Q-Tip: Jazz, Blues, and the Abstract’s Truth
This profiling cop with his profiling ass,
Figured the best thing he could do was find a cat to harass.
The little kitten was me, not that one in the tree,
The black one with the promise and the wish to be free.
Kamaal Fareed, better known as Q-Tip from the rap group A Tribe Called Quest, hates profiling. The aforementioned verse from “Feelin’,” the opening cut from his ambitious new solo CD, Kamaal the Abstract, deals specifically with a real-life experience he had with a policeman. But the verse also serves as a perfect metaphor for his struggles for absolute creative freedom without a knee-jerk critical backlash.
Back in the days when I was a teenager,
Before I had status and before I had a pager,
You could find the Abstract
listening to hip-hop.
My pops used to say it
reminded him of bebop.
—“Excursions” by A Tribe Called Quest from The Low End Theory
Redefining the game is what has kept Fareed on the front line of hip-hop for 10 years, which is a long time for a music known for its rapid stylistic changes and the cutthroat business and social environment that makes “here today, gone tomorrow” an all too familiar scenario. In the hip-hop timeline, to survive a decade in its 25-year history and still be viable is almost unheard of. Even legendary, long-championed MCs like Chuck D, LL Cool J and KRS-One find it difficult to compete with their progeny as the years go by.
Born April 10, 1970, in Brooklyn, Fareed has witnessed hip-hop mutate from an urban folk art to a global phenomenon, but he’s old enough to remember the pre-hip-hop years of the 1970s. In the ’90s, Fareed was one-third of the mighty A Tribe Called Quest during hip-hop’s golden era (roughly 1987 to 1995). Tribe helped give hip-hop a jazzlike sophistication with its playful yet intelligent, insightful rhymes, which flowed like melodic postbop saxophone solos over understated but deftly constructed samples from the music of Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Cal Tjader and others. Tribe even had the legendary Ron Carter lend one of his throbbing bass lines to “Verses From the Abstract” on its second album, 1991’s, The Low End Theory, arguably one of the finest hip-hop CDs ever made.
After Tribe disbanded in 1998, Fareed made his first solo effort, Amplified, in 1999, which both delighted and infuriated hip-hop heads because of its unhinged party sensibility and overt ghetto glam, which were in direct contrast to Tribe’s earthy consciousness vibe. But Fareed, then still known as Q-Tip, was looking to define himself apart from his former associates.
The name Q-Tip is too tied to hip-hop, however, and rappers’ names take on more than stage-name qualities. Names like DMX, Ja Rule, Busta Rhymes and Jay-Z sound like codenames of super-heroes and super-villains from comic books.
In the Sept. 2000 issue of New York magazine, Fareed said that he wished to be called Kamaal and not Q-Tip. Kamaal sounds earthier but retains an air of artistic significance like Diz, Miles and Trane’s abbreviated names did.
After one listen to Kamaal the Abstract, the request makes perfect sense: the eclectic CD and the name change place the former Q-Tip even further away from his Tribe days. From the electric-guitar strum that ignites the album on “Feelin’” to “Caring,” the angelic piano-and-vocal duet toward its end, it’s apparent that the CD is an artistic statement meant to draw the proverbial line in the sand.
The eclectic Kamaal the Abstract isn’t hip-hop or jazz or blues or pop. It’s music.
As Fareed and I talk and dine on Japanese cuisine at New York’s ultraexclusive Nobu restaurant, the evening is refreshingly devoid of any larger-than-life MTV celebrity excess—which made calling him Q-Tip as preposterous as calling Bruce Wayne Batman when there is no Batcave, no Batmobile, no Robin, no costume and no gadgets. He didn’t even brandish the requisite cellular phone, the technological phallus symbol of the self-important.
Dressed unassumingly sharp in all black with loosened, freshly shined combat boots, Fareed’s only display of artistic neurosis was the hand-strengthening device he squeezed periodically during the more formal Q&A portions of the conversation. But once we reached a point of actual dialogue, with real exchanges of opinions, observations and experiences, Fareed’s demeanor loosened even more, with him occasionally bursting into song when we mentioned some of his favorite tunes, like Earth, Wind, & Fire’s “The World’s a Masquerade” or Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Everlasting Love.”
