Q-Tip: "No Time For Hibernation, Only Elation"
Last Tuesday, Q-Tip not only released a sigh of relief, but also his second solo album. The Renaissance, an album proclaiming a re-birth of hip-hop, could not have come on a better day. November 4, 2008 will go down in history as a day on which hope triumphed over fear. Sure, this triumph has some interesting parallels in music, but more importantly, it renews our privilege to squander so many thoughts on music in the first place. Thanks to Obama’s victory, we’ve earned a little breathing room; our musical escapism is no longer in such stark contrast to more important issues. In that regard, it might have taken nine years to arrive, but The Renaissance is right on time.
Not only is the timing perfect, but who better than Q-Tip to usher in The Renaissance? The images of classical art conjured by the European Renaissance might seem at odds with an artist we know as “The Abstract,” but he has always been a renaissance man. Besides, that nickname never completely summed him up.
The irony of such an identifiable figure having painted himself as The Abstract cannot be brushed off; the long line of artists that can be traced to the aesthetic he drafted nearly two decades ago clearly illustrates that Q-Tip’s impression on hip-hop could not be anymore realistic. In fact, anywhere you look it seems as though the icon’s pupils are there to follow. Whether it’s the sketchy caricatures on top of the charts, or today’s underground artists pushing poetic justice, to deny the influence of Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest would be a fiasco. To get the full picture of Q-Tip’s indelible mark, consider how visible he remains despite his drawn-out hiatus. Nevertheless, Mr. Incognito is back again, and he has good news. If his own album is any indication, start believing in the audacity of dope. The Renaissance is upon us.
OKP: The Renaissance is definitely more than just the title of your new album; I’ve heard you talk about a movement, a rebirth, in hip-hop. In European history, the Renaissance was a rebirth after the Black Death—a hundred million had just people died. Is the renaissance you’re hoping to usher in the result of hip-hop being dead?
Q-TIP: It’s exactly like you said; when you look at history, ‘the Renaissance’ is French for rebirth, and I feel like we went through a definite death period. I guess I said it first, a while ago—like ’98: “hip-hop is dead.” Then Andre 3000 said it, then Nas said it and named his album after it, and a lot of that conversation was being had. There was a lot of debate going back and forth, whether it [was] practitioners of the craft, or people who critiqued it, or follow it. Then at the same time—the thing that was running concurrent with this supposed, for lack of a better term, ‘death’ of hip-hop—was kind of the death of an American idea through the Bush Administration: the unilateral decision to go to war; the deterioration of the economy, which we are feeling now; prices ballooning – gas prices; people not being able to keep their homes. All of these things were just tell tale signs of, you know – excretion, or death, or a casting out, or anything like that that denotes getting rid of, or dying, or coming to an end.
When things come to an end there are new beginnings, and… while that was happening in the music, I feel like great things happened. I feel like Lupe put out some good music. The Roots put out two amazing albums that didn’t really see the light of day. Kanye was probably the only beacon for like a well-rounded movement, you know what I mean? You have people like Santogold coming up. You have people like The Cool Kids, The Knux, and Charles Hamilton, Cons. You just have a real – underground, and I’m familiar with that because I’ve seen that happen before. So, I kind of felt like: wow, this is happening again. So it just felt like it was the correct title to call things, because people were just tired of being oversaturated with a bunch of commercialized stuff and commercialized expression. People wanted to have real expression to go along with their day. People may have ended their day, had a hard day, and they want to hear something that makes ‘em feel good and inspires them. That’s what music is for. So, there is going to be a renaissance—whether it be that I’m a part of it or not—it’s just fact.
OKP: Let me ask you, a lot of your musical descendants—a lot of the people you just mentioned—get labeled with this ridiculous “conscious hip-hop” tag, and a lot of them have tried to fight that label; I think Kweli’s new album is even called Prisoner of Consciousness. Did you experience that back in the Tribe days? And do you feel that same sort of frustration now with The Renaissance coming out?
Q-TIP: Well, yeah, I just think that that’s a bad—I mean people make it that smart people are a bad thing. If you read, and if you have a conversation with somebody that lasts for a while and you’re able to not have ADD and stay on the topic and expound on things, you’re viewed as too smart, and you’re frowned upon, or you’re looked at as a nerd or whatever, or you’re trying to be an elitist. And that’s not the case. I don’t think that that’s a fair rub. You shouldn’t be ostracized because of intelligence, but at the same time, if you’re intelligent you shouldn’t ostracize others with it. You know what I mean?
