“I want the music to be better,” says a soft-spoken Q-Tip, his gaze fixed and serious as he discusses the inspiration behind his latest, and long-awaited, solo project — his first official release since Amplified (Arista, 1999). “I feel like the music that's going on today, especially in hip-hop, is almost circumstantial. It's all about business, rather than about some sort of emotional or spiritual quest. There's some that's good, but that falls in the category of an exception. We have to take care of the music. We can't just let it be circumstantial. It's a great and mighty thing, and it really is healthy because of all the great musicians who came before us — so we gotta remember that and hold to it.”
As a prime mover behind one of hip-hop's most influential groups, Q-Tip certainly knows the territory. The funky, fun-loving and consciousness-raising seam that was opened up by A Tribe Called Quest — beginning with People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive, 1990), coalescing with The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991) and cresting with Midnight Marauders (Jive, 1993) and Beats, Rhymes and Life (Jive, 1996) — still exerts a profound influence today, despite the blind realities of a business that Tip himself has experienced firsthand. In his mind, it's time for a rebirth, with a bit of righteous indignation thrown in for good measure.
The Renaissance (Motown/Universal, 2008) is Q-Tip's aptly named follow-up to two solo albums that went famously unreleased (and widely bootlegged) — 2001's Kamaal the Abstract and 2005's Open. Although at this writing, the album was still in the sequencing and mixing phase (with the possibility of even the title changing before its planned February release), and may or may not contain completely retooled versions of several songs that were meant for Open, all advance tastes point to this one being the breakthrough that Tip has promised since Kamaal the Abstract was so unceremoniously pulled back by the Arista label. The third time might indeed be the charm after all.
“I have my vision, and this record will communicate that,” Q-Tip says. “Some of the music is from Open, but I've changed some things around because it got bootlegged, and a lot of people heard it. Some of those ideas were so good, I just didn't want to lose them all. So I'm trying to get it to a place where I'm good with it, to put closure to it, but I wanted to get some stuff from Open in there, too.”
If the first single, “Work It Out,” released in mid-2007 on Tip's MySpace page, offered any initial indication, it was clear that The Renaissance was going to be propelled by the same energy and musicianship that had made Open such a stunner for those lucky enough to hear it. Guided by the chicken-picked guitar lines of avant-fusionist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the serpentine bass of Derek Hodge and the banging drums of Mark Colenburg (all of whom Tip calls out in the opening verse), the song is a blistering amalgam of samples, live performances, layered drums and reprocessed sounds.
“I've always been an advocate of live musicianship,” Tip says. It's a stance he was forced to recalibrate in earnest after a fire in early 1998 destroyed his record collection, his beat libraries and very nearly his house in northern New Jersey, where he now maintains his home recording studio [see sidebar, “Live From the Living Room”]. “After that happened, I knew I had to start from scratch and learn how to play. The fire may have taken away a lot of my tools, but it didn't take away my knack for creating what I was hearing, so I wanted to get that out the best way possible. That's why I wanted to get more into being a musician. It changed my perspective in a big way.”
Tip taught himself on piano, drums and other instruments — abilities which, when added to his already well-honed talents on various drum machines, samplers and recording platforms, more than prepared him for a full-on collaboration with experienced players like Rosenwinkel. (Q-Tip co-produced Rosenwinkel's 2003 Verve release Heartcore.)
“I'd usually come up with a sketch on the [Akai] MPC3000,” he explains. “Then I'd shoot that to the guys, and they'd take it and play with it, and I'd take what they'd do sometimes and chop it up, so it was always going through processing. It would morph and change to become whatever it was meant to become. In that way, jazz was a little bit of an inspiration, especially with the way Miles [Davis] was so organic in what he did with his band. He'd go for certain colors and certain vibes, like a painting. Making music is like that, with the palettes, the colors, the tones and the hues.”
The Renaissance is rife with varying tonalities, in fact. Case in point: the throbbing, sci-fi-sounding atmospherics of “Fever” (which shimmers with the familiar ring of a Jay Dee co-production, now retooled into a band-driven mother ship) juxtaposed against the raw, dry and jazz-adelic studio jam “Life's Circus” (known in a previous Open incarnation as “Black Boy”). With recording engineer Blair Wells waiting in the wings on a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 system, Tip would often take whole sections of live jams and either layer them with sampled elements — kicks, snares and claps in particular — or reprocess them entirely.
