About three hours before the New York Knicks home opener, Q-Tip is walking unassumingly through a gaggle of bored, spandexed Knicks City Dancers. The ladies are tired of practicing the same song over and over, particularly because there are no lyrics. No one pays Q-Tip any notice until the song “Go New York Go” begins and he starts in. It’s the official Knicks song this year, written exclusively by Tip for the Knicks. Once he starts flowing, the Dancers perk up and start moving: Oh, that guy hanging around, he’s the rapper.
You can forgive the local five’s cheering squad for not recognizing one of New York’s most accomplished rappers (the Q is for Queens) and the former A Tribe Called Quest front man; most are about fifteen years younger than the 37-year-old, so they were in junior high when Tip last released an album, 1999’s Amplified. He’s guested on a few records since, but it wasn’t until two weeks ago that he put out a new one, The Renaissance. So, to remind people who he is, he’s on the promotional trail, part of which includes the Knicks track, which, as decent as it is, will be played so often this season that it’ll soon grate on the ears of the most ardent fan. “Unfortunately, that’ll happen,” Tip concedes. “I get sick of my songs, too.”
The Knicks approached Q-Tip through his label, Universal Motown. “I was like, cool, sure,” says Tip just before the game. “I hope people cheer out there.” They don’t.
’Tis the difficult world of comebacks. It’s been a rough ten years. Arista refused to release his Amplified follow-up, Kamaal the Abstract. Since then he’s bounced through three more labels. More to the point, he’s watched the business metamorphose right in front of him, through Eminem, Outkast, and now Kanye. Not to mention the record industry has virtually imploded. While we were looking elsewhere, Q-Tip slipped from one of hip-hop’s most vital voices to, as the MSG Jumbotron called him, a “legendary recording artist.” Q-Tip is now classic rock. “It’s been a little frustrating,” he admits.
A Tribe Called Quest’s influence is difficult to overstate. For those turned off by the supposed “gangsta” rap of the early and mid-nineties, the hip-hop pioneers were a soothing alternative: smart, funny, and socially conscious. They were critics’ faves—The Low End Theory ended up on Time’s list of the best 100 albums of all time—and sold their fair share of records before disbanding in 1998. One could argue that they laid the groundwork for the vast majority of rap on the radio today; you hear a lot more in the vein of Q-Tip than of Dr. Dre these days. “The whole Native Tongues movement that Tribe started, none of what you hear now could exist without that,” says Like, leader of hip-hop up-and-comers Pacific Division, touring with Q-Tip this winter. “I look up to him, Pharrell Williams looks up to him, we grew up worshipping him. I wore out all my Tribe tapes.”
Q-Tip’s flow on his new disc remains mellow, freewheeling, and vaguely inspirational. But it doesn’t feel relevant (e.g., the perfectly serviceable but random duet with Norah Jones). He talks about playing parties with fellow old-timer D.J. Scratch and being taken aback by how “the kids” sing along with Ice Cube and the Pharcyde. “There’s a thirst for information,” he says. But mostly, they want Kanye West.
Q-Tip is friends with West—he credits him with turning rap around after a decade when everything “started to sound the same”—and he’s talked of recording a CD with West collaborator Common. West, for his part, name-drops Tribe and Q-Tip at every opportunity. “It’s encouraging to see the respect that people like Kanye have for what we did before,” says Q-Tip.
Still, it’s West who’s winning Grammys and endorsing soft drinks, while Q-Tip is trying to warm up a hostile Knicks crowd. And now Kanye has his own album coming out, 808s & Heartbreak, that’s sure to dwarf The Renaissance. “I’m glad I passed him the baton, and he ran a while, but I’ve been working now, and I can run, too,” says Q-Tip. “My hand is outstretched. Pass me the baton, so I can go a bit.”