Q-Tip Talks His Beats 1 Show, Ghostwriting in Hip-Hop, and the Importance of Lyricism

"Abstract Radio" is on Beats 1 every Friday.

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Complex Original

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RAP IS NOT POP, IF YOU CALL IT THAT THEN STOP! Seriously, beat it, yo. Rap is more than simply a musical genre, it's a culture. And that culture puts a premium on technical virtuosity. Bars, my dude. BARS! And nothing has brought these issue of lyricism, authenticity, and competition more to the forefront of the conversation than this week's feud between Meek Mill and Drake. One man who knows more than a little bit about the pursuit of excellence through the pen: former A Tribe Called Quest front man, Q-Tip. In his 25-year career dude's been responsible for more lines than a million pair of Adidas, more lines than the bible quoted from Jesus, more lines than a African herd of zebras!!! You get the picture.

In any case, for the latest installment of his awesomely eclectic Beats 1 radio show, Abstract Radio, Tip has mined the annals of hip-hop for it’s greatest verses and lines. In an epic 3-hour long mix, the MC-turned-DJ flows from Kool Moe Dee to Lil Wayne to MF Doom to Eminem and back to Melle Mell. The result is a dynamic crash course in the art of rap which will sate the most ardent heads and edutain the newbs.

Complex hopped on the phone with Tip to talk about the science behind his selections, as well as his own rhyme writing process, and, of course, the hot topic at the heart of today’s Meek/Drake controversy: ghostwriting. Oh, and check the rhyme.

Noah Callahan-Bever is the Chief Content Officer and Editor-In-Chief of Complex Magazine. Follow him @N_C_B.

What inspired this episode?
It’s the current climate. Everybody in hip-hop is going crazy over the Drake and Meek Mill feud. Everything is so sensationalized. There used to be a time where dudes would just get to it and go. Things change. I’m for that.

What do you want listeners to take away from this episode?
I wanted people to take away the talent, and the thought, and the creativity behind it all. “If you listen to that verse, it’s crazy. It’s probably one of the illest ones he’s ever done.” I really tried to go with some of my personal favorites because I’m a fan of all of them. It’s great when I reached out that they all dropped for me.

Just looking at the beginning, you start with Treacherous Three. Moe Dee was such a pioneer. What do you think he brought to rap?
There are certain MCs that brought innovation to the form. Melle Mel was a pioneer of street rap, he took the party raps to another level by adding social commentary and context. When you talk about the innovators, you have to say Moe because he was pretty much the first guy who went outside of the disco, party rhymes, and the “Clap your hands everybody!” He still had that but he had rhymes that had depth and intricacies. He had a definite degree of intellect that he would fuse into it. I think he was the one who really brought that. Caz is another one who kind of, as a DJ and an MC, brought that same kind of thing. Even in some of his raps, he brought punchlines in. He was the punchline cat. He’s like the forefather of punchlines. I think Moe is the forefather of reality rap. I think that those two are innovators. Moe Dee is an innovator because, in terms of his actual cadences, he spoke about the multi syllabic style. He had great grasp of language. He’s highly intelligent. He was the intelligent MC. He was the one who brought that skill in the multi syllabic style. He was an innovator there.

Slick Rick was an innovator in terms of what God blessed him with, which is a really unique voice. For whatever reason, probably from growing up in England, he had this different command of the language. He had this dry humor. He’s almost a Woody Allen kind of guy. He was actually named “The Ruler.”  He came off very regal. His stories were like Aesop. He was very Shakespearean. He brought that degree of prose. He was an innovator there. And, of course, Rakim. We’ve all done some form of dissertation about Rakim. There were MCs before Rakim and now there are MCs after Rakim. After that, I really don’t know if there was really innovation. There have been people who have taken those things and endowed them with the times that they were in and what was happening socially. If you look at basketball players from the 60s and then look at that same position today, they’re stronger, faster, bigger. You know what I’m saying? Even though those guys are the innovators, athletes took what they did and built upon it. Everybody after Rakim built on what everyone had done from Rakim back.

On your first selection, “Super Rappin No.2,” the melodies on the sing-songy parts of that record stand up to this day. They’ve informed so much of hip-hop songwriting since then.
Yeah. It’s funny because somebody was saying to me that Drake sings and raps and I’m like, “That’s been going on since the beginning.”

Slick Rick.
Exactly. From Flash to even the Cold Crush, they are all branches out of doo-wop and the street quartet. They are a branch from that. They’re harmonizing and singing. So, like I said, those guys from Rakim back are the true innovators.

