The 20 Best Q-Tip Beats
As an MC/Producer, Q-Tip ranks among a rare class of individuals whose work in both disciplines has had a profound impact on rap music. These are the 20 best beats he’s made.
As an MC/Producer, Q-Tip ranks among a rare class of individuals whose work in both disciplines has had a profound impact on rap music. Working alongside Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest opened new thematic and aesthetic avenues for hip-hop. Their lyrics brought an everyman perspective to a variety of subjects: love, sex, infidelity, spirituality, and the perils of the music industry. Musically, the group also helped expand hip-hop’s sonic palette by sampling from an eclectic array of bebop, hard-bop, ‘70s jazz-funk, southern rock, and psychedelic rock records, playing a pivotal part in the rise of jazz rap in the ‘90s. As the primary producer on A Tribe Called Quest’s first three albums — People’s Instinctive Travels And the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), and Midnight Marauders (1993) — Q-Tip’s broad and innovative approach to sampling has led to some of the most complex and colorful beats of the era.
Today, the influence of Q-Tip’s production style is ubiquitous if you know where to look. With his tasteful ear for rich jazz samples (it’s fair to say Tip has created some of the best rap songs that sample jazz) and big, swinging drums, Q-Tip was a clear influence on J Dilla in his formative years. The two eventually became creative partners after Dilla famously passed Tip his demo tape at the Michigan stop of the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. In the wake of Dilla’s death in the winter of 2006, the lush, bouncy sound that he developed under Tip’s influence lives in the musical DNA of scores of producers around the world. As a solo artist, Tip has released beloved albums like Kamaal The Abstract (recorded in 2001 and released in 2009) and The Renaissance, whose sounds traversed the lines between rock, soul, jazz, and hip-hop. Whether rocking the famous EMU SP-1200 and Akai S950 in tandem, or various models of the Akai MPC, Q-Tip is one of the best to ever touch a sampler or drum machine.
Here are 20 of his best beats.
20. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "WE THE PEOPLE" (2016)
When Phife Dawg passed away in Spring 2016, the future of A Tribe Called Quest was uncertain. With the exception of the occasional reunion show, the group had been largely inactive since the late ‘90s, and with the death of one of the group’s core members, most fans would’ve been right to assume that the group was done for. That’s why when the album We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service arrived later that year, it was a pleasant surprise to hear Phife, Tip, Ali, and Jarobi rocking together again one last time. Anchored by a powerful bassline and neck-breaking drums, “We The People” is the hardest-hitting beat on the album, and a testament to the breadth of Tip’s skill as a producer.
19. Q-TIP — "EVEN IF IT IS SO" (2001)
Originally recorded in 2001, Q-Tip’s solo album Kamaal The Abstract was shelved by his record label and the album remained unreleased, with rounds of speculation and leaks filling up message boards until its eventual release in 2009. A musically diverse and experimental album, Kamaal The Abstract closes with one of Tip’s finest solo compositions, “Even If It Is So.” With its simple four-chord piano progression, Tip’s chanted hook, and an uplifting trumpet motif, “Even If It Is So” is a perfect melding of jazz, soul, and hip-hop. To top it off, Tip spins a story of a young woman struggling to make ends meet — working two jobs and stripping on the side — into a broader statement about the power of perseverance.
18. RAPHAEL SAADIQ & Q-TIP — "GET INVOLVED" (1999)
This 1999 collaboration opens with soaring strings and Tip’s “It’s the S-a-double-d-i-q. Yo, he wanna get involved with you” chant. A catchy, breezy and soulful tune, “Get Involved” hints at the stylistic terrain that Tip would explore throughout the 2000s on solo albums like Kamaal The Abstract, Open, and The Renaissance. The song’s relentless kick pattern holds the rhythm firmly, while the strings and keys play beautifully with Saadiq’s vocals. A perfect snapshot of where hip-hop and R&B were at the turn of the millennium, “Get Involved” still bangs today.
