Sunday, November 16, 2008
The View from the Tank: Q-Tip at the House of Blues L.A. - Nov. 15, 2008
shirt available at blacklava.com
Thirteen years ago or so, when I was riding in the backseat of a friend's car, with the windows down, and Mobb Deep, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Nas, or the Wu Tang Clan blasting out into the green pastures surrounding our college town, I would wonder what it would be like to listen to that music years later. When I was fifty-five, would I be sitting around in a faded Phat Farm hoodie, playing my antique cassette tapes and CDs and snapping my arthritic fingers and tapping a vintage, yellowed Shell Toe along with "Shook Ones" or "Protect Ya Neck" as my kids shook their heads in embarrassment and pity?
I'm not quite there yet, but heading to the Q-Tip show in L.A. last night, I felt I was a bit closer to that imagined scene. Q-Tip had faded into relative obscurity in the years since the glorious heights of A Tribe Called Quest in the early 90's. Their peak was likely around 1992 or 1994 -- somewhere between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Going to a Q-Tip show in 2008 felt a little like going to see Poison or Steely Dan reunited in Foxborough. And it wasn't a reunited ATCQ crew -- Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) , in another sign of the time that had passsed, had developed diabetes, which has kept him off the road. (He's just received a kidney transplant after years of dialysis.) It was just Q-Tip, backed by DJ Scratch (of EPMD fame), and a full band.
Q-Tip was promoting his new album, The Renaissance, which had received surprisingly positive reviews and nearly universal acclaim. There were some intriguing decisions on the new album -- most notably for me, a collaboration with Norah Jones on the track "Life is Better".
Any doubts I had about this show or Q-Tip were erased as soon as Q-Tip took the stage. Q-Tip released The Renaissance on Election Day (he reminded the crowd of this several times). Before the curtain rose, the speakers pumped out the words of Barack Obama from his famous speech after the New Hampshire primary defeat. Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis -- name changed to Kamaal Ibn John Fareed in the 90s after he converted to Islam) is clearly a massive fan of Obama, and he was plainly still soaring high on Obama's victory. The crowd roared with every mention of Obama. Mrs. Octopus was dressed exactly right for the occasion, wearing her t-shirt that features the name BARACK in the format of the Run-DMC logo (see above). (Many other fans at the show were sporting their own Obama shirts, and at least three people came over to tell Mrs. Octopus that they loved her shirt.)
Q-Tip, who is now 38, did look his age. He's gotten a little chubby. (Mrs. Octopus thought he had man-boobs.) But he was fired up from the get-go, dancing in his slightly dorky, jerky way, his voice still nasal, vaguely immature, and smooth, his delivery still crisp but relaxed. He bounced around quite a bit, encouraging his band to launch off on solos, and ceding the stage to DJ Scratch for a brilliant trip down a memory lane of hip hop golden oldies, including a riff on Black Sheep's early 90's hip hop anthem "The Choice is Yours" that sent the crowd into a stomping, leaping frenzy. (That song, by the way, was the official soundtrack to my college admissions process. I remember seeing the album for sale at the Haverford student union when I was there for a campus tour -- that nearly sealed the deal for me.) He played a bunch of stuff off his new album, and, of course, a good number of ATCQ classics, which was a little odd, and a little sad, because he had to deliver Phife's verses, which was as weird as it sounds. A large part of ATCQ's success came from the peanut butter and jelly combination of Q-Tip's mellow delivery and Phife's energetic, fired-up short-dude style; it's not quite the same when you have only one half of that combination.
I hadn't been to a hip hop show for a long time. This show was a look back, but it felt fresh and new. Everyone in the crowd seemed deliriously happy. Tip stoked this collective joy with repeated questions "How y'all feel about our new president!?" And his music -- hopeful, celebratory, joyful -- felt exactly right for this moment. There was an older white guy there, dancing near where we were standing. He must've been in his mid 70's, with white hair, and still-tanned, weather-beaten skin. He was in a suit, with a drink in one hand and something that looked a lot like an unlit blunt between his lips. It looked like he had escaped from a nursing home in his best clothes for this show. This guy was thoroughly enjoying himself, and all sorts of girls came over to dance with him and take pictures with him; guys came by to slap his hand and give him a pound -- attention he clearly ate up.
Watching the old dude, I knew exactly how he felt -- like it was a good time to be alive.