NEW YORK -- If you ask him outright, A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip will tell you he is bored with the state of modern music.
If you push him even further, he'll tell you he's willing to bet that significant change is on the horizon -- and that the Tribe are heading that way.
"I think the state right now of hip-hop, as in music, is just very stagnant to me," Q-Tip said during a recent interview at the Hit Factory, the New York City recording studio where Tribe recorded their latest album, The Love Movement. "A lot of the stuff that's out, I don't like it, because it's not a challenge to the musicality. It's not a challenge to the artistic side of it. It's kind-of bland, and I think people like us who feed off of good stuff ... we need something."
Tribe's new album, set for a May release, is no harbinger of revolutionary musical change. Its attitude and sound make it a close cousin to prior Tribe Called Quest efforts, especially The Low End Theory. Some of the exuberant party atmosphere missing on Beats, Rhymes and Life has returned, along with the usual intelligent, witty lyrics and much more live instrumentation. And don't be fooled by the seemingly hyper-romantic title. There are no sappy, swelling strings, lyrics cribbed from an oversexed Hallmark card or sultry soul man Barry White clones overcome by ridiculous paroxysms of sensuality. "I think people have gotten away from [love] a little bit," added the 27-year-old Q-Tip, dressed casually in dark clothing. "So we just try to use that as kind-of like an underlying issue [on the record]."
Despite Tribe's rather steady musical evolution, Q-Tip -- who also goes by the Muslim name Kamaal Fareed -- said he sees a change coming that will shake up the music scene, perhaps fueled by A Tribe Called Quest themselves. "I think that this state right now (in music) is one that's about to change," he said. "Somebody's about to usher in something new, and we're just sitting and waiting for it. If we can't do it, then we'd be gracious enough to wait for it to come" (RealAudio interview clip).
Or else get on the bus and be the group that inspires it, added Q-Tip's Tribe partner Ali Shaheed Muhammad, 27.
"We could be the inspiration for the new school," Muhammad said during the Tribe interview, for which only Phife, a.k.a. Malik Taylor, was not present. It's not such a radical idea, coming from a group that profoundly influenced the hip-hop scene and is open to a surprising array of influences. Muhammad cited Stevie Wonder, D'Angelo, Sly and the Family Stone and Shawn Colvin as personal favorites of late, and Q-Tip said Notorious B.I.G. and the Beatles' Abbey Road were particular inspirations while making The Love Movement.
If the group is responsible for a musical revolution, it won't be a conscious effort on each member's part, Q-Tip said. "We just want to continue to hopefully, God willingly, if we're still here, do well and better ourselves, better ourselves at our craft and continue to make people happy," he added. One of the hip-hop groups that Q-Tip said he's following these days is the Wu-Tang Clan, though he's not so concerned about their recent spate of legal troubles stemming from criminal allegations or the recent arrest of member Ghostface Killah for alleged gun possession. "We're in the business, but we're in the business to do music," Q-Tip said. "So I imagine that [the Wu-Tang Clan] are doing everything they can to present their music."
Q-Tip is, however, critical of some rap artists' musical directions. Puff Daddy's "Roxanne '97: Puff Daddy Remix," for instance, is too heavy on the sampling and thus fails to capture the essence of the tune. "I don't like it personally," he said, "because I think it's just wack to me. 'Roxanne' the (Police) original had a lot of passion, it had a lot of balls to it and it didn't translate well, but that's just me critiquin' it."
However, Q-Tip said the use of prominent, easily identifiable samples that dominate the mix of a song aren't all bad. "I like how [Puff Daddy] used the David Bowie joint or the Kool and the Gang joint," he said.
And while the Tribe have made an effort to stray from pop circles, the group is not necessarily opposed to the merging of mainstream music and rap. On "We Can Get Down," from Midnight Marauders, Phife rapped: "Straight from the heart I represent hip-hop/ I be three albums deep, but I don't want to go pop/ Too many candy rappers seem to be at the top/ Too much candy is no good, so now I'm closin' up shop." Despite these sentiments, Q-Tip said he looks positively on rap's ascent into the world of pop music. Its popularity is "just a reflection of what's going on in this country and around the world. It's a reflection of how all of us, and youngsters, are feeling. It's a reflection of our environment. That's why it's popular. It's pop music now."
Further supporting this opinion, Muhammad said rap's widespread acceptance is partly due to a better understanding of the genre since the days of Sugar Hill Records and Run-D.M.C. "Now [rap] is better understood," he said. "The growing popularity of hip-hop and the expression of it, people are understanding it now, be it a James Brown or Stevie Wonder or Rick James or whatever." [Mon., Feb. 9, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]