It’s impossible to fully distill the essence of a total stranger, let alone an enigmatic generational talent like Q-Tip. But if you were searching for a Rosetta stone, I’d point toward consecutive scenes from early on in Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. The first finds Phife breaking down the centrifugal dynamic of the immortal Queens quartet of Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
“Let’s say we’re doing a two- or three-month tour,” the 5-foot assassin explains. “If we in Chicago and the Cubs are playing, me and Jarobi will go drink a beer, eat a pretzel or a hot dog, go watch the damned game. Ali will be up in his room playing the guitar. And Q-Tip will always be record shopping. That was his hobby; that was what he loved to do.”
Cut to Q-Tip in the rare-groove section of a Japanese record shop, flanked by Count Basie and John Coltrane posters. He asks the counterman if they have any 12-inch boogie records from Queen Constance, a relatively obscure and evanescent New York post-disco label. Methodically rifling through the wax, the Abstract Poetic tells the camera about how he’s always checking to see who produced what, which label it’s on, who else is playing on the record, the look of the cover, etc.
“A lot of kids who come up doing hip-hop are doing so with the only tools that they have,” Q-Tip recalls of the genesis. “All we had was records. In comes Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash and [Afrika] Bambaataa and … we take these turntables and they become our instruments. [The] society that we’re performing for now is our own society and our own neighborhoods and our own ghettos … and that turns into emceeing. … Apart from jazz, hip-hop is the last true American art form. … We [took] all of these different things and genres that we [were] influenced by and mixed it all together. … It’s a beautiful thing.”
Therein lies the spiritual philosophy governing the genius of the artist, born Jonathan Davis on April 10, 1970. He’s scholastically devoted to tradition and heritage but omnivorously innovative and forward-thinking. He embodies the improvisational spirit of a jazzman with the meticulousness of a crate-digger, always listening for the elysian loop or break, attuned to the most minor variances of swing, cadence and tempo. He reifies the unalloyed soul of hip-hop, and could stand as its de facto logo in the same way Jerry West was selected to be the NBA’s silhouette. Or, to switch sports, there’s an old bit of clubhouse lore that says Ted Williams, the finest pure hitter in baseball history, could pick up a bat and tell if the listed weight was even a fraction of an ounce off. This is Tip inside the studio, gifted with the golden ear to slightly alter a kick or a snare into canted harmony, or tweak a few syllables in a rhyme or its delivery, striving for perfection and somehow consistently achieving it.
The first three Tribe albums are such peerless classics that superlative praise seems trite. Along with their crew, the Native Tongues, they basically invented underground and alternative rap. With Q-Tip producing almost everything, they discovered the Northwest Passage between jazz and hip-hop. They dropped arguably the best posse cut in history (“Scenario”) and flipped the most effortlessly ingenious sample ever, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” into “Can I Kick It?” When hip-hop was wrongly indicted as ignorant and unmusical, Tribe translated it in a way that allowed millions to finally understand; more important, they accomplished this without diluting any of its power, grit or political message. You’d need an entire book to pay proper tribute. (And, in fact, Hanif Abdurraqib has written it.)
Back when The Source was hip-hop’s Talmud, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory made Tribe the only ones to get Five-Mic scores on their first two tries. Midnight Marauders is arguably the best of the trinity, a singular blend of narrative storytelling, whimsical imagination, carnal workouts, uptempo serotonin shots and sing-along hooks seared into the collective memory. Beats, Rhymes and Life was considered a slight disappointment upon its release, but in hindsight it’s a dark, moody and vexed left turn that featured some of the best production from J Dilla’s first wave.
Somehow, there is much more. Q-Tip mixed and midwifed Mobb Deep’s grimy classic The Infamous and dropped three gems from behind the boards as “the Abstract”: “Temperature’s Rising,” “Give Up the Goods (Just Step)” and “Drink Away the Pain (Situations)” (where he strayed from the song’s alcoholic theme to name-drop clothing brands — still notching an all-time heat check). You want range? The guy who made the callipygian love ballad “Bonita Applebum” was also one of the predominant creative forces behind the album famous for the phrase “stab your brain with your nose bone.”
For the last 30 years, Q-Tip has been stealthily ubiquitous. He’s produced or co-produced subwoofer-rupturing boom-bap for Diamond D (“K.I.S.S.”), Apache (“Gangsta Bitch”), Nas (“One Love”), the Roots (“Ital [The Universal Side])” and Roc Marciano (“Thread Count”). He’s crafted effervescent pop for Mariah Carey (“Honey”) and Whitney Houston (“Fine”), arena-sized theatrics for JAY-Z, Kanye and Beyoncé (“Lift Off”) and soulful fusion for Esperanza Spalding, Anderson .Paak and Solange. Most recently, he executive-produced Danny Brown’s uknowhatimsayin¿, fundamentally impacting the veteran Detroit rapper’s entire approach to recording.
“I almost had to relearn how to rap again. It was an ego-death type thing,” Brown told me last year. “He gave me a whole new outlook on making albums. Before, I just wanted to capture an emotion. [Q-Tip] pushed me to make it perfect. And his post-production game is next level.”
As far as influence, you’re better off talking about who Tip didn’t directly or indirectly mold. Pharrell has described himself, Dilla and Kanye as being “Q-Tip’s sons.” At Phife’s memorial, Kanye said, “Anything I ever did wrong, blame Tip and Phife, ’cause y’all raised me.” With regard to Dilla, Tip discovered him, linked him with Common, D’Angelo and the Pharcyde, and became one of his most important co-conspirators. Madlib fittingly scored the Tribe documentary. The L.A. beat-scene mecca — the most important club night of the century — was named Low End Theory. Go back and listen to Kendrick Lamar’s pre-fame mixtapes and you’ll hear him rapping over Q-Tip originals.