“Really the one consistent piece has always been Pro Tools,” Wells notes. “We have it set up so the [Chandler LTD-1] mic pres run direct into the Pro Tools rig, through the patch bay. We've got everything patchable so we can sample back out of Pro Tools or sample back in. We try to route everything in a flexible way so that we can really experiment with the tonality and the overall structure of the songs.”
Q-Tip goes even further with aural textures than he did on Open, trying numerous methods to get to the sound he hears in his head. “The MPC3000 has been his main workhorse,” Wells says, “but there was a period where he went back to the [E-mu] SP-1200 for obvious tonal reasons. He's tried the MPC4000 and the 1000, and some of the Roland boxes like the Fantom [X-series workstation] with the drum pads, to rework his samples.”
For guitars, bass and keyboards (the latter usually played either by Q-Tip himself or prog-jazz upstart James Hurt), which were split between an amped-and-miked signal and direct to Pro Tools, most of the processing happened in Pro Tools with the aid of various effects plug-ins. “In general, we use our outboard gear to get the best quality signal into the machine,” Wells continues, “and then a lot of the manipulation is happening in the digital realm. But we also did a good amount of re-amping. We use the Little Labs PCP Distro, which is basically a glorified re-amp box, but it also has routing capabilities where you can have a signal going through multiple amplifiers and independently adjust the levels.”
Sometimes the sound manipulation happened right at the source, as it did for the distorted-sounding Fender Rhodes that lends “Life's Circus” its principal character. “We took off the top of the Rhodes,” Q-Tip says, “and I taped some wax paper over the tines and then miked that to get that pop in the sound. I think it worked much better at making that happen than any effects pedal or plug-in could have.”
DRUMS ON TAP
Just as Open benefited enormously from the signature thwack-driven power of drummer Mark Colenburg, so too did the beats on The Renaissance — many of which were either reprocessed from the original sessions or based on recuts that Colenburg tracked using a Clavia ddrum SE-4 electronic drum kit. The kit has long been a favorite of Q-Tip's for its signature ability to compress drum sounds into a tube-warmed veil that maintains the snap of the original sample while creating a gritty, tape-baked sheen.
“I got hip to that just through searching,” Tip explains. “I have the Roland V-Drums, but with the ddrum, the way the brain processes the sound is just dope. I sampled and chopped up a lot of the drums on the album and then routed them through that. There's compression when you load sounds into the brain, so it really keeps the integrity of the drum sounds nice and even. Then we triggered everything up — I use a Ludwig Vistalite acoustic kit with a Black Beauty snare — and we'd run it through the ddrum and put that back in the room, as well. We'd have a monitor in the room and then mic that, too.”
Once Colenburg's original drum tracks — which were usually recorded with a pair of Coles 4038 ribbon mics and various combinations for the kick, snare and hi-hat — had been processed and loaded into the electronic kit, a live pass of ddrums would often be blended in or used to entirely replace the original. “It was a headache to get the sounds into it,” Wells recalls. “You had to use an old-style MIDI sample dump. But once they were in there, Mark would replay his original drum sounds to give us a take with no dynamics and just a solid groove all the way through. That allowed us to really integrate the drum kit itself between being a real kit and an electronic one. It was all Tip's idea originally, and Mark obviously had a lot of fun with it.”
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Along with the cutting-edge musicians who make up his live band (which also includes Chris Sholar on guitar and DJ Scratch on turntables), Q-Tip tentatively plans to reprise appearances from two of the heavies who appeared on Open — namely, Outkast's Andre 3000 (who drops a guest vocal on “Sexy”) and D'Angelo (who plays keys and sings background on “I Believe”). While there's a possibility that a revamped “Sexy” will end up instead on Andre's next album, “I Believe” is definitely going through a part-two configuration, due to its widespread visibility online when Open originally leaked.
“That originally came together with me and D'Angelo just vibing,” Tip confers. “He came out to my house to do that, and we just found our way to that groove. I really want to finish another version of that because I feel the song is just too strong to leave off the album.”