17. CROOKLYN DODGERS (SPECIAL ED, MASTA ACE & BUCKSHOT) — "CROOKLYN" (1994)
Spike Lee’s ode to the borough of Brooklyn and Black childhood, 1994’s Crooklyn gave viewers a warm and nostalgic look at what it was like growing up in NYC in the ‘70s. To promote the film and connect the dots between the ‘70s and the ‘90s, it made sense that Lee would employ the most potent cultural movement that Black gen xers had produced to date: hip-hop. Thus, “Crooklyn” by the Crooklyn Dodgers — Special Ed, Masta Ace, and Buckshot — was tapped as the lead single from the soundtrack. The beat includes Q-Tip’s signature bouncy with hard-hitting drums, and a low pass filter applied to the main sample. To date, Tip has never revealed the name of the original sample, leaving the classic track with a hint of mystery.
16. MOBB DEEP & Q-TIP — "DRINK AWAY THE PAIN" (1995)
“Drink Away The Pain” is a clever and novel meditation on the dangers of addiction. Havoc and Prodigy’s verses detail each man’s relationship with alcohol, but the lyrics are coded in a way that would make you think they’re talking about a toxic love interest. Backed by a buttery jazz-funk loop, Tip takes the reins with a verse composed entirely of listings/references to popular clothing brands (in a similar style to GZA’s “Labels” or Ka’s “Off The Record”).
15. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "CHECK THE RHIME" (1991)
Another banger from The Low End Theory, “Check The Rhime” highlights an under-appreciated aspect of Q-Tip’s production toolkit: his ability to layer samples from a variety of sources and make them play together harmoniously. The song’s verses are backed by a slick, lowkey bass line that allows Tip and Phife to trade bars back and forth. The chorus’ bright, triumphant horns are sampled from an entirely different record, but it all makes perfect sense musically. What’s more impressive is that this was done years before the advent of Serato Pitch ‘n Time or the advanced audio warping technology found in DAWS like Ableton Live today.
14. MOBB DEEP & CRYSTAL JOHNSON — "TEMPERATURE'S RISING" (1995)
By the time Q-Tip was tapped to help out with the production on Havoc and Prodigy’s second album, The Infamous, he was already a veteran producer having created three certified classic albums with A Tribe Called Quest’s People's Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm,The Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders. Contrasting the darker, ominous songs like “Shook Ones” and "Cradle To the Grave,” the Q-Tip-assisted tracks provide a bright, jazz-influenced contrast that gives the album a tonal dynamism that Mobb Deep’s 1993 debut, Juvenile Hell, lacked. One such track is “Temperature’s Rising,” a song whose emotional tone sits somewhere between tension and optimism, as Havoc and Prodigy compose a letter to a loved one hiding out from the police. The production suits the lyrics perfectly with its lush chords and drums chopped from a midwestern psych-rock record that is pretty hard to find these days.
13. MOBB DEEP & BIG NOYD — "GIVE UP THE GOODS (JUST STEP)" (1995)
With its blissful soul sample, programmed drum fill, and Prodigy’s classic opener, Mobb Deep’s “Give Up The Goods” starts out with a bang. The track’s energy doesn’t relent as Big Noyd takes over with a star-making verse over Tip’s bouncy drums, and low-pass filtered sample. “Give Up The Goods” is quintessential mid-‘90s Q-Tip.
12. THE JUNGLE BROTHERS & Q-TIP — "THE PROMO" (1988)
As an MC, Q-Tip made his recorded debut with a guest verse on “Black is Black,” a cut from The Jungle Brothers’ revolutionary 1988 album, Straight Out The Jungle. He put his burgeoning beat making skills to work on “The Promo,” a b-side from the “Straight Out The Jungle'' single. Co-produced by Jungle Brother’s Afrika Baby Bam, “The Promo” is a swinging, minimal beat made up almost entirely of a pitched-down drum break, and a short, looped saxophone lick. Despite its deceptive simplicity, “The Promo” still knocks. The arrival of Tip, The JB’s, and their Native Tongues comrades signaled a clear changing of the guard in rap.
