Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed is the leader of Queens, New York–based group A Tribe Called Quest, whose innovative first three albums are perhaps hip-hop’s most universally beloved — by both fans and critics. Tensions plagued 1996’s disappointing fourth, Beats, Rhymes and Life, and the trio split in 1998. But despite reuniting a few times — including for the current Rock the Bells tour — Q-Tip, 38, is still uneasy mulling over his legacy. “I’m just tired of talking about Tribe, B,” he says over the phone, three days after our initial interview, which took place at Universal Records’ Midtown Manhattan offices. “It’s like, I’ve been talking about it the whole time.”
Maybe that’s because it’s been nine years since the release of his solo debut, Amplified (the jazzy full-band mishmash Kamaal the Abstract and the more conventional Open are only available as online bootlegs), and in the meantime, he’s become better known to a new generation as a stylish Hollywood sidekick (hitting clubs with Leonardo DiCaprio, dating Nicole Kidman). But with The Renaissance, set for release in September, the Abstract Poetic MC may have rediscovered his groove.
Before heading to a meeting in the East Village with his old friend, producer Mark Ronson, Q-Tip chatted thoughtfully about his early interest in music, the relationship between hip-hop stars and their fans, and, yes, A Tribe Called Quest.
What role did music play in your household growing up in Jamaica, Queens?
Music was a big deal. My dad was into jazz, and he collected records. My mom was into blues and gospel.
Did your parents push you in that direction?
I just gravitated toward music. I just loved it. It was an extension of my thoughts. It was an extension of my imagination. And it was an extension of my dreams. My dad used to write poetry and my sister was this really amazing writer, so I was also naturally into writing. I used to write stories. I sang in church, but growing up in the neighborhood, music was more of an expression of relief or entertainment. It wasn’t this thing you did to get out [of the hood].
At the time, people like Stevie Wonder and other artists were superstars, icons. And you didn’t have all this information: You had four TV channels, two newspapers, a radio station, and the movie theater. Those were your portals into the world of entertainment. You would get an album cover and just stare at it. The music became more prevalent with hip-hop because it was something my sister and I could relate to. It spoke to us, just being young and having our own energy, our own clothes, the way we spoke, our own art. It was ours.
When did you first hear hip-hop?
My mother used to make my sister take me wherever she went. My sister is six years older than me, so she was taking me to block parties or jams. This is, like, 1977, ’78, ’79. By then, Grandmaster Flash was a legend in the Bronx. My first memory of hip-hop was this block party, and there was a disco record by Karen Young called “Hot Shot.” It was summer, about the end of June. Everybody was doing “the Freak.” There was a part of the record that went “Hot shot, hot shot, hot,” and then there was a break.
The DJ was bringing it back and forth. It was really hot outside and I was a kid, so I related to things in a very simple way, and I remembered that. I just felt like, “Wow, what was that?” Then, when I heard [early rap hits] “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” and “Rapper’s Delight” on the same day, I saw everything differently.
Did you want to learn about it right away?
No, I was more fascinated because I didn’t have a relationship to music like that. I didn’t think I could be in the same setting with the greats, because these were our heroes, so I didn’t really look at it like, “I want to do this.” What made me do it was [future A Tribe Called Quest MC partner] Phife. After listening to the Sugarhill Gang, he was like, “Listen to this, man. They’re rapping.”
Did school have a big influence on you?
My school, Murry Bergtraum [High School for Business Careers in Lower Manhattan], was very creative. You had to interview and get accepted. It was a specialized school with above-average kids. I was into computers at the time, and thought I would do something with them. [Tribe DJ] Ali [Shaheed Muhammad], Afrika and Mike from the Jungle Brothers, and Brother J from X-Clan went there. Everyone thought you guys were the babies of the Native Tongues [the movement that featured De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, et al.].
They tried to pose it like that, but in reality, we were the sages.
Your comanager Chris Lighty told me a few years ago that every time you went into the studio, the success of the first three Tribe albums weighed on your shoulders.
