When seminal alt-rap act A Tribe Called Quest split up in 1998, group leader Q-Tip wasted no time getting his solo career started: His 1999 debut, Amplified, went gold and spawned a Grammy-nominated hit single, ”Vivrant Thing.” And then? Eight years later, the Queens-born rapper has yet to release a follow-up, despite recording two unreleased albums that failed to meet label execs’ standards. His third attempt at a sophomore CD, The Renaissance, is currently scheduled at last for an early-2008 release on Universal Motown. Q-Tip invited EW.com to the NYC studio where he’s mixing the album for a chat about his new tunes — and the industry nightmare that prevented them from getting out until now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Almost all of The Renaissance was recorded with a live five-piece band. What appealed to you about that approach?
Q-TIP: I wanted to have a functional band playing hip-hop music. Traditionally in hip-hop, the cool thing about it was from track to track you can get different things sonically — so I wanted to apply that to a band of live musicians. A lot of the stuff may sound like maybe it’s sampled, but they’re actually playing.
Do you play any of the instruments yourself?
I noodle with the pianos and drums a little bit. But I’m no [John] Bonham or [Herbie] Hancock.
A lot of rumors have come out over the last eight years about the label drama you’ve been caught up in. What’s the short version of where you’ve been?
Ooh! Yeah, it’s a long story. [Sighs] Well, after I put out Amplified, I was talking to Clive Davis [at Arista] about doing this album with the band. I started recording an album, which went on to become Kamaal the Abstract. And Clive’s regime was up [in 2000], and [Def Jam heads] Lyor Cohen and Russell [Simmons] told me I should stay at Arista. So I did that, and I gave [the album] to L.A. Reid, who wound up taking over. And he heard the album, really liked it, whatever. We started servicing it to press — and then he just got cold feet about it. He was saying it was really left for him or something. So I then got a release from Arista, and I went over to DreamWorks and recorded an album called Open. And then DreamWorks got bought out [in 2003], so the whole label fell apart. Then I wound up on Interscope for like a month or two. I had like one conversation with Jimmy Iovine. It was a good conversation. And then I wound up at Geffen for like a year and a half.
You really made the rounds.
Yeah! I started revisiting things based off of everybody’s notes about it. That didn’t work out. So then I went to Universal, and they had their ideas, and I kind of played ball. And now here we are.
Was it frustrating to bounce around from label to label like that?
It f—s with your head, B. And I don’t think anybody understands that. Nobody can possibly understand how it feels to have to jump, and then in some cases I get the finger pointed at me. I accept the lumps or whatever. But all I’m trying to do is put some s— out! [Laughs] But it’s all good. I’m here. Adversity shapes you, and I couldn’t be happier at this moment.
What happened to all the music you recorded during that period?
I got a whole bunch. Tons of stuff. For me, I just want to put [The Renaissance] out, because it’ll bring some closure to a certain period. I want to have that. Once I do that, I’ll be able to go back and move forward.
Are any of the tracks on The Renaissance from those scrapped sessions?
Yeah, a little bit is from Open. Just reworked some things, and trying to live with things and ignore things and come up again — it’s a process, at least with me.
How much pressure have you felt recording this album?
I don’t feel any pressure. ‘Cause I manage my expectations, which is a running theme of mine. I just want to get out in the fray and just work. More of the pressure comes from the behind-the-scenes stuff, like having to do this or meet this and whoop-de-whoop.
Hip-hop has changed a lot in the last eight years. How do you feel about the scene you’re coming back to?
Everything is different, but it’s the same. If you look at history, then you can figure out your way. I don’t really feel too disconnected from what’s happening right now. I mean, I may not love the music in hip-hop as much as I used to. But it’s not just me saying it. I’m not some old dude saying, ”Back in my day…” I think it’s been a running conversation for the past few years among so many different people about the quality of the music. So I feel like I’m right in step.
After The Renaissance is out, are we going to have to wait another eight years for your next album?
No way! A lot of [the delay], believe it or not — I’m not saying all of it, but a lot of it — was out of my hands. If I had my druthers, after I get off the road I’d like to go right back in and record another one, put another one out next year.