As a teenager coming up, which of those people did you most closely connect with when you were writing your first rhymes?
When I was writing, the first one was probably Moe Dee. Then, after that, it was Rick then Rakim, especially for the metaphors that Rakim brought into the game and Rick’s tone and his dry approach to humanity. He had a deep degree of humanitarianism, too. If you listen to “Hey Young World,” he was pretty self-effacing. It was just odd because Rick is very cocksure, but at the same time he has the ability to be self-effacing. That’s what I loved about Biggie. I remember kicking it with Big one time and we were talking about Rick the whole time. Just like when I speak to Nas, he and I speak about Rick the whole time.

That is interesting. He was so arrogant but then would flip and have these very thoughtful records that were really altruistic and concerned with other people. But then the next song would be “Lick the Balls.”

There aren’t too many people who appear on this list more than once or twice. I noticed that one of them was MF Doom. To me, he has a very interesting style that has informed a lot of modern rap. What do you find most interesting about his bars?
He’s so dope. He’s another London dude. His imagination is just insane. It’s very motley and cartoonish but, at the same time, the subject matter is pretty risqué. He’s like Ralph Bakshi or Robert Crumb. It’s very adult but still childlike. He’s very blue. When I say blue, I mean in terms of his adult lyrics. He’s a tactician. He has a silly thing that he does, but that coupled with his voice and his command of language is insane. It’s ridiculous. He was always like that, ever since KMD. The way he puts things together is just dope.

You seem conscious of including the wide spectrum of voices that exist in hip-hop. There’s a lot of inclusion of the South and the West Coast. How do you feel like bars and lyricism have translated differently in the different regions of America?
Take Scarface, for instance. Most people from around the country always had an eye on New York MCs and their approach. At the end of the day, it’s language. They were fans of cats who were bringing their own je ne sais quoi to it.I think that that was interesting. We just talked about Doom and how he grasped things in pop culture that was common to him. With Southern rappers, they can do that with their own environment, more so than any other group, even New York oddly enough, they’re very ensconced in their environment and it comes out in their lyrics. Another representation of that is OutKast. They’re super dope, super cool, multi-syllabic, grasp the language, and have great stories. They’re probably two of the most well-rounded MCs we have. They can hit you from all different sides. They can do plenty of shit. They can do gangsta shit. They can do Tribe shit. They have their own shit. They have it all.

You mentioned the Tribe shit. I noticed that you picked “Verses from the Abstract.” Why did you pick that as the first contribution from yourself into this show?
It was just the flow of things. I know that’s one of Scarface’s favorite records. For years, every time I saw him, he would just always go into it. I’m talking about verses and bars and it’s kind of synonymous with that. I’m such a fan of everybody that I wanted this one time to take advantage and have Tribe’s voice in there. It just screamed context to me.

What do you think when you hear a track like Kendrick Lamar’s “Control?”
I was just happy for that. I love that. I felt like, as MCs and artists in hip-hop, we’ve kind of strayed a little bit from that. I think the last person who called a whole bunch of people out was probably LL or Shante. Roxanne Shante is just a beast. I feel like she’s really unheralded. She had her first battle when she was 10. Her mother took her to this contest because there was a prize of $50. The DJ had to take the records out of the crate for her to stand on top of the crate so she could battle this dude. All she was battling were dudes. And she won. She had this crazy aptitude to come off the top of the head.

Quite honestly, I think she could be in contention to be in that group because of her freestyle ability and because she was so prodigious with it. She was clearly born with it. When she did “Roxanne’s Revenge,” she was 14. She had a fucking No. 1 record in a few different countries when she was in 8th grade living in the projects. That is insane. I don’t know anybody else who did it like that. I brought her up because you mentioned Kendrick in “Control” and how he was calling people out. It’s either “The Bitch is Back” or “Big Momma” where she just goes at everybody. That level of competition is dope. Dudes took pride in putting pen to paper and coming up with that shit and just doing it. When Kendrick did it like that, I dug it. 

When I looked at what’s happening with Drake and Meek and seeing Meek back in the day as a 15-year-old battling—I used to see all of that shit. I was always up on it. Meek would be in a battle and he would just be going for hours. To see their interaction and everything surrounding it—everyone has their two cents about MCs and who got bars. The thing about social media is that everybody becomes a critic and expert on which bars are dope and which bars aren’t. There’s a lot of favoritism. There are people just riding people. There’s a lot of popularity contest stuff going on, My hope [with the show] was to make it like an app where it just all kind of flows in a way. I have to do a part two. This show was three hours. It’s a tour de force.