Yeah, there was some pressures, more so during Beats, Rhymes and Life. I felt it all changing — rap, the group. It was more commerce. Puff was getting his thing off. Dre and ‘Pac and Death Row was jumping, so it was a different thing.
It was obvious that something was wrong during the making of Beats, Rhymes and Life.
Yeah. I think it was off because I just had taken my shahada [a declaration of religious belief; Q-Tip is a Sunni Muslim]. I got Ali back into Islam, and a couple of brothers were hanging around me, and we were making salat [prayer] in the studio. It just became a seriousness. Whereas prior, there was a lightheartedness to Tribe.
We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, and then I think I was guilty of taking myself way too seriously. Now I chalk it up to being a product of youth. I see where Phife felt we were a little out of sorts. Still in all, I think the dynamics weren’t dealt with in a dysfunctional way. We’re good now. I’m no angel; I’m sure there are things I’ve done that…
How did you and Phife mend your friendship?
I never really had problems; he more had problems with me, because I was the type of person who would voice my opinions. He viewed me as this kind of figure [in the group]. Every issue I had with him, I would say it, and it would be done afterward. I wouldn’t let it affect me years down the line. But I always had love for him and continue to have love for him.
Why are you guys going back on the road, headlining the Rock the Bells tour?
It’s really our last opportunity to do it like this. The opportunity came, the deal was nice, so it was like, “Let’s just go now.”
How is Phife doing? He looked so gaunt at the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors show last year.
Diabetes, man. He’s all right. He’s doing a lot better.
Would Tribe be as successful if you started now?
I think that if we came out today, we would be good, because there are strains of what we did doing well today. Kanye, Lupe [Fiasco] are all strains of what we did.
Really? When I heard Lupe, I immediately thought 8Ball and MJG.
[Laughs.] Now, now.
[Editor’s note: During a taping of the 2007 VH1 Hip-Hop Honors tribute to A Tribe Called Quest, Lupe Fiasco forgot the lyrics to Tribe’s “Electric Relaxation.” Later, he wrote that as a “ghetto kid,” he was into gangsta rap like N.W.A, 8Ball, and Spice 1 growing up, but had never really listened to Tribe’s albums — despite the obvious stylistic similarities — and hadn’t wanted to perform on the show, but was pressured into it.]
How disappointing was the so-called Fiascogate?
[Long pause.] No comment. [Laughs.]
Your last solo album, Amplified, was released in 1999. How many songs have you recorded since then?
I’ve probably done about 500 songs, and about 200 of them have vocals. I’m probably going to put a lot of that stuff out, maybe through mix tapes. I’m going to put Kamaal the Abstract out. I kind of felt it was the future.
Do you often go back and tinker with those 200 songs?
I do tinker a lot. I love doing that — it’s like painting, where there is a picture and then you keep adding to it.
Has technology taken some of the fun out of music?
Yup. It’s really [special] to have something tangible, like the cover of an album. We do get kind of spoiled with all this technology, and then we dispose of it very quickly.
As an artist, how do you feel about that?
I think it’s a shame, because everyone becomes a critic. You see something at the bottom of everything that says, “What’s your comment?” And everyone has to offer their opinion and comment. Then there is internal warfare between the commentators with their comments. Rollins69 said something about the new Lil Wayne song and who did the beat. Then SarahWoo58 will be like, “No, he didn’t do the beat, this guy did the beat.” To me, that drains the art.
All of a sudden, the imagination just passes. Whereas predating the Internet and predating videos, you had an active imagination. You would hear sounds and then get mental pictures of what these sounds felt like to you. It engaged you and made you more invested in it. It made you want to get tickets to the show, buy the album, put the poster on the wall. Now it’s sensory overload.
Amplified was criticized as being a too-flashy departure from Tribe. Why do fans get upset when artists experiment?
