Open innovations: Q-Tip’s unreleased magnum opus
In 2001, Q-Tip found himself at a crossroads in his career. His new record “Kamaal The Abstract” was finished and advance copies had already reached select members of the press. Initial feedback was looking good. But behind the scenes, Tip’s label situation was beginning to unfold.
Before Q-Tip had completed the record, Clive Davis — the legendary music executive who had supported Tip’s vision for Kamaal The Abstract — was fired from his position at Arista. He was quickly replaced by L.A. Reid who brought with him a new vision for the label. Reid’s first signings at Arista included pop acts Avril Lavigne and Pink: a stark sonic contrast to Q-Tip’s ambitious fusion of Jazz, Rock and Hip Hop.
Initially Reid was supportive of the release, but told Q-Tip that he felt the record needed more singles to make it commercially viable. After hitting the studio and creating new material to play to his executive, Q-Tip scheduled another meeting to discuss releasing the album. Reid still wasn’t sure. “He kinda didn’t say anything, he just puffed on his cigar in the meeting,” Q-Tip told ThisIs50. “I was like ‘yo, you cool but I gotta bounce’. He didn’t really want to say that he wasn’t hearing it, but that’s what it was. So I just bounced.”
Deciding to cut his losses, Q-Tip requested and was granted a release from Arista. Shortly after he discovered a home that would be more supportive of his musical vision in the form of DreamWorks Records, securing a deal to found his own bespoke sub-label ‘Abstract Artworks’ in the process. “I’m able to work and develop artists,” he told HipHopDX in 2003. “I’m working on developing them and putting myself out. It’s intriguing to be at one of the last independent labels and to have the opportunity to build something and really grow a real relationship.”
With a new home and the support of DreamWorks behind him, Q-Tip threw himself back into work and began laying the foundation for his next recording, operating under the working title “Open”.
Jazz (We Got)
The initial starting point for recording sessions began at Q-Tip’s home studio, much as classic Tribe LPs were born in the early- and mid-nineties. “I would make sketches of ideas,” Q-Tip explained to Remix. “I’d flesh it out at the piano or just deal with a drum rhythm on the MPC 2000, add some chord progressions and bass lines, then play it for the band, and they would tailor it.” The band in question featured a number of notable names in the NY Jazz scene.
Open’s rhythm section comprised of Mark Colenberg on drums and Derrick Hodge on bass. Mark had cut his teeth playing for Q-Tip’s friend Common, while Derrick was working on sessions with the likes of Anthony Hamilton and Vivian Green. Both would go on to be integral parts of Robert Glasper’s band, as well as celebrated artists and composers in their own rights.
“Jazz musicians, when they are open, are the most skilled and gifted players. They deal with music in a holistic way.”
Kurt Rosenwinkel took the mantle of lead guitarist, having been previously involved in the Kamaal The Abstract sessions, and Q-Tip having co-produced his 2003 album “Heartcore” on Verve Records. Rounding out the group was James Hurt on keyboards, whose work included a notable Jazz album on Blue Note as well as more Hip Hop focused sessions with the likes of Dj Spinna and Bilal.
It’s clear from the personnel that Jazz was still a key component of Q-Tip’s evolving sound palette. “Jazz musicians, when they are open, are the most skilled and gifted players,” he told Remix. “They deal with music in a holistic way.” Q-Tip also played drums, keyboards and percussion throughout the sessions.
We Can Get Down
The final piece of the recording puzzle was producer/engineer Blair Wells, who had just finished work on Common’s expansive “Electric Circus” set. Originally hired by Q-Tip as a consultant for his home studio, Wells became the primary sound designer and engineer for the sessions that would birth Open. It’s a position he holds to this day, most recently having been instrumental in the recording and mixing of A Tribe Called Quest’s final LP “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”.
Wells recalls how initial ideas were organically developed into fully arranged music: “The musicians brainstormed and jammed for hours in Q-Tip’s living room, so ideas really flowed. At the end of the jams, we would listen and pick out the gems and assemble a demo track in Pro Tools, then play it for everybody. Then, the band would re-cut it.”
“Q-Tip always knew where the gem lived within the jam”
Sessions were approached with an “anything goes” ethos, so long as it was within the context of Rock, Jazz and Hip Hop. Q-Tip quietly guided the ideation process, fleshing out initial jams and concepts into more refined products over the course of the recording sessions.
“That is why this record turned out so well,” recalls Wells. “Because throughout the jamming process, Q-Tip always knew where the gem lived within the jam, and he would build it into something that was the essence of the entire six-hour process.”
Once a final arrangement had been laid down, Q-Tip and Wells would collaborate on the mix together. Each track was printed to DAT, a Genex DSD digital recorder and to tape, with the duo picking whichever medium best suited the individual song. If a certain track benefited from the saturated low-end imparted by half-inch tape, they would use that as the final version. If another needed a more crisp, accurate tone they would stick to the digital domain and use the Genex combined with Pro Tools. All sessions were mixed through an SSL 9000 J console.