So, will the artist formerly known as Q-Tip cause identity crises for his loyal fans? Yes and no. Many fans are still trying to figure out the flossy Amplified. The beats, grooves and rhymes were airtight, yielding two big club hits, “Breathe & Stop” and “Vivrant Thing,” but it nevertheless pissed off a lot of Tribe fans. Q was on a different tip as he sang of nights on ecstasy and partied liked it was the year of the CD’s release—1999. Exhibiting less of the bohemian thinking man’s rapper in favor of ghetto fabulousness, Fareed donned fur coats, showed plenty of skin and shook his ass like it was nobody’s business amongst a bevy of beautiful, scantily clad women in his videos.
To Tribe fans, he’d sold out.
“I can’t deal with that bullshit,” says Fareed. “I should have artistic rights to do what I want to and need to do. I was trying to talk and reach that whole playa crowd [with Amplified], but the way you have to talk with them is not by talking at them, but with them. You have to speak their language. All I know was that the people who got Amplified are the people who were supposed to get it and those are the people who can appreciate it and look at it say, ‘Alright.’ It’s not about judging me [one way] because I did Low End Theory or because I did a record with Ron Carter. I’m not going to drum to the beat of your all’s drums.”
As we talk about artists’ rights to just party without pandering to high expectations, and on how we sometimes judge the credibility of music by the style of the musician’s attire, Fareed brings up Miles Davis, who constantly pushed the envelope of his entire aesthetic—musically and fashion-wise. “Miles dressed up,” he quips “and they hated on Miles.”
Conversation of Robin D. G. Kelly’s insidious New York Times article, “Miles Davis: A Jazz Genius in the Guise of a Hustler” surfaces at this point. Kelly’s absurdly racist essay, cloaked in academic babble, asserted that Miles’ fashion sense, the manner in which he often carried himself and his love of the good life was because of the trumpeter’s emulation of the black American pimp. The article went as far as to suggest that in American urban black culture, the pimp is the ultimate role that all African-American men, with any hint of funky fashion sensibility, aspire to be. It was an offensive and insipid attempt to profile urban black men with Miles being its main character. “Wasn’t that some bullshit?” says Fareed. “I’m a black man, who likes to dress up and good things in life. Why does that make me a pimp?”
If Amplified was an extroverted disco-romp for the hip-hop generation, then Kamaal the Abstract is an inward journey with jazz, rock, R&B, folk and hip-hop acting as mile markers along the musical roadmap. It’s likely to trip up Tribe fans even more than the decidedly commercial Amplified.
Arista Records is still billing the new album to Q-Tip, which gives the project three names: Q-Tip/Kamaal/The Abstract. It brings to mind the title of one of Charles Mingus’ masterpieces: “Self Portrait: In Three Colors.” When Fareed was with Tribe he was known as both Q-Tip and the Abstract Poet and now, with him insisting on being called by his Muslim first name, Kamaal, the CD title paints a multifaceted portrait. Musically, it does so as well. “I wanted to marry a whole bunch of different worlds and blur some lines,” he explains. “I hate categories. I hate calling shit jazz, hip-hop, rock or R&B. It’s just music when it’s at its best.”
Early reviews have already called Kamaal the Abstract a “radical departure” because it lacks hip-hop or pop convention. The music is at once ambitious and accessible, with Kamaal rhyming considerably less, singing more and judiciously allotting space for extended flute, alto saxophone, piano and organ solos. Indeed, the CD points in a new direction, but calling it a radical departure is an overstatement.
Explicit jazz flourishes and studio experimentation have been a part of Kamaal’s music ever since Tribe’s 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. “A lot of cats just remember you for that last thing that you’ve done as if that’s where your world started,” says Fareed. “I think [the new CD is] definitely different, but if you listen to what I’ve done in the past, you may say, ‘Ahhh, I can see that,’ but I want people to be surprised. I don’t want to do things that people expect me to do.”
I ain’t getting caught up in your dams of impression,
No matter who’s the beaver, I’m a burst through your oppression.
Standing in my rightful place,
residing as this beam,
That is earthed inside the dark,
hopeful you’ll catch the gleam.
