Q-Tip interview: reflections on ‘The Renaissance’, ten years on

A Tribe Called Quest legend Q-Tip talks to NME about his solo masterpiece 'The Renaissance', which has just turned ten, and why he believes young rappers don’t respect their elders.

When Q-Tip released his second solo album, The Renaissance, back in November 2008, the world was a very different place. Released the same day Barack Obama was elected U.S. President, The Renaissance felt like the optimistic soundtrack for a new era, the euphoric atmosphere of songs such as “Shaka” and “Believe” celebrating a hopeful America, filled with possibilities. 

But even though America was united politically, its hip-hop culture felt splintered. The year before, 50 Cent (Curtis) and Kanye West (Graduation) engaged in a very public sales battle, while the depressing ‘Ring Tone Rap’ era – where one hit wonders tried to capitalise on the popularity of ringtones by making catchy, yet artistically redundant, rap singles the public would purchase purely to play during the 20 seconds their phone rang – was still prominent. Arguably, in 2008, the onus was on mainstream rappers to sell millions of units, with the music itself an after thought The Renaissance was about pushing things in a different direction. 

Reminiscing on this climate, Q-Tip tells NME: “[In 2008] it became less about the music so I felt like a renaissance was needed, not just for hip hop, but across all mediums of art.” This was a role Q-Tip took very seriously: “It’s up to me to bring back the whole good feeling in the music!” he pledges on album opener “Johnny Is Dead” – a song that shows a gritty determination to go against the aggressive, sales-dominated, tribalism of his peers. The reality is Q-Tip, who had not released a solo album since 1999’s Amplified, had a lot riding on The Renaissance, with question marks over whether he could thrive outside his legendary group A Tribe Called Quest and survive in a new era of rap. Thankfully, his response was emphatic. 

A Tribe Called Quest

The Renaissance contains some of the best music of Q-Tip’s career, the lush live instrumentation and urgent, introspective lyrics marking an evolution from young backpack rapper into a philosophical, rap elder statesman. The haunting keys of “You” inspire Q-Tip, then 38, to delicately rap about the breakdown of a relationship; it remains one of rap’s most complex love songs. By taking on a more classical sound and using the studio as a confessional booth, Q-Tip also opened the door for artists such as Jay-Z to later (via 4:44) embrace hip-hop maturity in a similar fashion.

Time has been kind to The Renaissance, its warm, soulful, sonics bottling the feel good optimism of the Obama years, while providing an escapism from the Trumpian nightmare we’re currently suffering through. Its creator sounds like he has a point to prove, the 12 faultless tracks featuring some of Q-Tip’s most inspired lyrics (At one point, he jokes: “What good is an ear if a Q-Tip isn’t in it?”) and production (check out the heavenly, layered melodies of Norah Jones duet “Life Is Better”).

In 2018, The Renaissance sounds timeless, dare I say, every bit as potent as Tribe masterpieces such as A Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. To celebrate its 10 year anniversary, I caught up with Q-Tip over a crackly phone line to discuss the record’s legacy, the future of A Tribe Called Quest and his thoughts on rap’s new generation.

Where were you at mentally during The Renaissance sessions?

“It felt like I had re-entered hip hop. At the time I exited, music was vastly different. Then I came back and was like ‘Okay, the breaks are still there. This is the steering wheel. We don’t put the keys in doors no more, I can handle that!’ It was like even though things had changed, the premise of a car is still a car. Once you get in, you keep things moving. In 2008, everything in hip hop was so different as you had Lil Wayne and Kanye really popping. It was really exciting and inspiring, but I guess you could also say [in 2008] rap became less about the music. I felt like a renaissance was needed, not just for hip hop, but across all mediums of art.

The Renaissance was about dealing with classic colloquialisms about self. I had “You”, “Life Is Better”, “Believe”, and “WeFightWeLove” – these are all ancient concepts thematically. I wanted the music to have a sound that stood the test of time, it was all about our humanity. “You” was hard to go through, but easy to recount. It’s much like going through a break up and telling your boy what happened as therapy. That was to one of my ex-girlfriends, actually.”

There’s a real optimism to the record too, it almost sounds celebratory, was that intentional?

