Status Ain't Hood Interviews Q-Tip

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Q-Tip has a new album supposedly coming out in October, and it'll only be his second solo album to see release. His last one, Amplified, came out in 1999. Since then, he's been bounced all around the major-label system, recording two records that his labels refused to release. All I've heard from The Renaissance is "Work It Out," the song on his MySpace, and it's a nice little live-band groove. Tip is 37 years old, but he looked about 25 when I met him in his PR firm's office this morning. He was wearing bigass Cazal glasses, and I have no idea whether he was stoned or not. He definitely wasn't openly smoking weed during the conversation the way some of my past interviews were, but he has a sort of collegiate-stoner expansiveness about him. He's eloquent as all hell, and he speaks like he's lazily pulling ideas out of the air, playing around with them for a bit, and then letting them go. He is a cool motherfucker.

You were at the Kanye listening party on Tuesday, right?

Oh yeah, I slid in there.

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What did you think of it?

I actually didn't stay, but I heard a lot of his stuff; it was dope. What did you think?

I liked it a lot. It's going to take a while longer to process the whole thing; you can't really get a sense for an album...

...When you're in there with a whole bunch of people and it's pushed on you and stuff, which is kind of why I didn't want to stay. I just go to show support for him. He's always showing support for me.

Yeah, he mentions Tribe a lot. Have you worked with him before?

Not really. He wanted me to a verse on this one thing on his last album, called "We Can Make It Better" I think, and it was on the overseas version. So I rhymed on that, but I'm sure we're going to be doing something in the future, he and I. He's definitely good. Don't you think?

I think so, yeah. It's been a long, long time since you've put a record out. What can you tell me about the new one? All I've heard is the single.

The Renaissance, I'm just finally excited about putting out some music. It's been an eternity. I did a whole heap of the production. I got a joint on there with my boy Dilla. And I have another single coming and a couple of videos, and I'm about to hit the road with Common. So I feel like it's me starting all over, which is great. I love it. I like to be in a position where sometimes the onus doesn't fall on me. It enables me to sit and watch and be free. It's kind of humbling, too. But this album, I really dig it, man. I think people are going to gravitate towards it.

When you say you like to be in a situation where the onus isn't on you, you mean in the last few years?

Yeah, I kind of liked it. Now you have Common, and people like Jay-Z and T.I. and 50, whoever is popular. It's good because I've been in a situation before where you're in that rarefied air and everything is on you. And it's cool; I don't mind it. But it can be a lot if it's constant, constant, constant. And not by my own design, of course, I was kind of not there for a minute. And it's good, though, to pull back and see and reassess and sneak back in.

You've been really bounced around the whole major-label world over the last few years. You've been on something like five different labels...

No, not five.

How many has it been?

Well, I was on Arista, and I was there with Clive Davis. They were about to kick him out of Arista, and he called me and was like [does awesome Clive Davis impression], "Q-Tip, you need to come to J Records. I have an artist by the name of Alicia Keys, and you and her would just be great." And I really wanted to go there because I thought Clive was a visionary; he definitely is. I was telling him about the band I wanted to do and stuff like that. And then Lyor Cohen, who runs Atlantic, used to be with Def Jam, used to manage us, and he called me and said [does even more awesome Lyor Cohen impression], "Q-Tip, you're crazy if you fuck wit' Clive. You need to fuck wit' LA [Reid]." So me listening to some stuff that I thought was sage advice, I did that, stuck with LA. I did an album, Kamaal the Abstract, and he dug it. It went out to press. People were really liking it. It was, at the time, some other shit, and I guess he just got cold feet. And I just got impatient. I asked for a release, I got it, and then I went to Dreamworks, recorded another album there. And then Dreamworks folded and was absorbed by Interscope. And then Interscope dollied me to I guess Geffen. So where we at now? Started at Arista, then went to Dreamworks; that's two. And then we went to Geffen; that's three. Can we say that's three?

OK.

OK. So then from there, I stayed there for a year. The offices were in LA, didn't really work out, whatever. I asked for a release and got one, and then I wound up at Universal.

So four.

OK.

Did you ever think about going independent during that time?

It didn't really come up on me. I mean, I would do it if the opportunity was there. Whatever I have to do to put out music, I'll do it, but I guess there was always interest in me from these majors. So whatever.

Whoever will, what, take you?

I mean, not so much whoever will take me. But that was what was there at the time. There wasn't any other situations that presented themselves. So that was there.

I was in college when you did Kamaal the Abstract, and we got a five-song sampler of it at the college radio station. I never heard the whole album, but it was definitely a very different thing for you. It seemed like there was this moment a few years ago when a lot of the best rappers working were getting maybe sick of rap, like you and Andre 3000 and Lauryn Hill. Do you think that's what was happening? Did you feel yourself getting burned out?

