mix hip-hop as opposed to rock?
In hip-hop, for the most part, the bottom has to
be pretty aggressive. Although when I mix rock
stuff, it also tends to be pretty full and muscular on
the bottom. I like to mix “tall,” meaning that I like
everything to be well-represented, top to bottom.
A lot of people, especially with rock stuff, like to
work in the mid range a bit more, so that’s where my
approach is different.
You continued to work with Tribe on Midnight
Marauders and beyond; how were the later
It was clear right away that they wanted Midnight
Marauders to be a grittier album. Tip even said as
much to me. So I didn’t spend the time cleaning
samples like I did with The Low End Theory.
I think a record should be as interesting to listen
to on a purely sonic level as it is on a musical level.
On the other hand, a good record is still about a
compelling performance of a great song. I have what
I call “Power’s Laws of Production”—truthfully,
they’re neither laws nor all mine—that I use as talking
points in my classes at NYU. One is, “you need to know
when to keep the good mistakes,” and another, “every
song should have one thing that doesn’t belong there.”
One of the big things that hip-hop taught me
is that everything doesn’t have to be shiny, like a
Barbara Streisand record. Just like an outfit, you
can have different pieces of clothing that are a little
worn but have lots of character. As much as I used to
fight it, it’s usually the things that are kind of f**ked
up and not quite right sonically and/or musically, or
really funky source material, that give the record its
special and unique flavor.