—”Abstractionisms,” from Kamaal the Abstract
Kamaal the Abstract extends the jazz hip-hop legacy Fareed helped usher in with Tribe. But by no means is it a throwback to the early ’90s acid-jazz scene. There’s a noticeable maturity in his assimilation of jazz this time around as it sidesteps the Jazzmatazz clichés of yesteryear. The CD is sample-free, with no turntablism, and there are no Guru-like self-conscious rhymes about doing a jazz-hip-hop thing. For all of his verbal dexterity and melodic sensibility, Fareed spares us the trifling feat of pulling words out of his ass that rhyme with
Thelonious; in fact, his lyrics don’t contain the word “jazz” at all.
In addition to featuring Fareed singing and occasionally playing piano, keyboards and drums with his band, Rose, the CD also features noteworthy contributions from saxophonist Kenny Garrett, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas, whose names don’t necessarily resonate in the hip-hop nation like trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s or saxophonist Courtney Pine’s, both of whom have appeared on rap records.
“It was great hooking up [with Garrett, Rosenwinkel and Thomas], because as heavy as these cats are, they are not so much of household names,” enthuses Fareed. “What I wanted to do is kind of bring all those acts into the fold in pop music. I think that for a lot of the kids who may only know Britney Spears, it’ll give them a little more sophistication in their musical appetite, or reach the young kids who have only heard or probably only own Kind of Blue as their jazz experience. I think we should all open up our minds and create something that’s all-inclusive, like a rainbow. I think it’s good that people will see Kurt, Gary and Kenny’s names associated with mine. It’ll help music of both idioms. It’ll help music overall.”
Kamaal has known Garrett for a couple of years and they’ve been trying to collaborate for a while. He met Thomas and Rosenwinkel more recently, but has since developed a fruitful working relationship with the latter. Fareed produced Rosenwinkel’s upcoming CD for Verve and, in turn, Rosenwinkel will be touring with Kamaal as a member of Rose.
“I just totally respect Q-Tip immensely as an artist. He’s just brilliant,” says Rosenwinkel. “[My next record] is a really interesting project for me because it’s taking some of the methods that you might use to work on a hip-hop record or a pop record—like nondestructive editing, computer editing; that level of sculpting when you really have the time to work with things in the studio without any time constraints or budgetary constraints because it’s a home studio. I’m there at 3:00 in the morning, sculpting these things and using the studio as a compositional tool and still using the language of my music, which is jazz.”
Despite all of the studio experimentation and genre-bashing Fareed is undertaking, Kamaal the Abstract also has a nice nonchalance about it that simply says, “It is what it is.”
“It’s the beginning of records that I really want to make,” he says proudly. “All the other records that I’ve done have been out of an average percentage of my expression. I got to put in, like, 35 percent of the music that I heard in my head on my records with Tribe. This album is probably like 60 percent. By far it’s the most expressive album that I’ve done. I’m really happy about it.”
But will the hit-obsessed MTV generation be happy with it? To be sure, Kamaal the Abstract is a wildcard that has less of a chance of being an instant Soundscan sensation than it has of being a cult classic that people will be talking about years later like Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Funkadelic’s Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow, Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants and Miles Davis’ On the Corner.
The lengthy solos are certainly going to scare off many radio program directors, especially in the morbidly conservative urban-radio market. Hell, even many jazz radio program directors are urging their DJs to play songs with less improvisation: Just air the melody, the hell with that bebop noodling nonsense.
Some Kamaal the Abstract songs, like “A Million Times” and “Feelin’,” sound like wide-open jams. That’s not to say that the CD is devoid of hooks and grooves, but overall, it lacks any obvious hits.
“Barely in Love” makes for a peculiar lead single. Sonically brash and emotionally immediate in its demolike rawness, the song sounds more like a Jamie Starr-era Prince rock ballad as Kamaal blithely sings of a flirtatious physical attraction.
Fareed’s singing voice is very similar to his tenor rapping voice: bright and grainy, like Wayne Shorter’s tenor-sax sound. His singing is as rhythmically and melodically idiosyncratic as his rapping; there are, however, noticeable traces of Sly Stone and Prince in his phrasing, especially on the irresistible “Do U Dig U?” and the groovy “Even If It Is So,” a heartfelt ballad of a blue-collar single-parent mother working at McDonald’s from 10 to 5 and Wal-Mart from 6 to 12 to save up money to attend school. The former recalls Prince’s “Pop Life” in its slightly psychedelic sonic fabric and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” with its theme of battling inner demons. On “Do U Dig U?” Fareed sings with almost existential detachment: “Pan and Hate was on a strong run/It can weigh on you like 10 tons/You fought it off and it was hard won” before returning to the song’s mantralike chorus: “Do U Dig U?”