Yeah, just getting sick of what was going on. For me, it was just a stripping down, almost, approaching it totally different. You know how when you're a kid and someone is fucking with you, and they keep saying shit and you're trying to ignore them, you go [sticks fingers in ears and does Eddie Murphy little-kid voice] "Aaah I'm not listening aaaah!" That kind of shit, whatever. It was that effect. And it's still there. It was just dick-holding conscious machismo. The music was a little bit better a little more musical than it is now. But now, it's starting to turn a corner, I think.

Why do you say that?

I think that the internet has reached out to more people in the past ten years. There's more people on it, there's more people involved with it, there's more interest in people on there that are doing this stuff in all forms of art: musically, in the literary world, artistically, film, cinema. You get your finger on those pulses a little bit quicker now than you did ten years ago, and because of that, I feel like you could find quality stuff that's out there. It may not be smack-dab when you walk into Wal-Mart or Tower Records or Starbucks, but if you go online and you go on your MySpace and you catch one link and jump off into somebody else's and surf, in ten minutes you could be into some shit. And that is a great possibility, a great equation. And that's why we're starting to turn a corner. I find that more people on the lower tiers of major record companies are spending a lot of time online, trying to go out and be independent or think in the independent sense. It's breathing a new life into it.

I've been noticing just in the past month...

How young I've been looking? Naw, I'm just kidding!

The glasses are a good look!

I'm just kidding, I'm just kidding!

I've been seeing little kids in this city in Tribe Called Quest T-shirts.

Really?

Yeah, have you seen this?

It's an odd phenomenon.

But it's a good thing. You did a couple reunion shows last year; how did that feel?

Great. It was amazing, really great to be back onstage with them. Those are my boys. I love them.

You had one of the great live shows in rap history. But you've been DJing more than performing lately.

Yeah, I've been DJing around. That's another thing that's going on. I'm just encouraged by everything that's happening today. There's more and more DJs. The internet and technology have allowed people who have different perspectives on music, on how music should play. Now you can even say music and visuals because there's this program called Scratch Live Serato, which is probably the dominant one that DJs use for mp3 playing. In September, they're putting out this new version of it where you're able to download visuals, like movie-clips, and sync them up to your music. So if you're DJing somewhere, you could hook up a USB port to a camera and beam it or project it in a club, and the images will be scratched just like your music, which is amazing. And I love the world of DJing. There's more and more DJs popping up now because of the ease of it, which the internet provides. You're able to access things quickly, the different programs that you're able to use with your computer. I go out and listen to people spin, and I hear some really interesting things that people put together. I consider myself a music fiend. I'm a cinephile and a music-phile, if such a word exists, I hear certain things that people put together and people are actually digging it and checking it out, that's just a good course to be on. So yeah, I love DJing. But now I'm about to do some shows. I'm going on the road with Common, actually. I start September 22nd, and I'm looking forward to that. He and I, we're going to do an album together, too.

An entire collaborative album?

Yeah.

How's that going to work? Are you going to do beats?

Yeah, definitely. I'm going to do a lot of that, and we'll reach out to a Premier or Ye or Pete Rock.

There seems to be more appetite for rap veterans lately, an interest. It's a fickle world, but do you think it's becoming less fickle? Like, for instance, I did this interview with Lupe Fiasco about a year ago, and he told me that people always heard Tribe Called Quest in his records but he'd never owned a Tribe Called Quest album, didn't know an entire song of yours, that it was before his time. He said that when he was getting really into rap he listened to Nas. Nas is someone who you had an impact on, and maybe he was pulling things out of Nas that came from you originally, through a translator. But it's interesting that he sounds more like you than he does like Nas.

Yeah, it's very interesting.

It seems like people are paying more attention the the genealogy of things and tracking them back to where they came from.

Yeah. And it's cool, whatever dudes feel. History is important, and I think that this generation of folk have access to history. You can just type up a couple of things, and blam, it's just all laid out for you. I dig Lupe, and somebody hit me today, showed me something that he said online about how he'd never heard Tribe. He said something like "I never heard Tribe and never listened to Tribe," which I thought was just some shit he was just saying to stir shit up. I know he doesn't believe that, and I certainly don't, and it's all good. I have love and respect for him. But the thing about that, I bring that up because he put that on a blog, and somebody sent me this blog that he was typing and all the responses to it in a matter of seconds. And the same could be said, that access is right there, so the history is right there. You can access it easily, quickly, instantaneously. And you can dole it out to a whole bunch of people. So it's great that you can trace things back. I'm hoping that people listen to Tribe and see the influences of a Slick Rick or a Run-DMC. Or Miles Davis in an influence of ours, Prince is an influence of ours. And then you can see that Prince's influences were Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. And Sly Stone's was Ray Charles, and Ray Charles' was Nat King Cole, and Nat King Cole's was Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson's was Duke Ellington. It gets all laid out for you. I encourage all of that. It's good product for conversation and healthy debate and to answer questions.

