Q-Tip Talks Politics and Longevity

Q-Tip 300

Q-Tip at the NPR studios. Brian McCabe/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian McCabe/NPR

Hip-hop icon and former A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip returns to the music scene with his new studio album, The Renaissance. Q-Tip talks about his longevity in the rap business, his new CD, and why getting involved in politics is important for the hip-hop community.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Hip-hop aficionados will always remember Q-Tip as the leader of the pioneering group, A Tribe Called Quest. But since he went solo back in 1998, Q-Tip has been successful on his own, winning a Grammy and scoring hits like "Breathe And Stop" and "Vibrant Thing." The Queen's native, whose stage name reflects both his hometown and his ability to get in the ears of his fans, is known as Kamaal Fareed offstage. And he's got a new album set for release tomorrow, November 4th. It's called "The Renaissance." Here's a song Q-Tip hoped people will be listening to on Election Day. The song references Barack Obama, and it's called "Shaka."

(Soundbite of song "Shaka")

MARTIN: Q-Tip joins me now from our New York bureau. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. KAMAAL FAREED (Q-Tip Hip-Hop Artist): Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, being here on the dawn of a very historic day.

MARTIN: Well, you've got a lot of things on your mind, and what is it that you made you write a song about Barack Obama - at least inspired by, or at least having thoughts connected to the Obama campaign?

Mr. FAREED: Well, you know, I had the opportunity to work with Barack's camp when he ran for the United States Senate in '04. And just followed him and followed young, up-and-coming politicians like him, Corey Booker, and I was just always interested in hearing from somebody who is close to my generation as possible and to see how motivated they were and how encouraging they were and how, you know, of depth they could be, and Barack embodied all of that to me.

MARTIN: On the other hand, there are some within the artistic community who have said that Obama doesn't need help from the hip-hop community. In fact, he may be hurt if he's perceived as too much the black candidate. Have you heard this, and what do you make of that?

Mr. FAREED: Yes. I certainly have, and unfortunately, there is still a hint of, you know, ignorance in terms of race that exists here. And if he was to identify with a culture that is probably the most brooding, the most unapologetic, the most alpha-male culture that has come along in the past 100 years, vis-a-vis hip-hop and hip-hop music and hip-hop artists, he would be looked at as probably somebody who sides with a lot of, like, our ideas and our philosophies and just blunt speaking. And you know, we can't forget that Barack Obama is a politician, you know. So it's a bit of the game that he has to play.

MARTIN: You obviously have thought about a lot of these issues, which is one of the reasons you are called a conscious rapper both by your peers and also by a lot of the public. But that implies that a lot of rap is not conscious. How do you feel about being called a conscious rapper? Does it feel like a compliment or does it feel in some ways like a burden?

Mr. FAREED: I think I have great responsibility, and when I do my music, when I try to relate to my audience, I just try to do it in an honest fashion, you know, just try to be as earnest as possible and sometime it may be self-effacing. Sometimes it may be finger-pointing. Sometimes it may be beautiful, and sometime it may be ugly. Nonetheless, I still try to hold to that. And you know, if people want to put that label on me and call me conscious, it's like, so be it, but I'm just going to be me. I do try to speak of positive things. I still try to, like, present two sides of the story, and I do try to relate to life in a 360 degree and not be one-dimensional. But by all means, manage expectations.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the new CD. It's your first commercially released album in nine years, very eagerly awaited. Let's talk about Norah Jones. You teamed up with Norah Jones for the song, "Life is Better." Tell me about it, or let's listen and then you can tell me about it.

(Soundbite of song "Life is Better")

Ms. NORAH JONES: (Singing) Life is better now that it's...Life is better...

Mr. FAREED: I wrote the song and had this music, and I started, you know, dealing with the melody and the verse and then like, well, I'm certainly not going to sing this thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAREED: I have to get somebody to sing it. So I was like just a huge fan of Norah Jones. I thought, you know, she's just such a sweet spirit and her voice is amazing. And then I just thought that not too many people in hip-hop besides maybe (unintelligible) have worked with her. So I called her up, and she came by, and she was just an absolute pleasure to work with. And the song, "Life is Better," is about hip-hop. It's about my love for hip-hop. And, you know, I go through all the artists from the beginning to the end, you know. And, well, not to the end, but since the beginning to now, you know. So it's just - it's cool. I really dig that song a lot.

(Soundbite of song "Life is Better")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Life is better now that, now that we. Life is better now that, now that we...

MARTIN: Who are your influences?

Mr. FAREED: Man, they vary. It's Duke Ellington. It's Prince. It's Stevie Wonder. It's Eric B. & Rakim. It's Langston Hughes. It's Walt Whitman. It's Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin. It's The Clash. It's (unintelligible) the Flash. It's Nas. It's Richard Pryor. I don't know. I'm kind of a pop culture stew, you know. So I kind of get it all, you know.