OKP: Yeah, definitely.
Q-TIP: …I think everyone just needs to be easy on that, and maybe let people live off of the merits of their work, and not by their ideologies or the way they express them.
OKP: Right. Alright, let me talk to you about the music on the new album. Following in the line of Kaamal the Abstract, and definitely your recent live shows, you’re taking advantage of more live instrumentation—but you’re still a legendary sampler—so what’s the production process like mixing the samples and the live instruments? How are you doing that these days?
Q-TIP: I still love sampling. I’m deep in it. I think it’s amazing when you’re able to capture things, and contort ‘em and stretch ‘em, and sew and nip, you know, just fuck with it. And with the musicians I just apply that same aesthetic to it. So if I’m playing something on keys: I’ll play it, and then I’ll sample it and I may chop it or slow it down—it’ll become something else—and I may re-play it. It’s just a constant muck up. And I think that the barometer in all of my processing is how it feels—if it feels good, it goes—but there’s no rules. The only thing that I find myself struggling with sometimes is like: ‘Oh, I want it to be in 440,’ [Note: “A440” is the 440 Hz tone regarded the standard reference for musical pitch.] but sometimes it doesn’t have to be in 440. 440 is like the—I’m sure you know—it’s like the, you know, the—
OKP: It’s like the standard—
Q-TIP: It’s the universal key; a universal register for harmonic – e-qual-it-y. [Laughing] So sometimes if you stretch out of tune or out of 440—to be in tune is 440 sometimes, to be out of tune is 441. With sampling and shit, we usually take shit out of tune, which gives it its aurora and gives it its vibe. So I always try to fight that, see how far I can stretch it within the 440, but then I try and take it out sometimes— I know I’m geeking out right now. That’s how I view it. Yeah, sampling is still a major part of my processing.
OKP: I want to get back to sampling, but talk to me about equipment real quick. On the over of the new album you have the MPC. And way back in ‘88 on “Black is Black,” you and Sha’ made that on his uncle’s 4-track tape recorder, right?
OKP: So can you connect the dots for us? Like, just quickly run down, maybe album-by-album, what equipment you were using and how it evolved?
Q-TIP: Hmm. On the first album I was fucking with the SP-12, and then towards the end I started fucking with the 1200. Then on the second album I was fucking with the SP-1200 and the 950. Then by the third album I started fucking around with the MPC a little—I was still fucking with the [SP-1200] and the 950—but the MPC started getting involved. By the fourth album I started fucking with the MPC-3’—the Roger Linn—and then I just kept fucking with it. Now, I kind of fuck with – with everything. [Note: E-mu SP12 Drum Sampler (released in 1985); E-mu SP-1200 (1988); Akai S950 (1988); Akai MPC3000 (1994)]
OKP: Gotcha, thank you. So to get back to—
Q-TIP: Dilla, when I started working with Dilla, after the third, fourth album—all that shit—we was definitely on the ‘3000, hard.
OKP: Oh I bet, I bet. Even before him, was it always like that? Like maybe with the S950 – did Large Pro get you into that, or anything?
Q-TIP: Oh yeah definitely. Large Professor, he—You know what it was? I was fucking with the 950, when I met Paul, he was really fucking with the 950 too so I was like, wow. But what Large Professor did for me is, he showed me mad shit on the SP-1200 and I didn’t even know! He was like showing me crazy shit, because I was still on some quasi pause-tape shit, like my pause-tapes were just crazy, and that’s how I just used to get down, just pause-tape shit out. But yeah that 950, I was fucking with it—I seen it around when I was working on the first album and I just started fucking around with it—but then when I met Paul I realized he was doing it too.
OKP: Getting back to sampling… I’ve heard you talk about—like at CMJ and just different places—the opportunities that the internet presents. But it’s killed vinyl, it’s absolutely killed crate digging. How do you see that?
Q-TIP: Well… I still dig, you know what I mean, I go through crates—I still dig! I’ve kept my fingers dusty, for real! But I also take advantage of the internet. That’s great when you need something real quick and fast, you can just hop on—boom—and you just grab it, you know what I’m saying? I think that it’s great for the layman and the pedestrian listener, that if they hear something, they can go online and get it instantly. It just aides in musical education, which is important and… the appetite for music is bigger than it’s ever been—because of the internet. So I praise it. The one [cause] I will see… if there’s a dis-appreciation of [music], is the lack of time that the people have to invest in the music. It’s so disposable almost. You listen to it real quick, you put in it your play list, and you got it—boom. Whereas if you had the cover, or like if you go on the hunt, and you find a store. Maybe one store doesn’t have it. You call another one to see if they have it. If they don’t have it, you go somewhere else. Then when you finally find it, it’s like: oh my god, I got it then. Then get it home and you look at the cover, you read the credits, you play the record days on end, you know what I mean?