The sound of Open is most distinctively characterised by its use of guitar. Where much of Hip Hop — and Q-Tip’s output as part of A Tribe Called Quest — had been built around the mellow sounds of 60s and 70s Jazz&Soul, the guitar tones on Open verge towards Metal. “I wanted it to be a guitar-laden record,” Q-Tip explained to Remix. “I wanted that aggression. Nobody really gets into the whole thing like Kurt does. He is an impressionist player; the colors and landscapes he creates are beautiful, and he has a lot of soul. I wanted to make the diaspora that I exist within musically as wide and spacious as possible.”
The resulting sound of Open is a slick fusion of Rock, Hip Hop and Jazz. While these genres have been combined many times before (and since), Q-Tip’s approach to the recording provides a unique and arguably more authentic blend than most, approached with the spirit of an artist two decades deep in the sound of Hip Hop and the ear of an eclectic music enthusiast.
Drums have always been the cornerstone of Hip Hop, and both Q-Tip and Wells approached the sessions with this at the forefront of their minds. As well as using an acoustic drum kit, they also supplemented parts using a ddrum4 SE module, loaded with sample chops from Tip’s vast record collection. They then utilised bit-crushing across drum tracks during mixdowns, paying homage to the constraints of 12-bit samplers such as the E-mu SP1200 that are a mainstay of the Hip Hop aesthetic. The resulting sound gives both a crunch and weight that plays to the ears of Hip Hop fans, complimented by the flexibility and dexterity of Mark Colenberg’s nimble acoustic kit work.
Standout tracks on Open come from all sides. “N/A” features Q-Tip and Common trading thoughts on creative freedom and personal growth over a weighty guitar backing from Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Late Mornin” catches Q-Tip working a modulating triple-time/double-time flow over a 6/8 groove, accompanied by heavily driven Fender Rhodes and Organ solos. “I’m Not Gone Have It” is perhaps the most familiar sounding to Tribe aficionados, with a bass melody eerily reminiscent of Tribe’s “One Two Shit”. The album culminates with “Compute”, a funky piano and organ driven number, seeing Tip switch between singing and rapping, navigating around multiple guitar solos.
Despite the experimental, eclectic sound of Open, L.A. Reid’s comments a few years earlier regarding Kamaal The Abstract’s lack of radio singles appear to have stayed with Q-Tip. “That’s Sexy” sees Tip and Outkast’s Andre 3000 exchanging harmonies in a laid back, party-friendly vibe that would have slotted itself nicely into 2004-era radio programming. Similarly, “I Believe” channels the spirit of Prince through some ear-catching slap bass from Derrick Hodge, abundant hand claps and stellar harmonies from D’Angelo.
Where Kamaal The Abstract went against the grain of early 00’s shiny suit rap and R&B crossover, Open strikes a more mature balance between Q-Tip’s quest for musical exploration and commercial appeal.
A New Renaissance
As with Kamaal The Abstract a few years earlier, record label drama stood in the way of Open reaching the public. DreamWorks Records was acquired in 2003 by Universal Music Group, and by 2004 it was folded into the Interscope-Geffen-A&M label. Q-Tip found himself on the artist roster of Geffen. It wasn’t a relationship that lasted long. “I stayed there for a year,” Q-Tip told The Village Voice. “The offices were in LA, didn’t really work out, whatever. I asked for a release and got one, and then I wound up at Universal.”
Upon landing at Universal Motown, Q-Tip began work on a new album under the working title “Live At The Renaissance”. Open was destined to remain in the vaults, with only a select few having heard the album in its entirety, and in the sequencing that Q-Tip intended.
Leaked versions have existed online for close to a decade, but many with the inclusion of Kamaal-era tracks such as “Feelings” as well as a number of tracks listed as “Untitled” or “Unidentified”. It’s fair to say that it’s unlikely the leaked version is the complete, final version of Open.
Not all of the output from Q-Tip’s Open sessions can be considered lost however. A number of songs did make it to The Renaissance album, albeit in various degrees of reworking. “Johnny Died” became “Johnny is Dead”, with Q-Tip’s more abrasive tone on the original updated with new lyrics and a slightly more positive slant. “I Believe” was radically overhauled, losing much of the Purple One’s sonic influence in favour of a more mellow, Fender Rhodes driven approach. The breakdown section of “Where Do You Go” was re-sampled and given a new life as the backbone of “Shaka”. Only “Official” remained more or less untouched, save for a new mixdown to balance it with the rest of the album.
Over a decade since it’s shelving, Open has become somewhat of a side-note in Q-Tip’s career biography. It’s history has been overshadowed by both the belated release of the original Kamaal The Abstract Sessions and the critical acclaim rightfully bestowed upon The Renaissance. But the album provides a rare glimpse into the transitional phase between the raw Jazz-Rock of Kamaal The Abstract and the more refined palette of sound displayed on The Renaissance. It’s the sound of an artist continuing to carve out his own niche and find a fresh voice despite naysayers and industry setbacks. I’ll let Q-Tip take the ride out:
“If you have total belief in your music and stay with it, people will eventually understand what you are trying to do. You just don’t stop. If you are trying to say something, then people will see that you are serious. It will always be a work in progress, so don’t ever shy away from being public about your work. Just continue. Picasso, as accomplished as he was, and I am not comparing myself to him, he was still going through different phases, and he would let them be seen. He got lost in the work. I just want to paint in that sense: get lost in the color and paint and paint and paint.”