Whether the CD hits or misses, people will talk about Kamaal the Abstract—if not for his genre-bluring then for not wanting to be called Q-Tip—because Fareed’s talent and influence carries weight in the hip-hop community. Regardless of the CD’s commercial success, Kamaal was right on when he said that having Garrett, Rosenwinkel and Thomas associated with his name will be beneficial to both hip-hop and jazz. Music like that on Kamaal the Abstract has far greater potential to expose young people to jazz than any episode of Ken Burns’ 10-part Jazz. Not to knock any of Burns’ cinematic brilliance, New York City’s Lincoln Center educational efforts and the likes thereof, but with the jazz community’s overzealous effort to establish jazz as “high art,” it is making the music even more distant for young people. Jazz needs to reestablish itself as a part of pop culture, and with CDs such as Fareed’s or Charlie Hunter’s Songs From the Analog Underground, which features rapper Mos Def, or D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which features Hunter, Roy Hargrove and a few others, the steps are being made. It’s going to take efforts like these as well as those by pianists such as Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau, who have reconfigured the music of Björk and Radiohead, respectively, and for musicians like Greg Osby to continue playing with groups like Gov’t Mule to make jazz the “Sound of Young America.”
But it’s also going to take the jazz community to document and support these crossover efforts on their own terms and stop dogmatically judging them against jazz’s towering legacy.
“I think the problem with the jazz community is that it is the most pretentious [music scene] right now, and hip-hop is running a close second, but they don’t know it,” says Fareed. “Music is ultimately supposed to be something that you enjoy and respond to and move and say, ‘Ummph!’ But if you say something in the Village Vanguard, the lady who works there will almost chop your head off. She wants to keep jazz locked up in a cage.”
The jazz scene being the most pretentious is a loaded indictment, especially considering the profound snootiness of the European classical field, but it’s not coming from a rapping jazz neophyte. If you talk with an average pop artist about jazz, he or she might mention the usual pantheon of Pops, Duke, Miles, Trane, Diz, Billie, etc. Ask Fareed and he’ll cite Art Tatum and Herbie Nichols as two of his favorite pianists, and then he’ll ask you to name your three top picks for sensitive pianists. Fareed’s question initially caught me off guard; I grappled over it and answered, off the top of my head, Lennie Tristano, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland—not really certain of my answer, but nevertheless listing some of my favorite pianists. Kamaal then reveals his love of other keyboardists like Keith Jarrett, Jason Moran, Horace Silver, Brad Mehldau, Joe Zawinul, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Larry Dunn, formerly of Earth, Wind & Fire. As the conversation about pianists progresses, I tell him the news of Tommy Flanagan dying the previous day. With saddened surprise in his eyes, he whispers, “Oh shit, I just saw him play not too long ago.”
Fareed has been formally studying piano and keyboards for two years with the unsung jazz-fusion keyboardist Weldon Irvine, who is also tutoring rapper Common on keyboards. Fareed has wanted to play an instrument since he was a kid, but his high school didn’t have a music program and there were no funds for private lessons. That didn’t prevent him from getting exposed to various musics. Before he was known as Q-Tip or Kamaal, he grew up as Jonathan Davis in Queens, N.Y., in a household that he describes as “filled with music.” He sang in church and his father was as avid jazz fan. “My father listened to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and John Coltrane,” Fareed recalls. “My first memorable jazz experience was my father singing Oscar Brown Jr.’s ‘Dat Dere’ to me when I was nine years old.”
While growing up in the ’70s New York City, Fareed listened to CBS-affiliated radio stations that would play Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin and B.B. King in one hour. “It was a correct mix of music,” he says. “That’s the way it should be. Music is now so separated.”