OKP: Oh, yeah.
Q-TIP: And that deepens your relationship with that piece of music because of… the process it took to get it. Then once you finally got it, your reference of the piece… showed its way through to ogling of the cover, the taking apart of all of the credits and everything, the liner notes. So it just [used] to be deeper. That’s the only thing that’s a little sad, and may not be there. But I do like the fact that you have so much stuff that you can get instantly, because it informs the pedestrian.
OKP: [Speaking of liner notes,] back on Amplified, “End of Time,” the song with Jonathan Davis from Korn, yes or no: his name played a role in you two linking up?
OKP: Was that basically it?
Q-TIP: No, I dug them too, but that name definitely was crazy.
OKP: I always just assumed so, but that’s funny.
How’d you first link up with Robert Glasper?
Q-TIP: I guess I sort of think that was him. I was working with these other cats, and then I was looking for somebody to work with, and he just came up. I remember meeting him a long time ago with Bilal… He’s dope.
OKP: No doubt. Talk to me about “Move.” You did all the tracks on the new album except for that. It’s Dilla, obviously—
Q-TIP: Yeah that’s Dilla on there. You gotta get Dilla!
OKP: Absolutely. You know, people probably recognize it as “Dancin Dilla” from of the beat tape, and I remember ?uestlove talked about you using that track in a Wax Poetics from way back in the Summer of 2006. So if the song is that old, I imagine you either made it right before he passed, or just after. What was it like making the track at that time?
Q-TIP: Well, we did that before he passed. Like, he sent that. This is what he—I’mma let’cha know what Jay Dee would do! [Laughing] –and Ahmir probably can attest to it. He would send you a beat—or whatever. He sent me some things, and he called me—I remember—because, this was the last time we kind of – talked, before he got really—before he got ill. And he was like: “Yoooooooo, Yeeeeeahh.” [Q-Tip’s impression implies a “Crushin’” adlib exaggerated tenfold] He would call and do that for five minutes. And [on my end] we’d just be laughing, and like: “Yeah?” And he’s like: “Yeeeeeahh!” [Laughing] “Yeeeeeeaahhh!!” He started laughing, so I knew he had some shit. Then he was like: “…Kamaal, man! You ain’t send me that shit.” I was like: “What shit?” And [it turns out] there was this Jamey Aebersold record that I had—that we had caught together—and I had looped up, and he just kept asking for the shit. And I was like: “Yo — I can’t even find that shit — I gotta find that shit.” I said: “But, you know that shit I want!” He’s like: “Yeeeeeeaah. I’ll put that shit in right now, right now!”
So he sent me the beat tape and that shit was on there. Sometimes, you know, he’d throw little names on it or whatever, on the shit when he would write it, and he wrote “Dill Withers” on the CD. I had it, and I called him up and I was like: “Yo, you know I’m going in on this shit.” And he’s like, [in best Dilla voice]: “Kamaaaal, man, c’moooon!”
But then, you know, the nigga Dilla, what he would do is, he’d send that same [Laughing] beat CD out to every—he just posted it to everybody, and let everybody live off of it and have it, you know what I’m saying?
OKP: The treats.
Q-TIP: Because that’s just the dude he was. But you know, [that beat] was crazy, so I was like, ‘fuck it, I’mma do this shit anyway…’ So I just did it, and just let it be in the ethos for a while.
…I could talk about this dude for hours, that’s just my dude. And it’s—Man! It’s like sometimes I don’t even believe he’s gone, yo. You know what I’m saying, ‘cause his shit just still be so knockin’, and I can just see the nigga in my crib, or just fucking eatin’ fucking Red Vines or whatever—he’d be eating Red Vines and Doritos. Jay completes shit. It was just ill, so I just have to have that shit on there. Like, he’s just—I mean, what can you not say about the dude? You know what I mean?
Q-TIP: Just crazy.
OKP: Let me ask you real quick about the beat tapes. There’s the Hiccuped Classix and all these others out there. The track titles: did he name these, or are they just names other people came up with?
Q-TIP: You know, he would name them sometimes, because what he would do is… he’d either write it down on the disc, or when you threw it in the joint—in the sampler—the names of the joints would pop up.
