Q-Tip was born Jonathan Davis and even though he’ll let you call him Q-Tip, most of his closest friends now use his Muslim name, Kamaal Fareed. He began his musical career in the late eighties as a teenager in the now-legendary group A Tribe Called Quest. Back then there was something in hip-hop that you might call innocence, and a group of smart, silly, afrocentric but not aggressively political kids from Queens, New York, charmed their way into hip-hop’s core with cute songs like “Bonita Applebum” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” Now hip-hop is conglomeratized, a multibillion-dollar business, and Tip has survived the breakup of A Tribe Called Quest and gone through two phases of a solo career, first with slick R&Bized hip-hop like Vivrant Thing and then with a never-released album of singing soul-music style with his funk band. He says he’s returning to straight-ahead hip-hop and will release a solo album this year, but in the music industry nothing is ever written in stone. A Tribe Called Quest is trying to get back together, but no one knows for sure whether that’ll work out, whether the men will be able to come together and make an album as good as the ones they made as boys. This interview was conducted at the Believer event in NYC on December 8, 2003, live onstage in front of a packed house.
I. WILL THERE EVER BE MORE FROM A TRIBE CALLED QUEST?
THE BELIEVER: So Q-Tip, we’ve heard that A Tribe Called Quest is back together after a few years.What’s the deal?
Q-TIP: Okay, Tribe, let me just talk about it and deal with it and get it all out. The thing with Tribe is that we’ve never really had any… we’ve never really broken up in terms that we won’t speak with this one or this one doesn’t speak to that one. There was always…
BLVR: There was never beef?
QT: No, I mean as a group or band, you’re always going to have little beefs and whatever.
BLVR: It’s just the same as a relationship.
QT: Yeah, you know what I mean, we’ve had little tiffs and arguments and stuff. A couple’ve happened as soon as we got offstage.
BLVR: You’ve had moments where you did a show and as soon as you got offstage you were like… [whispers insults]
QT: We’ve had one moment where it was like that, and De La [Soul] was there and stuff like that, blah blah blah…
BLVR: [Laughs] Okay.
QT: It was interesting, but, anyway, like you know, we never disbanded in that sense, but we obviously went under the whole thing of breakin up and not doin it anymore because of our deal with Jive Records and how we were being treated. We just had a lot of strings… we were all growing in different ways. Phife was in Atlanta. I was in New York.
BLVR: So it was personal? It was the record company?
QT: It was out of the business, out of the records.
BLVR: You were one of the first artists who was really big on dissin the industry. You were the one with the record company rule #4080,“Record company people are shady.” You were always saying that. So to hear you say that “I put away my art because the record company was just killing me”—that’s kind of what you’re saying.
QT: Well, I’m not sayin that I put away my art. Because combined, there was a few things happening. You know, us getting shafted, I guess. And it was just a different time in our lives personally, a time in the industry that was different, I think. Our records never really got the first shot at being what they could be…
BLVR: Because of the label?
QT: Yeah, I think initially, and then towards the end you know it came on us, it fell on us as well.
BLVR: You can’t just blame them.
QT:Yeah, you know, it had to do with us as well. How we dealt with it, you know what I mean. We just decided that it would be better if we just did other things.
BLVR: But where are you guys at now?
QT: Now we were talkin about doin somethin, and we actually recorded this song for Jive. This guy named Chris Lighty runs this label Violator Records. I actually introduced him to Russell Simmons and he started workin for Russell. Because Russ used to manage us, and then Chris came in and started managing us. He started managing Missy [Elliot] and Busta [Rhymes] and…
BLVR: 50 Cent.
QT: 50 Cent and Mobb Deep or whatever. So now he wound up over at Jive, and he’s puttin out another Violator record out.The first Violator record that he did, I did a record, my first solo record, Vivrant Thing, put it on there. So we put this record out on Violator, because he was like, “You know, you need to put out your record for my record [label]. You know, for my thing. It’ll be great—Tribe Called Quest,” you know, sellin the magic beans. “It’ll be great! It’ll be great, man! Tribe Called Quest comes back together and put it on my label!”
