Q-TIP: On A Quest
Universally respected today as one of the most enduringly influential and innovative elder statesmen of rap, former A Tribe Called Quest lead MC/producer Q-Tip this month releases his first album in nine years - the eagerly-awaited ‘The Renaissance’, the follow-up to his Gold-selling 1999 solo debut LP ‘Amplified’.
Produced primarily by Q-Tip himself and boasting its fair share of live instrumentation, ‘The Renaissance’ has heralded the US Top Ten return of one of the most recognisable voices and individualist figures in all of hip hop, as his signature flow delivers clever thought-provoking lyrics alongside big-name guests like chart-topping country-jazz songstress Norah Jones and iconic contemporary soul men Raphael Saadiq and D’Angelo. Musical moods meanwhile range from the keyboard-driven groove of the head-nodding single ‘Gettin’ Up’; to the irrepressibly-infectious, Jackson 5-sampling ‘Move’ (one of two tracks produced by Tip’s one-time regular studio collaborator, the late Detroit beatmaker J. Dilla).
“I’ve titled this album ‘The Renaissance’ because of where I feel music - and, in particular, hip hop - is at right now”, begins the Queens, New York-raised rhymesmith (who also at times refers to himself as both ‘The Abstract’ and ‘Kamaal The Abstract’): “I mean, while there are a few exceptions, overall it’s been devoid of musicality and harmony and those kind of ideas for the best part of a decade. So I just wanted to make a statement that I think it’s time for a rebirth and refocusing of energy, to try and bring it back to an artistic height where it’s also parallel to where we’re at in a socio-political sense right now. You know, people here in The States are chanting about change and wanting things to get on a better track. And I felt that what I’m doing was kinda synonymous with that. So ultimately I hope this album becomes like the first in a series of recordings that speak to this character I call ‘The Renaissance Man’. Because I do feel like the time is ideal for something that has a revisionist spirit to it.”
With the frenetic drumming and strutting bass-line of a track like ‘ManWomanBoogie’ revealing Q-Tip’s mission to this time around create original music as timeless as the tracks he once used to sample back in the late Eighties, he happily explains the nonconformist musical attitude he displays throughout ‘The Renaissance’: “I’m very much in favour of a band of musicians striving together and coming together in the studio. Because I think that, once you get a group of players in a room working with a strong artistic element and under correct supervision, it definitely can breed good things. So my intention was to capture that live environment on this album, while also retaining what to me is the traditional hip hop approach. Which is me working with my sampler, chopping things up and kinda getting surgical with it all, if you like. So, with the combination of those two things being very much where I’m at right now, I’m very excited about continuing to explore this new musical terrain.”
Meanwhile, Tip’s attitude to his rhymes themselves is similarly uncompromising: “As an MC, I do feel the premium on lyrics has been phasing out of late”, he asserts: “So, with this record, I just wanted to make sure that I kept the standard of my rhymes and their subject-matter up. Like I have a song called ‘Johnny Is Dead’, which speaks about the spirit of America dying and where we’re at as a society today. Like there was a point when Oprah Winfrey was criticising hip hop. So, on one passage, I speak of the generation-gap being widened when one generation is pointing its finger at the other and discrediting it. While on the Raphael Saadiq track ‘We Fight/We Love’, the second verse is about a kid in America who’s 19 and a little bit disenfranchised. He wants to go to college, can’t afford it... So he decides to join the armed forces, goes to Iraq, and winds up having to deal with the whole situation out there. So, you know, the album’s just chock full of different, interesting stuff. And I’m really proud of what I’ve done both musically and lyrically.”
Born Jonathan Davis in Harlem, New York in April 1970, Q-Tip (who would later change his name to Kamaal Ibn John Fareed on converting to Islam in the mid-Nineties) made his first on-record appearance rapping on (old skool hip hop pioneers) The Jungle Brothers’ ‘Straight Out The Jungle’ LP in 1988. Forming the critically-acclaimed rap trio A Tribe Called Quest in 1989, he quickly gained notoriety for introducing jazzy sampling, laid-back tempos and a boho-chic vibe into hip hop which continues to prove influential two decades down the line with today’s conscious rappers and neo-soul vocalists. Meanwhile, the Nineties saw him match his ongoing high-profile as lead rapper with A Tribe Called Quest (whose biggest international hit remains 1991’s enduring radio favourite ‘Can I Kick It?’) with successful production work for big-selling acts ranging from East Coast rappers Nas and Mobb Deep to chart-topping R&B/pop diva Mariah Carey. With Tribe eventually disbanding in 1998, meanwhile, Tip then launched a solo career, with the more commercial flavours of his aforementioned debut set ‘Amplified’ in 2000 spawning the UK pop hits ‘Breathe & Stop’ and ‘Vivrant Thing’.
Having additionally enjoyed occasional success as an actor (roles range from 1993’s Janet Jackson-starring ‘Poetic Justice’ to Spike Lee’s 2004 movie ‘She Hate Me’) the now-New Jersey-based Q-Tip nevertheless predictably regards his work with A Tribe Called Quest as his most significant artistic contribution to date: “I see the Tribe legacy as one of the strongest in modern music”, he concedes: “You know, from us have come so many artists - like Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Fugees, D’Angelo, Kanye West... And I feel very honoured and privileged to have been able to contribute in such a way that, 20 years on, what we did back then is still a reference-point. You know, when we started out, hip hop music was basically all about James Brown samples. But then we came along and were able to bring out the jazz legends like Quincy Jones, Donald Byrd, Coltrane, Miles Davis Stanley Clarke... And even Stevie Wonder was brought out more by the things we did in hip hop. And all of that ultimately connected with people like (Erykah) Badu and The Fugees, who actually used some of our samples and were able to become successful following our initial breakthrough.”
Nevertheless, despite rumours to the contrary sparked by their reunion shows on the recent Rock The Bells tour Stateside, Tip insists that “A Tribe Called Quest is no more”: “While we still love each other very much and very dearly, for us that’s it right now. There’ll be no more albums from Tribe. Basically, in terms of recording, we feel we’ve done everything that we could musically. So we’ve decided to kinda leave it where it’s at, because we don’t wanna desecrate the legacy.”
The single ‘Gettin’ Up’ is released December 1. The album 'The Renaissance' is out now, both through Island Records Group/Universal Motown
Words PETE LEWIS