OKP: Ah, okay, gotcha.
Q-TIP: Yeah, so sometimes he’d write the shit on the disc, and sometimes when you throw it in the sampler you’d see the name up or some shit.
OKP: No doubt. Can I have you clear up something?
OKP: A lot of people are convinced he did “The Hop” off of Beats, Rhymes, and Life.
Q-TIP: Nah, nah. That was—he didn’t do that—that was Ringo. My man, Rashad [Smith].
OKP: Right. ‘Cause I see it on tributes and stuff all the time and it doesn’t seem right, you know?
OKP: And that makes sense, ‘cause you were messing with Rashad way back, like even in the Low End Theory [days], right?
So “The Hop” makes sense.
Q-TIP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. …Rashad, back then [when we did BR&L]—the rub on that was—he was like: ‘Yo, you gotta let me do a beat for you. I just wanna do a beat for one of the Tribe albums. I just wanna be able to say I did a beat on a Tribe album.’ And, you know, that was the joint.
OKP: Nice. I’ll get back to The Renaissance for you. D’angelo is on “Believe.” What’s it like working with him? And are the Soulquarians—as a unit—something officially of the past?
Even though you guys might still work together here and there, as a squad, is that done?
Q-TIP: Umm, I don’t know. Well, first of all D’angelo’s my man, you know what I’m saying? That’s my boy, we came up together, and it’s great working with him – every time. We about to—We did some shit on his album coming out. He did some shit on mine. We’re about to do a record together—he, myself, and [Raphael] Saadiq. And the Soulquarians, you know, that’s forever! We’re always going to be fucking around, yo. It’s gonna always be there in some shape or form. Whether it’s me and Erykah doing something, me and Ahmir, or me and Common, you know, say Mos and D: we’re just, connected.
OKP: Speaking of you and Common, is The Standard joint still coming out?
Q-TIP: Yeah, yeah, that’s still going to happen. That’s still going to happen.
OKP: So there was a leaked version of The Renaissance out. And the real promo that I just heard had some different things. The joint with D’angelo is a little different. What was behind the changes?
Q-TIP: Well, I don’t know what got leaked. I know there was a leak, but I was still always working on shit. I don’t know. I can’t really do a comparative thing, because I was still working.
Q-TIP: But I know it definitely got leaked.
OKP: I guess one thing that’s been great about the internet is that something like Kamaal the Abstract can get shelved, but we still get to hear it. What has it meant to you that those Kamaal tracks, and some of more recent stuff, at least got out there?
Q-TIP: Yeah, it was good, [but] …I’m putting it out actually—Kamaal the Abstract. I’m about to put that shit out with the original artwork, with the original notes, like tracks from off the sessions, all that shit.
OKP: Oh that’s dope.
Q-TIP: I’m going to give that an official push out. So, I’m looking forward to that.
OKP: That’s dope. Talk to me about other unreleased projects. I know this might be a rough question—with the house fire and all that—but it’s going be a rough answer for people to read too: At one point I heard there was a whole, near finished duet with Busta that got destroyed. Can you elaborate on anything else, either destroyed in the fire or just shelved in general, that still remains unreleased from—
Q-TIP: I don’t know, I kind of don’t even want to go into that.
Q-TIP: That kind of is – a touchy thing. [Laughing]
OKP: [Laughing…nervously] What about Tribe stuff? I don’t mean to ask if it was destroyed, but—I’m sure people just hound you: ‘Reunion! Reunion!’ Tribe is done, but is that an option—some stuff in the vaults somewhere? Or not even?
Q-TIP: Yeah, there’s some stuff in the vaults at Jive that I wish we could get to. There’s some stuff that I had that they didn’t have too, that was crazy – and I lost. But, you know, I would like to get my hands on it.
OKP: How’s Phife doing? He’s okay?
Q-TIP: Yeah Phife is doing much better man, thanks for asking. He had a successful kidney transplant. And he’s recovering now, at home with his wife. So he’s chillin’.
OKP: That’s very good news…
Alright Tip, when it’s all said and done—obviously you’re going down in the books as both—but would you rather your legacy be as a legendary emcee, or a legendary producer? What’s closer to your heart?
Q-TIP: Man, they both are. Umm, they both are. I can’t say. Both of them; it’s hard to separate it, man.
Spoken like a true renaissance man.
Be sure to support a great album: The Renaissance is in record stores now. Many thanks are due to Ginny and Okayplayer, and utmost respect and appreciation to Q-Tip.