Credentials: The Low End Theory, "Groove Is In The Heart," "Don't Curse," "A Roller Skating Jam Named "Saturdays," "Come on Down"
It had been clear from his first verses on the Jungle Brothers debut in 1988 that Q-Tip had a remarkable, unique voice, and important things to say. But two years later, on A Tribe Called Quest's admittedly awesome debut, People's Instinctive Travels And The Paths of Rhythm, the outfit's offbeat attire and quirky ("I Left My Wallet In El Segundo") to occasionally goofy ("Ham And Eggs") subject matter somewhat marginalized the acknowledgement of Tip's prowess.
That all changed in 1991, though. Stripped of the costumes and silliness, ATCQ's sober (in sound, if not in creation) sophomore effort, The Low End Theory, thrust Q-Tip to the epicenter of hip-hop. He slowed down the BPMs and introduced the jazz, funk, and soul loops that would define East Coast hip-hop until the Puffy era. He complemented these more delicate grooves with clean, loud, and exquisitely differentiated engineering courtesy of Bob Power that turned even Dr. Dre's head, who admitted years later that he competitively studied the sonics of TLET while crafting The Chronic.
As a result, Tip's jazzy samples knocked, with stiff snares and deep bass, on any speaker system. A-B test TLET against De La Soul Is Dead, or any other contemporary release, at the same volume to hear the difference. But far and away, the most impressive part of The Low End Theory was Q-Tip's rapping. Where he sat in the pocket, moving with music on the first album, Tip now used his flow to create competing, complementary rhythms. And he did it while painting thoughtful word pictures, using subtle, poetic strokes, that articulated his life and point of view as a 21-year-old emerging star.
The ground he broke lyrically and aesthetically has been built upon by everyone from Nas, conceptually and rhythmically, to Kanye West, aesthetically, to Drake, in his lower-middle class candor. Neither a tough guy nor a sucker, Q-Tip's confident delivery, genuine sentiment, and undeniable musicianship could not be denied by gangstas or ruffnecks, leading to countless guest appearances and beat placements. Universal adulation in hip-hop is practically an oxymoron, but in 1991 Q-Tip enjoyed an embrace that almost no other rapper has, before or since.
Honorable Mentions: Scarface, Treach, Dres
The Geto Boys had been Southern flag bearers for years, but in 1991 Scarface thrust himself to the front of the conversation, releasing both the GB's classic We Can't Be Stopped and his solo debut, Mr. Scarface. Songs like WCBS's defining masterpiece "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" and Mr. Scarface's title track made it abundantly clear that 'Face had more than just tough talk and gangsta tales to offer: He had concepts and stories. But yeah, he'd punch you in the fucking mouth, too.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Treach set trends with Naughty By Nature's debut. The braided MC flipped syllables at rapid fire pace and put pop polish on the jibberish Jaz-O and Jay-Z had been spitting. A style icon, Treach also set aesthetic trends, and weened hip-hop off of Kane's snappy suits to more utilitarian work wear and jerseys.
And though his acclaim would be short-lived, Astoria, Queens rapper Dres demonstrated able lyricism and a hilarious sense of humor on Black Sheep's October, '91 debut, A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing. Coming from an everyman perspective, not unlike his fellow Native Tongue-er Q-Tip, Dres made up for his lack of hardcore credentials with nimble rapping and gut-busting jokes about his (apparently) legendary swordsman status. — Noah Callahan-Bever (@N_C_B)