“Yeah, it came out on Election Day, the day Obama was elected, so it spoke to that optimism. The renaissance, the changes I wanted to see in art, could be stretched to a social political sense too; we were really starting to drink that elixir. When we saw Obama accept his victory in Chicago, I remember playing the album and people were crying and celebrating. It felt like we were on the rise again. Oh, how quickly things change! If you look at The Renaissance and the last Tribe album [We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service], then the former is bright and the latter has a darker tone because we knew [the Trump years were approaching]. I think The Renaissance has an optimism that doesn’t really exist anymore.

One of my biggest pleasures making it was around that time Kendrick was just starting to fuck around with a few songs and he put his raps over my beats. That was before he even started Section 80, it was the very first mixtape. He used a few beats off The Renaissance and was rhyming over them. I am glad it inspired him in some way.”

On “Official”, you talk about not needing a Billboard hit single to make an impact. Were you frustrated that rap became so sales orientated? 

“I am no Nostradamus but I think that statement still rings true today. Up until Damn, Kendrick didn’t have a lot of radio play, yet he was still selling albums. J. Cole didn’t have a lot of radio spins either, but was doing world tours and has legions of fans. When I said “don’t need a billboard hit for me to hit you” – that thinking ties into the logic behind ‘Soundcloud rap’ as well. Those lyrics were about showing rappers that there are other pathways and conduits to reach your audience. That lyric spoke to the archaic construct of the 21st century record business, which a lot of people were still trying to cling onto at the time. I saw it deteriorating, so that lyric was a little prophetic. I wanted to show there was a different path to success.”

How did it feel doing something without A Tribe Called Quest? I bet those expectations were hard to live up to?

“Living underneath or inside the corridors of A Tribe Called Quest is a lot, you know? People always judge me against what Tribe was. I try not to pay attention to those shackles, but everyone else does. It is frustrating. I try to rely on the humanitarianism of the listen. Meaning, everybody else has those hangs ups on me, but I don’t pay attention to it. When I see them pay attention to it, it is like wow. I just keep making music that moves me and hopefully it connects to people and changes their world too.”

Now Phife Dawg has passed is A Tribe Called Quest a done deal? 

“Oh yeah, not even a question. It is done, done, done. Sorry. That’s been written. It would be too painful [to do it without Phife]. But Phife and J Dilla are always with me. You always think about them and try to tune into their energy.”

A Tribe Called Quest were the great outsiders of hip hop, pushing in a different direction from everyone else. Did you still feel like an outsider when you were making The Renaissance?

“Hell yeah. I mean, I was 38, which is 200 in hip hop dog years. I guess that means I am a dinosaur now! In 2008, there was a whole bunch of new dudes doing it, but I didn’t give a fuck about anything other than the music. I am a different cat, I am an outsider, I do things differently, I hear things differently. The Renaissance is probably my most layered work musically. Not even Kamaal The Abstract was as layered and textured as The Renaissance. I wanted it to stand up. That work is elegant, hefty, weighty, the music has a lush, sonic feel, with nice textures and sounds.”

There’s a real positivity to the album too. Lyrics such as “Believe in your friends, don’t believe in your enemies” feel important in 2018. When you see rap nowadays, do you feel like negativity has crept back into the culture? 

“I think the music today definitely, um, you don’t see a lot of harmony in the music. You don’t hear a lot of depth. The music is a little darker. The young rappers now have a much more limited subject matter, which is fine, but that means their imagination has to be immense and it just isn’t, for the most part. 

A lot of the young rappers are like “fuck the old heads!” On songs they say stuff like “I don’t fuck with no old niggas!” I saw this clip where this rapper said he had never heard of the Wu Tang Clan, and he said it with so much pride. He had a smile on his face. I guess their hate is just a personification of their fear, but I believe if you don’t do your due-diligence in hip-hop then you will only be here for a limited time. You don’t have to like old school rap, but you should at least investigate it so it elongates your own career. If you’re not a student of history then you can’t have a fully developed story yourself.”

You’re doing a lot more production now and teaching a music course at New York University, you must feel like a rap Yoda? 

“Being a teacher is fun, man. You share information and then you learn, I dig it so much. It is funny because that’s what my email address is; the hip hop Yoda.” 

Do you ever see a day where you stop producing or writing music? 

“I ain’t stopping. I am too talented. I will do this to my death. I am going to be like James Brown or Louis Armstrong or Prince; they did music until they couldn’t do it anymore and were gone. In my final days, I will still be doing this. I don’t believe in retiring. I will probably keel over my drum machine. I’m 48 now, which, I guess, means I’m only half-way done!”