Iconic Producer and Rapper Q-Tip Blurs Genre Lines to Push Hip-Hop Forward

Sample five tracks from A Tribe Called Quest’s main producer and frontman Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, aka Q-Tip.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Iconic producer, rapper and tastemaker Kamaal Ibn John Fareed or, as he’s more publicly known, Q-Tip, found his passion for music as a preteen in Queens, New York. He and future collaborator Malik Taylor, or Phife Dawg, were just kids when they met at church and struck up a friendship built around their love of music. Encouraged by Phife, Q-Tip started rapping shortly after the pair heard the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” for the first time. He also began mining records from his father’s extensive jazz collection and started DJing and making beat tapes by age 12.

By the time he got to high school, Q-Tip also befriended Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Afrika Baby Bam and Mike Gee, the latter two forming the hip-hop group Jungle Brothers. Q-Tip continued to refine his MC skills by participating in rap battles under the monikers MC Love Child and J Nice. He and Muhammad formed an MC and DJ duo and began making demo tapes. They were later joined by fellow classmate Phife as well as neighborhood friend Jarobi White and collectively started calling themselves Quest.

Afrika Baby Bam gave him the nickname “Q-Tip,” which stuck with him in high school, and eventually becoming his stage name. In 1988, Q-Tip was featured on Jungle Brothers’ songs “The Promo,” which he helped produce, and “Black Is Black,” in which he renamed his group A Tribe Called Quest.

Click on the player above to hear “5 on 5: Q-Tip” and explore Q-Tip’s evolving legacy with these five essential tracks:

1. “Bonita Applebum” — A Tribe Called Quest

In 1989, A Tribe Called Quest signed with Jive Records and began working on their debut album, with Q-Tip serving as the group’s main producer and frontman. The album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was released in early 1990 and established Q-Tip as a highly skilled lyricist, an inventive producer and one of the most unique voices in hip-hop.

“Bonita Applebum” employs a creative sample from the Roy Ayers-produced group Ramp and their track “Daylight.” “Bonita” was based on a real girl who attended the group’s high school. The song explains the politeness and deference of approaching a woman as a romantic interest, with Q-Tip’s approach being sincere and earnest, which was diametrically opposed to the abject misogyny of hip-hop at that time.

2. “Check the Rhime” — A Tribe Called Quest

People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm put the hip-hop community on notice that A Tribe Called Quest was a group to watch. They went on to release The Low End Theory, a quintessential album melding hip-hop and jazz fusion. Q-Tip being the tastemaker and resourceful musician he was mined samples from his jazz collection while metaphorically drawing comparisons between their lyrical style with jazz players like Lonnie Smith, Grover Washington Jr. and Ron Carter, the latter joining the recording sessions to add his supple basslines to tracks like “Excursions” and “Buggin’ Out.”

It was The Low End Theory in which Q-Tip and Phife Dawg refined their lyrical chemistry, becoming one of the most devastating 1-2 punches in hip-hop with a sharp-witted, contrasting lyrical style grounded in social commentary, humor and gripping wordplay.

3. “Vivrant Thing”

Fueled by Q-Tip’s musical vision and eclecticism, A Tribe Called Quest would continue to blur genre lines and achieve artistic benchmarks with its following release Midnight Marauders, highly regarded as their best work and one of the best albums created during the golden age of hip-hop of the early 1990s. They went on to release Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement before disbanding for a time to pursue solo ventures. For Q-Tip, this manifested as his 1999 release, Amplified, which he produced with J Dilla, whom he had met some years earlier through Detroit soul man Amp Fiddler.

4. “Feelin'”

The next few years would find Q-Tip bouncing around record labels as the industry was in a state of flux. Some of his subsequent projects would become shelved or shuffled around as record companies merged and downsized, and new executives became hesitant to release albums they deemed as too experimental with not enough mainstream commercial appeal. As a result, Q-Tip’s albums remained shelved in the purgatory of the developmental stage with no release, as was the case with his work Kamaal The Abstract, recorded in 2001.

The album was originally planned for release in 2002 as the follow-up to Amplified, but it was shelved by Q-Tip’s record label at the time who doubted its commercial viability. It was eventually leaked on the internet, while the distribution of promotional copies led several publications to run reviews of the album anyway, thus serving as an unofficial release. It eventually received a formal release in 2009.

The album finds Q-Tip rapping, singing and exploring his jazz influences with loose arrangements providing space for an improvisational sound.

5. “Gettin Up”

The legacy of Q-Tip is a constantly evolving one. His music impacted a generation of music lovers during what is considered hip hop’s golden age of creativity, diversity and discovery.  He introduced a form of jazz sampling and bohemian chic that heavily influenced the neo-soul and progressive soul movements, while shying away from the hardcore posturing and misogynistic tones of hip hop that were popular at the time.

Q-Tip is a leader and a maverick who took myriad nonconformist risks. He is an iconoclast who always made sure to charm the Bonita Applebums while practicing the art of moving a crowd — hip-hop and music in general are all the better for it.

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