MARTIN: Speaking of that, though, because you're quote, you're so hungry, you know, for ideas and for sounds and so forth. And you know, when you started A Tribe Called Quest 20 years ago - group still has a lot of fans who think of it as revolutionizing hip-hop. But do you ever feel torn between, you know, your own need to grow as an artist and the fans, who really want you to keep doing what it is that they love?

Mr. FAREED: You know, the fans, they play a big part in what we do. But they become fans, and they become admirers. People become admirers because of your taste meter or because of what you put out. So if they truly are that, then they'll ride with you on your journey. And you may come back to where you started. So I'm not really that torn. I just really try to approach it from a very pure, artistic place. And I've really, honestly, like my little thing, I guess, as to why I've been around for a minute, is that I really try to act like a medium, like the work just speaks through me, like I really try to keep it on a spiritual level.

MARTIN: Can I just play, just for the fans, just a little bit from the first song? Can I play just a little bit of "Bonita Applebum"?

Mr. FAREED: Sure.

MARTIN: OK. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song "Bonita Applebum")

Mr. FAREED: (Singing) Hey, being with you is a top priority. Ain't no need to question the authority. Chairman of the board, the chief of affections. You got mines to swing in your direction. Hey, you're like a hip-hop song, you know? Bonita Applebum, you gotta put me on. Bonita Applebum, you gotta put me on. Bonita Applebum, I said you gotta put me on. Bonita Applebum, you gotta put me on. Bonita Applebum, I said you gotta put me on. Bonita Applebum, you gotta put me on. Bonita Applebum, I said you gotta put me on. Bonita Applebum, you gotta put me on. Bonita, Bonita, Bonita.

MARTIN: Now you know, a lot of people consider this song a classic. Do you still love it or are you over it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAREED: That was a cool song, you know. It's like - I definitely don't sit around and listen to it. But...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, were you spying on me earlier? Because I was - no, just kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAREED: Oh, boy.

MARTIN: You don't sit around and listen to it. OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAREED: I don't, but, you know, I - it's cool. I'm not over it. I mean, it was a cool time. It brings back fond memories, and I love that song, you know.

MARTIN: Well, you're not the only one, so we're glad to hear it. But talking about "The Renaissance," your latest, you've brought some solo artists on this album. I'd like to play - I don't know, which one do you want to play? You want to play "We Fight/We Love"? Want to play a little bit of that?

Mr. FAREED: Yeah, yeah. Can I explain what this is about?

MARTIN: Sure, please. Please do.

Mr. FAREED: This song is called "We Fight/We Love," and it's two verses. My boy, Raphael Saadiq, is singing on this. In the first verse, it's dealing with a woman who's fighting for the integrity of her relationship while she does the day-to-day fight of having a job and school and trying to ascend. And it's a juxtaposition to the second verse, which is about a man who's 19, and he can't afford to go to college. He decides to enlist into the armed services and winds up in Iraq. I really love the song. It just means a lot to me. And hopefully it'll mean something to you guys. It's called "We Fight/We Love."

MARTIN: All right, let's play a little bit. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song "We Fight/We Love")

Mr. FAREED: (Singing) You get the job with the girl. It's cheaper than college, and you get guns. And you get knowledge looking for your soul. And bother you're empty, you can't find nothing 'cause it's empty. You got your gun, and he's your friend. And he's your man until the end. We fight, we love.

Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) We fight and love so much. Sometimes I get confused of who we are. Maybe if we just started shouting we would find out who we are...

MARTIN: So you're not even 40, and yet so many people consider you the elder statesman of hip-hop. How does that sit with you?

Mr. FAREED: Man, it's an honor, actually, if people looking at me that way. I still feel fresh. I still feel like I haven't even peaked yet, honestly speaking, like I'm just really excited. And then for me to be able to come in and do something early on as a kid and have such an effect on people's lives and to still be here in a meaningful way, you know, making statements is just - is humbling, and I give really, really - is give all the credits to the Creator and to you guys, you know. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: Q-Tip. His new album, "The Renaissance," is out tomorrow. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. FAREED: Thank you so much. And I just want to say, please get out and vote. And I'm just pleased that my album will be out on this historic day.

MARTIN: What do you want to hear as we say goodbye?

Mr. Q-TIP: Let's go to "Award Tour" from A Tribe Called Quest. How about that?

MARTIN: All right.

(Soundbite of song "Award Tour")

Mr. FAREED: (Singing) We on award tour with Muhammad my man. Going each and every place with the mic in their hand. New York, LA, NC, VA. We on award tour with Muhammad my man. Going each and every place with the mic in their hand. Oaktown, LA, San Fran, St. John...

MARTIN: And a special programming note. We will be telling you more on Election Night, Tuesday, November 4th. Tell Me More's producers will blog actively throughout tomorrow evening on the ground at social hotspots throughout the Washington region. We'll have virtual updates on the latest returns as they come in and a glimpse into some of the Election Night excitement as voters make their final show of support for their candidate of choice. So please join us on Election Night. You'll find us at our blog, npr.org, and click on Tell Me More.

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The Renaissance
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2008

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