The founding member of A Tribe Called Quest talks about past and future projects

”Industry rule number 4,080: Record company people are shady.” — Q-TIP ON A TRIBE CALLED QUEST’S 1991 TRACK ”CHECK THE RHIME”

Fourteen years after Q-Tip gave this critique of the music biz, the trailblazing founder of A Tribe Called Quest has more reason than ever to complain. For the past six years, he’s battled a shifting array of fickle record companies to bring first one, then another envelope-pushing album to the public. Finally, as he works on a flurry of career-revitalizing projects — a solo disc due this summer, among them — the industry is ready to rediscover Q-Tip. Maybe.

How could everyone have forgotten Q-Tip in the first place? This is the guy who, in the early ’90s, helped invent a progressive style of hip-hop — light on machismo, heavy on reflection and jazz riffs — now heard in the music of OutKast, Mos Def, and Kanye West.

Tip’s solo struggles began in 1999, after he recorded Kamaal the Abstract, a challenging jazz/hip-hop fusion. When critics heard advance copies, some hailed it as genius and others slammed it as a mess. For two years, Arista pushed back its release. Tip finally asked to be freed from the label, and Kamaal never made it to stores.

”[Former Arista chief] L.A. Reid didn’t know what to do with it,” Q-Tip says of the disc. ”It’s a little frustrating. I did it in 1999, and it was obviously pointing in the right direction, because there’s been subsequent albums that kinda reflect that same kind of imagery, like the N.E.R.D. album [In Search Of…], [Common’s] Electric Circus, [Andre 3000’s] The Love Below. I try not to be bitter.”

Q-Tip soon returned to the studio and came up with his latest, Behind the Music. ”I scaled it down a little bit, gave it more of a direction,” he says. ”[Kamaal] was me throwing colors up. With this one, I’m trying to get a picture.”

But the picture got muddled amid a storm of corporate restructuring. ”The label that was doing it, DreamWorks, folded,” Q-Tip explains. ”It got bought by Interscope, and then I got pushed to Geffen. I asked for a release, and I got it. Now, I’m at Universal [which, along with Geffen and Interscope, is part of the Universal Music Group]. I don’t get too twisted up about it,” he adds. ”I’ve been through this. I’m not gonna give up.”

While working on Music, Tip blitzed the lab, producing a track for Nas’ recent Street Disciple as well as rapping on R.E.M.’s 2004 disc, Around the Sun, and a new Timbaland track. He’s also producing songs for Stevie Wonder’s upcoming album, and he just reunited with A Tribe Called Quest for a couple of gigs aimed solely at the group’s bottom line. ”We’ve had demands for years to do shows,” says Q-Tip, whose relations with Tribe members Phife and All have long been cool. ”We just felt like we should do it now because we were broke.”

These lucrative projects will help bankroll an enterprise closer to Tip’s creative center. He’s partnering with Killer Films (Boys Don’t Cry) to produce a movie based on Miles Davis’ life, in which he’ll play the lead. ”I model my career after people like [Davis] and Bowie,” he says. ”Bowie has that song ‘Never Get Old,’ and that kinda fits both those guys. Although they moved on, their desire, their creativity, their love for their work always kept them youthful, and they always stayed up on it. That’s where I’m at.”

Let’s hope the industry lets him stay there.