Like many people in their 30s, Fareed’s first exposure to hip-hop came from the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” “I first heard ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on the radio, and then went to my cousin’s house and I heard it on her radio, and then my cousin’s brother comes in and has the record, then he plays it. All that happened in one day. Then, the next couple of years, I was going to parties with my sister, because she had to drag me along; just seeing everyone b-boying and hip-hopping.”
It was Run-DMC and later Slick Rick who influenced Fareed to start rhyming. And in 1988, Fareed, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik “Phife” Taylor and Jarobi (who left after the group’s first album) formed A Tribe Called Quest, which shot to prominence during the first years of hip-hop’s golden era, when socially conscious messages fueled many of the lyrics, and the artists were honesty exploring new sonic terrain instead of the lazy, Puff Daddy-style sampling that littered the scene then and now. “Today, hip-hop music in terms of rap music is sad,” he says. “Hip-hop music in terms of R&B is also pretty sad, but there are people like Jill Scott, Bilal, Erykah Badu, who are doing great things. The problem with hip-hop is that the minute that corporations see that they can make money off of it, then it gets corrupt.”
To a certain degree, the “get paid” mentality is what imploded the once vibrant acid-jazz scene. Not all of the music was great, but it did inspire many R&B and hip-hop artists to return to real instrumentation. The nascent acid-jazz and jazz-hip-hop movement—the “Daisy Age” as De La Soul dubbed it—also created a backlash similar to disco in the late ’70s, paving the way for the more aggressive and more lucrative gangsta rap. “I think what probably went wrong was the sense of the public not being able to reach and touch [jazz-hip-hop] all the time,” says Fareed. “They couldn’t get with it. It was this elitist thing that could’ve been attached to it. Also what was going on was this opposite hip-hop music, which was, for a lack of a better word, gangsta rap. That became more popular. And just the fact that people getting guns, selling drugs and hustling is more of a reality than a black kid getting accepted to a university and being scholarly. Ultimately, I think what happened was society’s ills just became more of a rabid dog.”
Many hardcore rappers cried “Keep It Real” fearing that hip-hop was losing its street credibility as hip-hoppers like Tribe, De La Soul, the Pharcyde and Digable Planets were offering new lyrical realities to rap rather than just boasting and party rhymes. “They got carried away with that,” Fareed says of the gangsta rappers. “If you playa-hate on somebody that means that you’re jealous. But if somebody is talking about nonsense, it’s not that you’re playa hating [when you criticize them]; you’re telling the truth—that gangsta shit is nonsense. Keeping it real is not saying, ‘Yo, I know this is wrong to be selling crack, but I’m going to talk about it because that what’s happening.’ Keeping it real is changing that fact that you have to do that—that you have to sell crack.”
Now that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have dramatically changed the realities of American life, it’ll be interesting to see the impact on pop culture, especially hip-hop. Will nihilistic rappers who glorify violence see the stupidity of it? Will the economic recession replace hip-hop’s materialistic obsessions? As many pop artists gathered to pose Marvin Gaye’s most eloquent question, “What’s Going On?,” on a benefit record, Kamaal the Abstract asks America, and himself, the more esoteric question, “Do U Dig U?” Are we being truthful with ourselves?
“I definitely know that there will be a lot of jingoism, because it’s a popular war, such as World War II was,” answers Fareed when asked if Sept. 11 will help foster more insightful American music. “You have to throw in a comparison of art then to art now, because some of the same things are happening. Back then there were a lot of war movies made. There were more artists supporting different funds and causes. Duke Ellington was doing radio shows urging people to go out and buy U.S. bonds. But at the same time, if he wanted to go into the Cotton Club and not play, and just check shit out, he wasn’t allowed. It’s sad. It’s the same thing right now. You going to probably have artists like Paul McCartney saying, ‘You know that people are saying that Bush is not smart. You got to support Bush because he’s your president.’ I think what people should support is the truth, and artists should support their truths and see how they’re relative to the human plight, and how their art relates to the absolute truth.”
Young Disciples Road to Freedom (Talkin' Loud/Polygram)
Horace Silver Silver’s Serenade (Blue Note)
Rufus and Chaka Khan Rufusized (ABC)
Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings (Legacy/Columbia)
“I'm very old-school,” Fareed says. “I mess with the Triton, Oberheim, MiniMoog.”
Originally published in March 2002