This is not about Meek. It’s about the culture. I want this to be something that spurs conversation and interest. I want people to be like, “How come you didn’t put this? How come he put too much of that?” I want to see people talk about it. I want to see people engage in it. Like, “I didn’t even realize he said that!” I want people to have that kind of conversation. You can hit certain subjects and it’s just as fresh as when they first said it. When you listen to, “Just A Friendly Game of Baseball,” it’s just so timely. It was so ill. It was really unique and it was a specific innovation to those lines, those bars, that choice of words, the cadence. To have that living next to “Fuck niggas up, laugh about it” is just interesting. The concepts of it all are really interesting.

One thing that the Meek-Drake feud has brought to the forefront is the role of writing in rapping. Is that something that you were cognizant of when you were bringing this all together?
Yeah. It was just creeping around always. Drake is mad cool. There’s nothing but respect from me. He’s extremely talented. Meek is the same. They both give me the highest form of respect and I love the fact that they engaged in this now. Hopefully, we’ll see more and more come out if it in a good way.

There’s something to be said about writing your own shit. I think biting a rhyme or stealing a rhyme is probably the highest form of treason in hip-hop culture. Second would be either plagiarism or somebody else penning your shit. The first rap record we ever heard, from the Sugar Hill Gang, Hank’s verse was copped from Grandmaster Caz. People have had writers since the beginning. The thing about it—and this comes down to a testament of your moral fiber—is to be forthright and transparent about what it is. You can’t say that you’re the best MC and you’re top five and you’re killing everybody—you’re Hank. Somebody else gave you that. You may certainly have the capacity to do it and you probably have written some things that connect with your other rhymes that you may have gotten but it’s about the full representation of you.

When you start recording and you start spitting it and you start gaining fans, people take that to heart. People get inspired by the artist and the words. It can be disappointing to know somebody else wrote someone’s shit. I would be very disappointed if I heard that somebody wrote “La Di Da Di” other than Slick Rick. It doesn’t make me love him less or respect him any less. It’s just like, “Damn. I was right there with you. Now I want to know who the dude was who wrote it. Now I want to chop it up with them.” If you’re coming out, you’ve got to be transparent about it. There’s nothing wrong with it at all. It becomes an issue when you don’t reveal it because you make people believe that it’s one thing when it’s really something else.

It’s about the transparency. You have Dr. Dre on here a couple of times where obviously Snoop or Eminem were penning his things but he still made the bars mix.
Shit, if you took all of Dr. Dre’s records, he’s had some of the coldest and most consistent records. He doesn’t write them. He gets the top notch dudes to pen shit for him. We wouldn’t know that but thank goodness he was transparent about it. He could very well be the greatest rapper ever. He’s got Jay Z. He’s got Snoop. He’s got Eminem. He’s got Kendrick. He’s got Game. He’s got 50. He’s got so many dudes who are ill to write shit for him. Thank God he’s transparent. That’s why he’s never really mentioned on an MC list. That’s why Diddy is never mentioned on an MC list. The demerit comes from you not being transparent.

Me personally, I’ve never had anybody write a stitch of my shit. That’s just me. In the group, Phife and I had a lot of interplay. We did a lot of swapping. When we did that, we constructed together. He may say one of my bars, I may say one of his bars—we were in a group. It was about the song. It was about the mentality of it. It was about those choruses and those lead-ins. When you’re dealing with that, that’s one thing. With The Furious Five, somebody had to be the author of, “We’re going to make five MCs sound like one.”

It wasn’t five people.
When you think about Run–D.M.C., and you think about the line "Now Peter Piper picked peppers but Run rocked rhymes/Humpty Dumpty fell down that's his hard time," and where they traded lines back and forth, who truly wrote all of that? I'm sure it was collaborative. But they were a group and that’s a different thing.

Your approach to songwriting varies because you have songs like “Renaissance Rap (Remix)” where you are really going in. Then you have other records where it’s much more about the feel and the cadence. On “Gettin’ Up” you’re still rhyming but it’s much more about moving with the music. How do you decide when you’re really going to concentrate on bars?
It’s about the music. The music dictates it. My thing is that I don’t want to be one-dimensional. I went from doing a really sparse, idiosyncratic style—I think space is interesting when it comes to songs. I can also say, “Who can make it up, dark ages here in rap...On the wall against them all from Warhol to Jean-Michel…” I can fucking do that, too. That’s interesting to me. There are a lot of cats out there who are extremely good at one thing and that’s it. 

Abstract Radio (Vol. 5), Part 1

Abstract Radio (Vol. 5), Part 2

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