Q-Tip: The Rennaisance

Logical thought could have safely concluded on November 3rd that yes, Barack Obama would be elected President, and yes, the new Q-Tip album would be good.


The Renaissance

Label: Universal Motown
UK Release Date: 2008-11-03
US Release Date: 2008-11-04

It is very unlikely that the release date of Q-Tip’s official sophomore LP was coincidental. The fact that The Renaissance – a title which evokes a “new day” theme consistent with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama – hit stores on the same day as the 2008 General Presidential Election has allowed parallels between both events to become essentially conspicuous.

Despite hopeful feelings in both cases just a year ago, the prospect of Q-Tip actually releasing an album in 2008 might have seemed about as likely as Barack Obama securing the Democratic nomination for President by defeating a political juggernaut as formidable as the Clinton family.

Fast-forward to September 2008: not only had Obama become his party’s nominee, but Q-Tip appeared poised to finally break out of recording purgatory with a concrete release date for an album. If I were to forgo objectivity for one moment, I might safely assume that most people with any hope invested in how good The Renaissance would be, felt similarly – although likely on a much larger scale – about the outcome of the November 4th election.

Considering both Obama’s polling numbers in the late stages of the campaign as well as the fact that – despite initial unenthusiastic responses to a few projects – Q-Tip has never been a principal artist on a project that could be considered bad by any means, possibilities of major disappointments in either outcome may only have existed in the minds of those frightened by high hopes and disillusioned by a status quo in which suppression of such hopes has become standard procedure. Logical thought however, could have safely concluded on November 3rd that yes, Obama would win, and yes, the new Q-Tip album would be good. A harder prediction would have been the actual outcomes in each case: Obama won resoundingly and The Renaissance is really, really good.

Q-Tip’s infinitely smooth flow and unparalleled rapping voice has gained him status as one of the most instantly recognizable emcees ever. His stylistically distinct presence was somewhat of a double-edged sword for both A Tribe Called Quest and Q-Tip himself. Admittedly, it is nearly impossible to envision A Tribe Called Quest gaining such an enormous level of influence with out that buttery, smooth voice. There is, however, a sense of injustice in the fact that one member consistently seemed to outshine others in a group whose extraordinary success was achieved only through integral contributions from each member. Still, it was somewhat unreasonable that Tip outwardly shouldered a majority of the impossibly colossal expectations requisite for any group who exhibits the type of artistic innovation and influence of like that of A Tribe Called Quest.

Q-Tip’s forte has always been the way he implemented his unique methods in such a breezy way. Like jazz musicians, from whom he has drawn tremendous influence in architecting his craft, he performs in a way that makes what he does sound easy. An artist with such appeal will most likely find himself in a Catch 22 when it comes time for artistic growth once the public’s fascination with initial work fades. With such a level of originality and a rabid fan-base, Q-Tip is a textbook example of an artist with significant susceptibility to eventual self-parody. Should he rest too heavily on laurels after fans have spun their cassette tapes into unplayable oblivion, he’ll be accused of boring reiteration. On the other hand, as much as they may reject an approach like that, fans are even more afraid of change, almost assuring negative responses to any departures from what is expected.

Though it may not have seemed so at the time, Q-Tip owes his continuing relevance to the fact that he and A Tribe Called Quest took the more risky choice when it came to growing past their preliminary run of three consecutive masterpieces from 1990 to 1993 (People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders). Jay Dee (J Dilla) was brought in to form the Ummah, the production team responsible for a majority of the beats on each of the two post-M.M., Tribe LPs (Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement) and Q-Tip’s 1999 solo debut (Amplified). Aversion to the relatively smoother production of the Ummah afforded each project a substantial amount of early derision. Now that J Dilla has passed and has since achieved near-unanimous admiration as a genius, those albums are now viewed as borderline-great, if not classic, works.

In 2008, nearly ten years and two shelved albums since his last official release, Q-Tip is still his classic self. The cover art for The Renaissance, showing Tip holding an Akai MPC (perhaps the ultimate symbol of ‘90s hip-hop) in front of his face with half of his body colored silver evokes a sense of past-meets-future and serves well as a metaphor for the album’s style. It’s as if he found a perfect balance between reminding listeners why they liked him in the first place and pushing his sound forward enough to silence claims of lazy reliance on the past.

With the exception of the J Dilla beat on “Move”, Q-Tip produced The Renaissance himself. The production generally sticks to the Ummah-era aesthetic – smooth, soulful, jazz-infused. Occasionally though, Tip will throw some modern elements into a beat. “Shaka” sounds like classic Tribe except for the fact that synthesizers have taken the place of formerly typical jazz-samples. Manwomanboogie places chaotically fast-paced drums over a funky bass-line for verses which transition to a great, melodic chorus from Amanda Diva.

No one would deny that Q-Tip understands how to make good hip-hop. What makes his new album so good though, is the sheer energy with which he was able to infuse these songs. Considering the catastrophic effects major-label delays and shelved projects have had on the creative capacity of certain artists, it is truly amazing to hear Tip sounding like he actually had fun making this music.

The closest Q-Tip comes to actually complaining about his decade-long predicament is on the excellent “Dance on Glass”, which kicks of with a minute-plus a cappella rap. While he does cryptically express distaste with some current, likely disposable hip-hop trends a-la “Phony Rappers”, the track plays primarily as a celebration of both his ability to put all negativity in the past and his thankfulness for the opportunity to have finally regained a forum for artistic expression. The following track, “Life Is Better”, completely disproves any notion that Tip has become a bitter rapper. An ode to his music’s history, the song consists of shout-outs to originators ranging from DJ Cool Herc to Lil Wayne.

The Renaissance feels like a complete album. Each song has distinctive characteristics, and brilliant sequencing allows for seamless transitions between tracks. Q-Tip claims, in the album’s first verse, “Its time for me to bring back the hope / Put feeling in the music that you can quote." Best believe. Had The Renaissance come out in the early '90s, some of these songs would now be ingrained in public consciousness with the type of universal quotability attained by classic tracks like "Can I Kick It" or "Check the Rhyme".


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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