QT: It had that kind of vibe to it.And you know, all of our business is not really correct up there yet… and stuff like that—it’s still kind of on ice.We just really have to have a real sit-down. Everybody has to discuss everything ’cuz there’s a lot of baggage.
BLVR: Is the quality of life really better on one record label versus another record label?
QT: No, they’re all the same, but some of them have different things to ’em. I say this all the time: one may have a little more salt, one may have a little bit more pepper, but it’s all the same seasoning. You know?
BLVR: Right, right.
QT: So it’s just a matter of what your palate is used to.
BLVR: Right. But you’re going to have a new album next year.
QT: Who me? Yeah, yeah.
BLVR: Stylistically you’ve grown a lot from “Bonita Applebum” to Vivrant Thing. Where is it going to be in terms of the styles that you’ve given us before?
QT:After I did Vivrant Thing, which was like ’98, ’99, I really wanted to put together a band. I love the Roots, I love what they do. Drums are an essential part to hip-hop. It’s an essential part to all music. The first instrument. It’s the communicator. People kinda get sensations and feelings and things like that. So for me with this new stuff, I wanted to have a band, but I wanted the drums to still have those kind of sonic qualities to them. So I kinda worked trying to get the sound together, you know, the certain drum sounds that’re kinda synonymous with hip-hop music—you know, just a real heavy kind of sound. Because sometimes with a band you have one kit and you can be playin it—it can be cool, but it’s just one sound. But we’re spoiled— we’re used to a whole assortment of colors. I wanted it to be where we all sit down as a functioning band, and we all get together and write a tune and rehearse it and hit it and [snaps fingers] to tape we record it, and we go on tour and perform it.
BLVR: Right, right. More the way a rock band goes rather than…
QT: Sorta.A rock band or R&B, yeah, you know what I mean. But I just wanted it to have those hip-hop qualifiers.
II. HOW DOES A RAPPER WRITE?
BLVR: Let’s talk about your creative process. How do you go from a blank page to having a record that we can dance to?
QT: I mean for me, I always start with the music. I don’t know who said it, but someone said that music is the art form that all other art forms are aspiring to be or trying to be. But I try to let the music set the tone and the pace, because it’s just magic. You have these different harmonies, different melodies, and everything is just intertwined and playin together. It just sets a mood. It sets a tone.And I think it’s interesting for you as a writer if you’re gonna pen the tune. To kinda just come in with no hang-ups and just let the music dictate to you what you’re gonna be or what you’re gonna speak about.
BLVR: Because hip-hop guys used to carry notebooks and write their rhymes and then when they found a beat that would go with that they would…
QT: Yeah, I’ve never been that. I started out like that, but then I became really good at freestylin. It was just like off the top of my head or whatever, so I never really started out writin. It’s always been a relationship with the music where I let the music—I just succumb to it the only way… it’s kinda like I just wait for it. ’Cuz that way it’s different every time that you come to it.
BLVR: Rappers can’t really freestyle nowadays, can they? Like you had to when you came up, and not anymore.
QT:Well, I don’t know. I’ve been keepin my eye on a couple of cats and it seems like it’s still getting around. To me, freestylin is important because it’s sorta like if you went into Minton’s circa 1947—y’all know of Minton’s, the jazz house or whatever—and Thelonious Monk is playin somethin and they all just jammin and he’s just playin somthin because there’s Coleman Hawkins playin and Kenny Clarke playin, and they’re playin in a certain way, so he’s just ad-libbin and stuff like that. I liken that to freestyle; it’s the same thing.
BLVR: Now, you came into hip-hop in like ’89, ’90, as a professional.
QT:Yeah, ’89, ’88.