J Dilla, aka Jay Dee, in particular seems to have left a profound impression on the sonic direction of The Renaissance, and although he may or may not have some of his trademark hyper-syncopated beats on the finished version, he still shines through in spirit. “His whole thing was getting the right kit,” Tip intones, his voice slightly hushed with admiration, “and having the kits in tune to what was happening. That's what I picked up from him. We both used the MPC at the same time, too. He did everything on that, but on Amplified, we mixed to tape, and I think I might do that again on the next album. Tape can be a cumbersome thing, but it does have a certain frequency and warmth that just cannot be duplicated. I mean, Pro Tools and tape are both good — to the layman's ear, you can't really pick up the difference too much — but to us, you know, you can hear it.”
As it turns out, if there's one track here that captures the essence of The Ummah — the production team founded by Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and J Dilla — it would have to be the stutter-funk lope of “Ofishal,” which features Tip on turntable cuts and a crispy live rhythm track that recalls vintage Tribe from the Beats, Rhymes and Life days.
“I have a line in there about percussion being a weapon,” Tip says and then rhymes, “I feel what the beat does/ People fuck with me 'cause /When this song ends /I become what the beat was.” He pauses again to let the thought sink in. “It's just about trying to ascend and let people know where my head is at with the music. I take this very seriously, and this is officially what I do. I'm an artist, and just the wordplay of it all — I'm trying to fit into the beat. I really try to become that instrument with my voice. I really believe in the percussive sense, and in a real musical sense. My voice has a little bit of a musicality to it, so I try to approach it like that.”
Live From the Living Room
Recording engineer Blair Wells first hooked up with Q-Tip through ace producer Bob Power, who manned the console for A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, D'Angelo and many more. “Q-Tip was looking for some help to upgrade his home studio,” Wells recalls, “so Bob put us in touch for me to help him make that transition. We got to know each other through Kamaal the Abstract, and then I started engineering Open. At the time, he had just moved into a new house, so he was starting again from scratch and really wanted to build a bigger facility.”
Initially, acoustics designer Fran Manzella was brought in to build a full-on basement studio with several different recording spaces and a large control room. A slab was poured and the basic infrastructure installed, but Q-Tip wanted to continue working, so his living room became the main recording space while construction continued. “We spent a lot of time experimenting with where the best place was to put the drums,” Wells says. “There's not much room to move around in the studio due to all the records Q-Tip has, and the layout in his house is pretty wacky, with certain areas having huge high ceilings. Once we had the drums put in the right place, it definitely didn't sound like a recording studio, but it had a really nice character to it.”
Q-Tip liked the intimacy of the setup, especially when the full band was set up and the room completely miked. “We have some bleeding because you can't get that much separation,” Tip says, “Everything was cool because we had Dis and regular room mics, so I could level it off. If I knew I needed some separation on the bass or the guitar or the keyboards, I'd use the DI signal. We used the mics to get the atmosphere of the room because of those big ceilings.”
Computer, DAW, hardware
Apple Mac G5 dual 2.5 GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 Accel, 192 I/Os
Prism Sound Dream AD-124 converters
Turntables, DJ software, DJ mixer
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables
Serato Scratch Live software
Technics SL-1200s turntables
Vestax PMC-06 ProA VCA DJ mixer
ARP Odyssey, Solina String Ensemble
Clavia ddrum4 SE system
Fender Rhodes Bass, Rhodes suitcase Mark I
Gibson ES-325 and Les Paul guitars (with Line 6 Vetta guitar combo amp and Echo Pro modeling effects processor)
Ludwig Vistalite drum kit
Roland Fantom X-series workstation, Juno-106
Wurlitzer electric piano
Mics, preamps, EQ, compressors, effects
AKG C 451, D 12 and D 112 drum mics
Chandler Limited LTD-1 expanded 10-series EQ/preamp, LTD-2 compressor, TG1 compressor, TG2 preamp
Coles 4038 ribbon mics
Empirical Labs EL-8 Distressors
Lawson L47 mic
Manley Reference Gold vocal mic
Sennheiser MD421 dynamic mics
Shure SM57 mics
Universal Audio 1176LN compressor/limiter
PMC AML1 active monitor system