One Band, One Week: Q-Tip’s Best Non-Tribe Productions

The actual creation of Tribe’s music has always been a little shrouded in mystery.  The liner notes always credited the group as a whole, and as a kid, I just assumed Ali Shaheed Muhammad did all the music, since that’s usually how it worked in groups, the DJ did the music.  Yes, children, back in the golden ages of hip-hop, most albums were created with one producer. ONE! No glorified compilation albums with the beatmakers du jour all tossed together. One or two guys make all the beats.  That’s why hip-hop was better in the 90’s, by the way.

ANYWAY. Yes, mystery. Even when J. Dilla became affiliated with the group and formed The Ummah with Tip and Ali, it was still unclear as to who did what. Everything just said ‘Produced by The Ummah.’  Now it’s easy to hear Dilla’s trademarks, but the creative partnership of Tip and Ali was always cloudy.  Of course, now we know Q-Tip did most of the heavy lifting for Tribe’s production, easily making him one of the best beatmakers of all time.

And not just for Tribe!  The Abstract Poetic’s lent his skills out to other artists over the years, creating more than a few classics in the process.  Here we go through five.

Crooklyn Dodgers – Crooklyn
Strange that a guy from Queens would be asked to lay the track for such a quintissentially Brooklyn track.  But Tip nails it, giving the track the proper grittiness and air of nostalgia and melancholy it required, being off the soundtrack to the Spike Lee Movie of the same name about growing up black in the 70’s. Crate diggers still don’t know what he sampled on that one, which is incredible in the Internet age.

Apache – Gangsta Bitch
Yes, it’s a throwaway, almost novelty song.   But the sample, found deep in jazz pianist Monty Alexander’s rendition of the Al Green classic ‘Love and Happiness’ [how crazy is that?] gives the song a smoothness incongruent with the lyrical subject.

Wikipedia suggests the hook-up for this likely  came through Apache’s early affiliation with New Jersey group The Flavor Unit, which was Tip’s fellow Native Tongues-member Queen Latifah’s production company.  Apache died in 2010 of undisclosed causes, but his throwaway novelty still makes the club walls shake 20 years later.

Mobb Deep – Give up the Goods
Tip’s always been willing to lend his skills to fellow Queens artists on the come up, contributing three tracks to Mobb Deep’s classic sophomore album ‘The Infamous.’ I consider this one the best of the trio because it’s such a different sound for Mobb Deep; remember, this is the same album that had ‘Shook Ones Part II’ on it, one of the hardest, darkest hip-hop songs put to wax. ‘Give Up the Goods,’ with its chopped and sped up Esther Williams sample,  brightens up the proceedings a bit, giving the listener a chance to relax for a minute, before the street stories recommence.

Nas – One Love
Probably what I would consider the best beat he’s given to someone else, though Nas’ flawless vocal delivery might be influencing that decision.  “Illmatic’ was one of the first albums to feature multiple producers across the album, with DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor all joining Q-Tip’s lone contribution. And what a contribution.  Now, I actually want to nerd about this one for a minute, but looking at the original sample.

The Heath Brothers track has this ambling percussion, the marimba playing is kind of lazy and out of pocket, the sort of intentional “mistakes” that only get amplified when sped up for to make the Nas track.  Beat construction is usually so locked in time, it can be a dangerous gamble to mess with a song that slips in and out of time like that, but Q-Tip holds it all together, by dropping the marimba out when needed, and punching the kick to woofer-blowing levels to make the beat more propulsive.  What most impresses me about the sample is the subtle switch on the kickdrum notes at the 21-second mark.  I only catch it now because I know the ‘One Love’ beat inside out, it’s buried in the mix of the original, but he caught it, and that’s what makes the song so neck-snappingly good.

Q-Tip – Gettin’ Up
There was some worry when 2008’s The Renaissance was being released.  Q-Tip’s previous solo effort ‘Amplified’ was a more blatant commercial attempt than fans were expecting [or ready for], and the follow up to that veered so hard in the other direction to jazz vocal experimentation, his label wouldn’t release it.

So imagine the surprise and relief of many [including me] when the first single from The Renaissance was a headbobbing love song with infectious lyrics and a Black Ivory sample sped up to the breaking point.  Seriously, you hear the original, it’s barely recognizable.  But that’s what makes him one of the best, he can hear these songs and know that if you do something as simple as speed it up, you can unearth something completely different and just as compelling.  Only the best in the biz can do that.


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