Q-Tip was born Jonathan Davis and even though he’ll let you call him Q-Tip, most of his closest friends now use his Muslim name, Kamaal Fareed. He began his musical career in the late eighties as a teenager in the now-legendary group A Tribe Called Quest. Back then there was something in hiphop that you might call innocence, and a group of smart, silly, afrocentric but not aggressively political kids from Queens, New York, charmed their way into hiphop’s core with cute songs like “Bonita Applebum” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” Now hiphop is conglomeratized, a multibillion-dollar business, and Tip has survived the breakup of A Tribe Called Quest and gone through two phases of a solo career, first with slick R&Bized hiphop like Vivrant Thing and then with a never-released album of singing soul-music style with his funk band. He says he’s returning to straight-ahead hiphop and will release a solo album this year, but in the music industry nothing is ever written in stone. A Tribe Called Quest is trying to get back together, but no one knows for sure whether that’ll work out, whether the men will be able to come together and make an album as good as the ones they made as boys. This interview was conducted at the Believer event in NYC on December 8, 2003, live onstage in front of a packed house.
THE BELIEVER: Let’s talk about your creative process. How do you go from a blank page to having a record that we can dance to?
Q-TIP: I mean for me, I always start with the music. I don’t know who said it, but someone said that music is the art form that all other art forms are aspiring to be or trying to be. But I try to let the music set the tone and the pace, because it’s just magic. You have these different harmonies, different melodies, and everything is just intertwined and playin together. It just sets a mood. It sets a tone. And I think it’s interesting for you as a writer if you’re gonna pen the tune. To kinda just come in with no hang-ups and just let the music dictate to you what you’re gonna be or what you’re gonna speak about.
BLVR: Because hiphop guys used to carry notebooks and write their rhymes and then when they found a beat that would go with that they would…
QT: Yeah, I’ve never been that. I started out like that, but then I became really good at freestylin. It was just like off the top of my head or whatever, so I never really started out writin. It’s always been a relationship with the music where I let the music—I just succumb to it the only way… it’s kinda like I just wait for it. ’Cuz that way it’s different every time that you come to it.
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