Secret History: How Bob Power Put The Low End In 'The Low End Theory'
A Tribe Called Quest’s classic album The Low End Theory turns 25 today, and Bob Power can’t help but feel like a proud mom—well doula anyway, because as the resident engineer at Calliope studios during Low End’s recording, Power was the the sonic midwife in attendance at the birth of one of hip-hop’s most enduring album statements. In fact, considering the pivotal role Power played in a whole host of rap classics–recording with not only Tribe but De La Soul, Black Sheep and Jungle Brothers–it would be tempting to say he was the ultimate fly on the wall for the Native Tongue collective’s greatest period of creativity. But that would be an understatement; Bob Power was the wall—as in wall of sound—providing the ear and technical knowledge to transmute a fertile stack of verses, samples and abstract ideas into a thumping sonic attack that felt like a coherent piece of art.
Getting the chance to hear Power reminisce over The Low End Theory—the NYU professor and Questlove Supreme co-host gave generously of his time while driving to points north—is a special kind of secret history, a journey wherein the landmarks have less to do with the dates of specific sessions or the names of who was in the studio that day, and more to do with moods, sonic signatures and level of funkiness. If you want to know about rap crews and beef, this is not the secret history you are looking for. But read on if you want to learn how the low end was put into the The Low End Theory.
OKP: How did you first link with ATCQ or what was your first awareness that you were going to be working on this project?
Bob Power: Well I had been kind of a staff engineer at a place called Calliope and lot of hip-hop crews came through our doors to do their thing. We were open, we were not stuck in the old school. You know, there was a lot of sort of unconscious racism going on in the studios at that time, so—and to be fair, not so much because there were people of color coming in but more because it was 18, 19-year old kids who dressed and talked differently than these people had ever heard before. The studios in New York were fairly integrated for a long time, so the whole jazz age–the jazz way of looking and talking–had been in effect for 30 or 40 years. And then hip hop was a new way—literally–of talking walking, dressing, speaking—so we were very open to it. I met them [Tribe] midway through the first record [People’s Instinctive Travels] and we clicked. I did a couple records off that. There was another guy, a great musician named Shane Faber who mixed a couple of the records…and we just got along. You know the guys are really great people. You know I did a lot of different stuff in the music business, you know I’ve scored TV, I did commercials, lots of different stuff and my mantra is, Make good music with good people. And both were happening here, so that’s really how it started.
It was not a drug crew, it was not a gun crew. None of that bullshit involved. The drugs and alcohol thing, it crosses every genre…I would see other bands sitting in the lounge with a bottle of gin or a 40 and their eyes going cuckoo–and it was great because I didn’t have to deal with any of that. I love to work, I love to make forward motion and make things, and the guys were super focused like that too. It was a lot of fun, too–I mean the weird news is they were 20 years younger than me, and the good news is they were 20 years younger than me. I didn’t have a social agenda with guys and that was a good thing. I think Vinia [Mojica] in one interview called me “the den mother.”
In a way I was like an architect or a construction superintendent; I was there to get the work done. And the technical challenges at that point were so huge…you know there was next to no sampling time available, there was 3/4th of a second and a second and a half. Stuff like that, and MIDI stuff—it was the wild west at that point. MIDI interfaces for computers, it was a crapshoot as to whether they were going to work or not, one manufacturer’s synch-tone didn’t talk to another one’s, so I was really concerned with, OK, I see what they’re trying to do and these are both the technical strengths and limitations of the studio…how can we bring those two worlds together. I do know that on the Low End Theory, the guys gave me a lot of room. Part of how I heard that record, which I believe is how it is, is there were elaborate reconstructions…actual, new music was coming out of combinations of samples in ways that people had never done before.
A lot of that had to do with the fact that sampling never was available, and with sequencing and with computers, even if you didn’t have enough memory, say for example for a whole phrase? You could sample the first half then the second half, you know, stuff like that. I had the idea at that time that there were specific musical elements inside of each sample that were what they really meant to be the construction set of the music. So for example if there was a sample with a Rhodes on it, a Fender Rhodes part in it, and I’m like, OK is the important thing the Rhodes? And they’d say, Yeah, so I would try to filter out the other stuff—the kind of things I’d never do now because I love the flavor of all the parts rubbing together.
At that point I was in a really big learning phase as an engineer and I sort of grabbed on to the really remarkable musical ideas that they had, and still you know you listen to that record and it’s like, wow all this stuff works together from all these different places. So I was totally fascinated by that and I spent—they allowed me, you know they didn’t give me a hard time about that—I spent a lot of time sort of cleaning things up to make sure they worked together. Again something that I wouldn’t do now necessarily and as well something that was not as relevant to Midnight Marauders, where it would have worked against some of the context of that record.
Ali and Tip both said to me that with Midnight Marauders they wanted it to be much more gritty and street-style; don’t worry about cleaning stuff up, this should sound like Saturday night in the back of a jeep in a crowded neighborhood. So the mindset of the records was a little bit different and I think it’s clear if you listen to the records. And the interesting thing is, as quote-unquote street style as Tribe Called Quest may have wanted to get with the music and the concept of the record, it still was you know, friendly. It was not N.W.A.–which in many ways was a fuck you to the world, you know, and I say that in the sense that the sex pistols did the same thing.