BLVR: And it’s changed tremendously. It was like an underground community almost, and now it’s just a conglomerate sorta thing.What’re your impressions on how this little thing you entered has grown into this monster? People say hip-hop is dead. How do you feel?
QT: Yeah, it’s been co-opted. It’s interesting because hip-hop, the spirit of what it was, the spirit that made it so important, that made it so pertinent, pressing, and any other good “p”—that spirit has died at the hands of a sword-wielding businessman.
BLVR: Yes, yes.
QT: Sliced it up and given the rations out to certain other businesspeople. And they’ve all been eatin it up and spewin it out to the land, and we’ve been kinda like accepting it, you know what I mean? But it’s good ’cuz where you have that, you always have an underground. And where you have that, you always have somebody right now, somewhere changin it. So I think it’s an interesting, exciting time. I feel like the appetite for music is huge, and I feel like there’s just a lot of possibility and I’m really excited about the fact that that spirit has died and now we’re left with the challenge to… it’s hard.
BLVR: You have hope.You have hope!
QT: I do have hope, dammit! I’m an optimist. You know, I’m not one of them pessimistic bastards.
BLVR: Crunk makes me very pessimistic.
QT: Oh, well, there’s certain things that make you say there’s a lot of bullshit.“Isn’t there a lot of bullshit.” I can say “bullshit”? You know what’s a funny thing, as a side note? I was watchin South Park. They had this episode with a guy—I guess apparently you can say “shit” on TV.
BLVR: [Laughs] Yeah, I saw that one where they say it like a hundred times.
QT: It was like “shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.” So I mean, as a rapper, I dig that.
BLVR: [Laughs] So we’re talking about the Golden Era of hip-hop. A lot of people talk about The Scenario, one of the greatest hip-hop records ever, which was you and Phife, and Charlie Brown and Busta Rhymes from Leaders of the New School, and the energy on the record is so incredible. It’s like geez—the night y’all had in the studio making that must’ve been incredible. Like does anyone remember that record, am I alone? [Big applause from audience]
QT:Yeah, thanks, it was definitely somethin.The funny story about that was we came from a club or somewhere and went right to the studio. It must’ve been like two in the morning and I did the track and it was up and it was playin. And everybody was off like writin. Ike came up with the hook, and he would go, “The scenario… blah blah blah.” So, you know, it was a very testosterone-filled room.
BLVR: Right, all men.
QT: All men, all young boyed-out. So it was cool because everybody was writin they rhymes. And Busta, if you don’t know him, he’s like 6’1″ from Brooklyn, got dreds, and he’s very, what’s the word, grand.
BLVR:Yeah, and then like,“Rarrr! Raarrr! Like a dungeon dragon!”
QT: So it’s three in the morning, and we’re all writin, and he’s walkin around, checkin everybody’s rhymes out. He’s like [in Busta’s voice], “Yo wow, what’s that, whatchu got?” So he’s kickin his rhyme, “I’m the… [mumbles fast].”And he’s like [in Busta’s voice],“Yo Phife, whatchu got?” [mumbles fast]
BLVR: You already have the beat.The beat’s playing.
QT: The beat’s up. And then suddenly, I forget who it was, but somebody was sayin, “What you got?” And [Busta] was like [in Busta’s voice] “Naw, funk that.”
QT: So, everybody rhymes and then he goes in last. So when he goes in, because nobody’s heard his, and everybody’s heard everybody else’s from the corner of the ear—so then he goes in and he does his and we’re all like: no wonder. But it was just good, man.
BLVR: There was no catching up to him after that.
III. HAVE YOU MET MOMMA-TIP?
BLVR: Now, you have a close relationship with your dad, which is different. Most rappers don’t know their dads and a lot of that comes through, that sort of anger towards men and towards their self.
QT: Instead of sayin most rappers don’t know their dads…
BLVR: What,“most emcees”?
