Classic EM: Inside A Tribe Called Quest's 'Low End Theory'

Producer/Engineer Bob Power Reminisces on Recording the Landmark Album
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We look back inside ATCQ's The Low End Theory sessions, from Carl Jacobson's 2011 interview with producer/engineer Bob Power, back on the 20th anniversary of that landmark 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 Theory, 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, Spin, Vibe, The Source, Blender, Pitchfork Media, the All Music Guide, 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 Called Quest?
In the later half of the '80s, this new wave of hip-hop, 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 with them.

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 hip-hop 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 was fun.

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.

A Tribe Called Quest (left to right)—Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

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 there?” skit.

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 mic 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 sessions different?
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 fucked up and not quite right sonically and/or musically, or really funky source material, that give the record its special and unique flavor.