One thing I think has been lost a little bit in the influence of your stuff now. There's conscious rap now; it's it own genre of rap. Every conscious rapper in the world points to Tribe as an influence, but Tribe was funny. You guys made jokes, and you talked about fucking as much as you made serious social points. It's like people have adapted certain aspects of it and forgotten about others. Do you see that at all?

Yeah, I see that a little bit. It's easy to do the surface thing. We're a nation of people who have short attention-spans and who don't necessarily read the whole book; we make it through the first couple of chapters and fall asleep and forget about it. We're also people who regurgitate stuff that we've heard people say in other conversations rather than investigating stuff. And we can do that; we can take the aspects of things that we like, and that thing can just totally encompass the person or the thing; you can just forget about the other sides. It's easy to do that when we sensationalize things like that. But again, I think the internet... I don't want this whole thing to be about the internet, but it's a good source and a tool to find out a whole bunch of everything.

You seem really invested in technology.

Yeah, I embrace it. I use it for what I do. I dig it.

It's definitely changed music, and it's made it so that there's no one thing that everyone knows; there's a million little narrowcasted niche-interests. But people can also get lost in that and lose perspective in the whole internet-world.

It's good to go outside and take a walk sometimes. It's good to get ice cream and go to a museum and go to your mom's room for some pot-roast. There's other aspects of life.

I was saying earlier about how there was a moment where you weren't interested in rap, and you were saying you weren't listening. Is rapping more fun now than it was a couple of years ago?

It's definitely more fun now than it was a few years ago. When you tell me about kids wearing Tribe shirts, or when somebody like Common comes along after he's been doing it for so long and he breaks through, or when someone like Talib Kweli has a breakthrough, when who say things that have substance are being looked at, when you're able to go on the road and get your own things going even if you're not signed to a major, when something with more substance is getting through, it's definitely more fun and more interesting. I mean, I've talked to Andre before, and it's like nothing excites you. Back then, we were having a little conversation, and it was like nothing gets a rise out of you. I know when I heard N.W.A put out their first album, Straight Outta Compton, I was trying to top that, and I was trying to top It Takes a Nation of Millions. Not to be like competition, but in a way it was a friendly competition. When we put out Low End Theory, I saw Dre, and Dre was like, "I just did this thing called The Chronic, and I did it when I heard your joint. That made me make my joint."

I wouldn't have put that together.

Sonically, we're talking about.

Yeah, that makes sense.

And when I heard The Chronic, I was like, "Aaaah!" And when I heard The Chronic is when we made Midnight Marauders. And then he put out Snoop and I heard Wu-Tang, I was like, "I'm going to go home and eat pie." But it's good! I love that! Everyone goes through that! I was talking to my friend Michael Austin, whose dad used to run Warner Brothers and who worked there for a while. He was talking about a friend of his, George Harrison's son, and he was talking about how his pops used to say that they always used to listen to the Beach Boys. It wasn't really the Stones; it was always the Beach Boys and them. And he was saying how he was working with Prince, and Prince used to come into the office like, "I want to make something that's going to fuck up Michael's head." And that's a healthy thing. So I think now, we have a Saigon coming in, and we have people like Lupe. Somebody like a Ghostface is still very relevant. Who knows, Slick Rick may get a wind of inspiration and put together something could just be incredible. Who's to say? But I think that it's pregnant with all this possibility right now. It's good because the bar raises. Somebody comes, and they raise it again. Kanye is obviously going to raise the bar on September 11. Hopefully I could come and raise it, and someone else could come raise it after that, and we could all get into that friendly competitiveness. Not like "I have more bitches and I have more cars, I make more money than you, I'm sitting courtside at the Olympic trial game," whatever the fuck. That's cool, but that's not what it is.

When you made this new album, were you trying to compete with anybody?

Definitely. When I heard Little Brother's stuff, I was like, "Wow, that's dope. I want to make something that's as dope as this." And when I hear Kanye's stuff, I'm like, "Wow, I want to make something as dope as this. I hope I could." It's not like you're saying you're better than them. It's just that you're trying to keep up, almost. It's totally a healthy thing.

Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Q-Tip's Amplified

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