QT: No, not even that. But when you grow up in the hood, for lack of a better term, your pops is like a fringe benefit. I was born in the seventies, so I had an uncle who died in Vietnam; I had an uncle who got strung out on heroin or whatever. I have a really big family and a lot of my cousins never really got to know their dad. Their dad was out doin somethin else, you know, so there was all these different situations. I’m sayin in terms of inner-city kids and their dads just not being present. But me, I was lucky that I had my father there and honored his values.
BLVR: But that makes a difference in your music, even.
QT: Yeah, it does. It makes a difference in your life, too. For me, though, it’s wild because my father would be teachin me stuff without tellin me. He would leave a Reader’s Digest on the bed, like I’d be four.
QT: This is true. I would pick it up, and he would walk by, and he would keep doin his thing.You know, I miss that. He passed when I was sixteen. So he never really got a chance to see me do this. It’s tough.
BLVR: But you’re very close with your mom.And you do a killer impression of your mom.
QT: Yeah I do.
BLVR: ’Cuz with you as an actor, rapper, producer, etcetera, your mom’s got to be the proudest mom in all of Queens.
QT: Well, maybe some of y’all could’ve met my mother, if you live in New York, ’cuz my mother is the type of mom, she’ll just be walkin down Sixth Avenue and she could see you and she be like [in his mother’s sugary voice], “Baby, what time is it? What? OK… What’s your name?”
QT: “You like hip-hop, you like rap music? You ever hear of A Tribe Called Quest?” And she be like, “That’s my boy, that’s my boy Q-Tip.”
BLVR: And what does she call herself?
QT: [Continuing in mother’s voice] “I call myself Momma Tip”
QT: So, if you’re around in New York City, and you see this black lady who’s like 5’4″, and she’s like sixty years old, and she has this big smile, and she comes up to you and asks if you like hip-hop, don’t be alarmed. It’s my mother. She’ll probably take you back home and make you some cold-and-flu formula or somethin. That’s my mother.
IV. HEY, AIN’T YOU MOS DEF?
BLVR: I want to talk about the sound of your voice.
QT: What about it?
BLVR: I mean it’s the main thing that has always just drawn us in to you as listeners. But I wonder when you first were a kid, when was the first time someone said, “Your voice sounds different than everybody else’s.”
QT: Well, I guess it happened really in high school. Because when you’re little everybody’s voice sounds little.
QT: But mine I guess got stuck somewhere. So I’m getting to high school, and Africa from the Jungle Brothers, you know, we started out together. He said I sounded like a baby or whatever and he’s the one who actually started callin me Q-Tip. I don’t know what—Qtips and babies, I guess.
BLVR: Something good that goes in your ear and feels nice.
QT: I don’t know, I guess it’s very soft. I guess my voice sounds… I don’t know, I’m tryin to explain his madness.
BLVR: But you’re not crazy about the sound.
QT: No, I’ve always been…
BLVR: I can’t believe that.
QT:Yeah, man, I feel a way about it because it sounds so… Picture this: you’re hungry and you want to get away from home, people don’t know you, and you want to get a good pizza. So you call up Information.
BLVR: I can see where this is going.
QT: [Laughs] No, no, you call up information—this is serious—and then you’re like,“Can I have the number for Domino’s?” [Information operator voice] “Which town, ma’am?”
BLVR: [Laughs] And how often do the 411 people be like,“Is this Q-Tip?”
QT: Yeah, that happens.That’s funny because I get people who know who I am, and then people will call me either Ice-T or Ice Cube. ’Cuz Q-Tip, and Ice-T, and Ice Cube…
BLVR: All those rapper names.
QT: Well, ice tea, these are all things you’ll find in the house; Q-Tip, you know what I mean? So people will mix it up. But as of late I’ve been getting a lot of Mos Def. “Ain’t you Mos Def?”
BLVR: Really, that’s got to be a little like, damn, I practically spawned him, like aesthetically speaking.
QT: I mean, shit, it’s cool I guess, I’ll take it.