Q-Tip: The Abstract Poetic @ 50

Is Q-Tip the greatest rapper-producer of all time? Check the beats and rhymes.

Image: Q-Tip performs at the Grammys in L.A. in 2017. Credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS.

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.

So, in this polarized society, is A Tribe Called Quest our most unanimously beloved group? Is Q-Tip the greatest rapper-producer of all time? Check the beats and rhymes.

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.

If the Love Movement is the weakest of the five ’90s studio albums, it remains a bittersweet heart-on-sleeve lament superior to 98 percent of rap records ever released. And with 2016’s We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, Tribe managed an unthinkable triumph, featuring posthumous revelation from Phife, a resurrected Jarobi and an eerie timeliness that indelibly shaped the memories of those who listened to it as therapy the week after the election of Agent Orange.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Q-Tip might be that you can remove the entire Tribe canon from consideration and he’s still an all-time great. His work since Tribe’s original split has been rare but consistently visionary. There is Amplified, which dropped in late ’99 to a mixed reception, but received its overdue props when the world caught up to the inventiveness of its Dilla co-production. There’s the once heavily bootlegged Kamaal the Abstract, shelved in 2002 because Arista didn’t think it would sell. No obvious single existed among the groove-oriented float, but it offers loose, funky and expansive fusion in the vein of the Soulquarian movement that Tip spawned; moreover, it sutures the Last Poets, Miles and Prince to vintage Tribe. His critically lauded The Renaissance, from 2008, was nominated for the Best Rap Album Grammy.

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.”

None of this even hints at guest verses that would be career-making for lesser mortals. The Linden Blvd. representer’s verse on Janet Jackson’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone” was so memorable that Joni Mitchell began singing his lyrics at live renditions of “Big Yellow Taxi” (the original song sampled). His verse on Beastie Boys’ “Get It Together” might as well be a quiz on how well (or if) you remember the ’90s. He pops up on the hook of JAY-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” and late-period Chemical Brothers rave-ups. A separate essay needs to be written about how his 16 bars on Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” vaults it into contention as the most universal and flawless party song ever made. And in case there was still doubt of his era-transcending virtuosity, he’s collaborated with Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Stanley Clarke, R.E.M., Elvis Costello and the late Purple one himself.

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.

The seen-it-all engineer Bob Power once called Tip “the Thelonious Monk of hip-hop.” And there is something undeniably Monk-like in the way his nimble nasal-drip trill dances over and beneath the melody, discovering hidden pockets and rhythms. But a more apt comparison might be Charlie Parker, who invented an entirely new school of musicality in just six years, between 1939 and 1945, and influenced almost every jazz great that followed. After all, no less than Tip’s father himself said that hip-hop reminded him of bebop. As the years and decades mount and things continue to move in cycles, there remains something eternal about the body of work that Q-Tip conjured. He strove for longevity and achieved timelessness.


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