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Q-Tip - Renaissance Man

Author: Jody Macgregor
Monday, 9 February 2009

A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip’s latest solo album The Renaissance was released on the same day as the recent US election. He talks to 3D’s Jody Macgregor about how it seems like that worked out pretty well, both for the MC and the country.

According to Q-Tip’s theory, hip hop culture helped prepare a generation of Americans for the idea of a black president. At the same time, American hip hop definitely has Obama to thank for giving it purpose again. Think about it: rapping about Obama gave Jay-Z his groove back and hooked him up with M.I.A. after he appeared on the remix of Boyz; it gave Nas Black President, the best moment off his last Untitled album; it gave will.i.am the fuel for his earnest Yes We Can and it even brought Flying Lotus and Busdriver together for their track, Will He.

Q-Tip didn’t need Obama to get his groove back, though. The Renaissance is perhaps the last great artistic artefact of the Bush era in American music, with lyrics like this, from Move: “This shit’s like grits without the hot sauce / Seems to me this government’s off course.” Even the opening track, Johnny Is Dead, is about the death of the American dream, or as Q-Tip clarifies it, “The American spirit, the American vibe.

“Johnny is the quintessential name I think for America, that symbolises all things American. Like apple pie and hot dogs and stuff like that.”

I’m talking to Q-Tip on the resonant date of Obama’s inauguration. He mentions that today he feels like maybe he was a bit premature in declaring the American spirit dead, but just like Nas declaring hip hop dead, it needed to be done to make his point. If Q-Tip was writing the songs that make up The Renaissance today, would he feel differently enough about the state of the union to write the songs different- “Not totally different,” he says. “I feel better, like that was a nice little step in the right direction, but we’ll see.”

Anyway, enough about politics. We’re here to talk about the music from an album that managed to achieve the seemingly impossible – a solo album from a member of A Tribe Called Quest that actually lived up to their classic material, that you don’t feel awkward mentioning in the same sentence as albums like The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. That’s not to say it sounds like a throwback, though. Q-Tip managed to create a fresh sound for The Renaissance by getting together a band for extended jam sessions, in which he played keys and drums, taking note of the best parts and revisiting them later. As well as sampling more of the old jazz that Q-Tip loves to make his own, they brewed a new batch from scratch. He describes the process as being appropriately freeform. “Sometimes I’d play something, jam on it or whatever, then some other cat’ll hop on it, so it was pretty much whoever’s by something that makes some noise, just hit it, you know-”

The improvised process is also reminiscent of freestyling, which is also how he came up with a lot of the album’s lyrics, though he keeps a rhymebook as well. “I kinda just go at it. I don’t really write too much – I write sometimes – but I just kinda let the spirit lead me,” he says. “I do both, but you know, it’s whatever is most inspirational for me is what I draw on. Immediate inspiration. I believe in using all the tools that you can.”

One of the blessings of Q-Tip’s little renaissance and the renewal of interest in his and the Tribe’s work (last year the film The Wackness had three of their songs on its soundtrack), is that Kamaal The Abstract – an earlier solo project of his that was canned at the last minute by a short-sighted record label and exists only as bootlegs and escaped promo copies – will finally get a proper release. He drops a hint that the month of May is when they’re talking about for that release. The album may be a few years old now, having been in the vault since back in 2002, but he thinks it was far enough ahead of its time to hold its own next to his more recent material without needing to be tinkered with or updated in any way. “I’m gonna keep it the way it is,” he says emphatically. “There’s some unreleased things from those sessions that I’ll put out with the album as well. It’ll be good to have it out there.”

WHO: Q-Tip
WHAT: Plays Good Vibrations Festival, Centennial Park
WHEN: Saturday 14 February
MORE: q-tip.com

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