Q-Tip Explains How His Renaissance Birthed A New Movement In Hip-Hop
November 4, 2008 was a day laced in change. Marking the Presidential election that led Barack Obama to Office, American politics and culture was in the midst of a transformation. Hip-Hop artists became increasingly vocal in the conversation of change in America. In addition to US politics, Rap music seemed to be undergoing its own remodeling. Accompanied by the historic election, Q-Tip’s second album, The Renaissance, presented itself as the perfect declaration of change on all fronts.
Tip had a good idea of what he was up against with the release of this album. In an interview with Thomas Hobbs of NME, he describes how the new scene transcended into his studio sessions for the album. “It felt like I had re-entered Hip-Hop. At the time I exited, music was vastly different,” he says. The Abstract then goes on to describe how the differences overcoming the culture were those of a newer model to a familiar ride, “I came back and was like ‘Okay, the brakes 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.”
The Queens, New Yorker was looking to instill a sense of individuality in how to make it in music for the next generation. On the album’s fourth track “Official,” Q-Tip describes how he doesn’t need the charts to validate his message. “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.” In hindsight he sees the energy and message of the record speaks to what Hip-Hop has become. “Up until DAMN., Kendrick didn’t have a lot of radio play, yet he was still selling albums,” Tip observes. “J. Cole didn’t have a lot of radio spins either, but was doing world tours and has legions of fans.”
Looking back, the new age of Hip-Hop was not the only challenge Q-Tip faced. The then-Universal Motown Records artist was facing the comparisons of his solo work to the likes of what he did with A Tribe Called Quest. “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,” he admits. Despite the frustration as a result of the criticism, the multi-talented artist received them as fuel to create more music, “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… I just keep making music that moves me, and hopefully, it connects to people and changes their world too.” It seems like the only thing that could stop the artist is himself.
The Renaissance celebrates its 10th-anniversary during a very different time. “I think The Renaissance has an optimism that doesn’t really exist anymore,” he declares. “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 [a Trump Presidency was happening].” The negative influence of the political climate seemed to mirror itself in pop culture as well.
Music began to take on darker views and shallow subject matter which Q-Tip describes as a loss for creativity in Hip-Hop, “[Right now] 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.”
Despite the unsuspected changes in the state of Hip-Hop and pop culture, Q-Tip has no intentions in pulling back his influence on the game. “I ain’t stopping. I am too talented. I will do this to my death,” he tells NME. “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!” Now teaching music courses at NYU, The Renaissance man is looking forward to fulfilling the longevity of his career and impacting music.