It’s because, in action, the majority of people prefer comfort rather than progression. In theory, people would pick progression every time over being idle. But if you look at us as a culture, as a people, you would say that if you get up at five o’clock in the morning, eat your breakfast, go to work, make money, pay your bills, you’re progressing, when you’re still doing what’s comfortable. Progressing is if you move yourself into a different place and you’re on a search or a quest — pardon the pun. People don’t like to be uprooted. They want to have that comfortable place that has a face that will always be there and a voice that sounds familiar and will always be there. So when those things — in this instance, Tribe — get stirred up or broken, people get mad. They don’t see it as a progression; they see it as a disruption.
It seems like that happens more in hip-hop than other genres. Why?
[Long pause.] Because I feel like hip-hop is more hands-on, and the relationship between the listener and the artist is not that far removed. Hip-hop is more of a culture than rock. You have your talk, your slang, your dress, your approach; you have a swagger, there’s a whole way you carry your shit. There’s a way you write, there’s a way you do art, a way you comment on the world. And because of that, there’s more of a familiarity with the artist, a real relationship. And there’s more of a folklore type of hero thing to it — but then, it’s very fickle. It’s a love-hate relationship.
People who are in hip-hop are invested in the culture, and the minute you fuck with it, it’s like you’re fucking with their biochemistry, you’re fucking with their lifeline. It’s that same analogy to jazz back in the day. Motherfuckers were pissed at Charlie Parker and Dizzy [Gillespie]. People were like, “This shit is noise. What the fuck is this?” Critics were ragging them. People of that generation, of that ilk, then became more receptive and started to fuck with them.
The reason why I think it’s that way with jazz and hip-hop is because it’s a culture. There’s a politics that exists. It’s a commentary about who we are as people, the way we see the world, the way we see others, how we should be. Race has something to do with it because by being African American, by default, you are a creature of politics. You have all of those things seeping in there, and that is why you have such a volatile relationship between the practitioner and the purchaser.
So it all goes back to people discovering the music when they’re young and being affected by it?
It’s like, you know your hip-hop because when you went to school, you had this music rockin’. You and your boys would hang out to music. You probably got your first piece of ass because you were dancing with a girl to a Biggie record. This shit stained you. It wasn’t just a song; it was a culture. You walked around and talked like that. Rock was like that in the beginning, but then it got freaked out. Hip-hop has still been able to hold on to its culture. Right now, it’s going through a metamorphosis and turning into something else, but it’s still youth-driven. And youth is not necessarily age — it’s mentality.
Do you think you’ve dealt with celebrity well?
I think I did. It was just fun. I was 18. I was a kid. Of course, there were times when you get bigheaded, but you’re traveling the world and shit like that. I never really took it too seriously. I take what I do very seriously, but it’s a lighthearted seriousness.
There’s a line on the song “Getting Up” from your new album where you say, “Still a common man / Yeah, that’s for sure.” Are you kinda being sarcastic?
Nah, I meant it. I’m a common guy. I’m a blue-collar kind of dude. My dad worked the transit, and my moms raised us.
When you were hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire and other Hollywood stars, was that a shortcut to transitioning toward acting?
Nah, those are my boys.
Do you still hang with Leo?
He seems really serious.
Oh, hell no, he’s a fucking idiot. He’s a big hip-hop head. He’s actually funny. I tell him all the time that he needs to do a comedy.
Why doesn’t he?
I don’t know. I guess he wants to focus on continuing to build a brand. He feels like he hasn’t gotten to where he wants to get to as an actor.
You have another celebrity opening up your new album. Why start with a Barack Obama speech?
I feel that there are a lot of things in society that speak to a renaissance or change, and I feel like he embodies that. I feel like, where I’m at, I’m into my music so much more, and I’m thinking about the relationship with the fans and being as creative as possible. And I feel like Barack Obama, kind of in a political sense, embodies that same kind of spirit as a Q-Tip or a Santogold or a Common. I feel like there is a synergy going on here in this country and abroad. I feel like the doors are open, and it’s time to push them wide open.