11. Q-TIP — "GETTIN UP" (2008)
While much of Q-Tip’s solo work has found him experimenting with live instrumentation, “Gettin’ Up” finds Tip flexing his preternatural ability to flip samples. Taking a lovely piano part from a slow, sweet soul ballad, Tip remolds the sample around an uptempo drum beat and a ridiculously funky and intricate live bass line. In addition to being a great song, “Gettin’ Up” is an impressive and natural-sounding combination of live playing and sampling, a fusion that has traditionally been difficult for hip-hop producers to pull off.
10. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "EXCURSIONS" (1991)
Like many great rap albums that came before and after it, A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 classic The Low End Theory opens with a song that doubles as a key part of the album’s mission statement. The rich, upright bass line that Q-Tip flips for “Excursions” was originally in 6/4 time, but Tip samples and programs it in a way that moves it into 4/4. For his opening verse, Tip revisits a conversation with his father that connects the dots between hip-hop and jazz:
“Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of bebop
I said, well daddy don't you know that things go in cycles
The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael”
With songs like “Excursions” and “Verses From the Abstract” (featuring legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter), The Low End Theory puts Tip’s proclamation into practice. The album shows us that hip-hop and jazz are in no way tangentially related. These genres are interconnected parts of an ongoing historical continuum of Black culture.
9. CRAIG MACK — "GET DOWN" (Q-TIP REMIX) (1994)
Easy Mo Bee’s original version of “Get Down” is as subtle and muted as it is funky. Q-Tip’s remix presents a completely fresh and high-energy take on the Craig Mack single. The drums act as the foundation of the beat as Tip chops up a classic jazz drum break and reprograms it into a bouncy, boom-bap pattern. Adding in a thunderous bassline and a microscopic bit snatched from a ‘70s prog-rock record, “Get Down” is one of the best and most underrated remixes of the era.
8. NAS — "THE WORLD IS YOURS" (Q-TIP REMIX) (1994)
Throughout the early and mid-‘90s, Q-Tip was part of a small fraternity of New York-based producers including (but not limited to) Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Diamond D, Buckwild, and The Beatnuts, who were engaged in a friendly competition to see who could dig for the deepest samples and concoct the dopest beats. The art of remixing allowed these producers to flex their skills by creating a totally new take on a track, and attempting to one-up the original version. You can argue whether or not Tip’s version of Nas’ “The World Is Yours” is better than Pete Rock’s original, but it’s without question a gorgeous tune in its own right. With its hypnotic three-chord keyboard loop and slapping drums, Tip’s take on “The World Is Yours” is simple and laid back enough to allow Nas’ words the space they need to breathe. This was one of those cuts that got a ton of play on late night mix shows back in the day.
7. NAS — "ONE LOVE" (1994)
For listeners who weren’t around in the spring of 1994, it’s probably hard to imagine the hype and palpable excitement that preceded Nas’ debut album, Illmatic. With show-stealing verses on MC Serch’s “Back to The Grill Again” and Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” as well as an early Source magazine review hailing Illmatic as a classic before it was released, to say that the rap world already had high expectations on Nas would be an understatement. A huge part of the album’s appeal was the presence of a dream team of producers who had signed on to craft beats for Nas’ prodigious lyrics: L.E.S., DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and, of course, Q-Tip, who offered up standout “One Love.” Built around a beautiful kalimba loop, Nas pens an introspective letter to a friend in jail. The song was the perfect showcase for Nas to deliver on the album’s massive promise, helping Illmatic become one of hip-hop’s most beloved and revered albums.
6. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, KID HOOD & LEADERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL — "SCENARIO" (REMIX) (1992)
Whether you prefer the original or its stellar remix version, “Scenario” set a high standard for posse cuts in rap. Leaders Of The New School and Kid Hood join Phife and Tip for a veritable cypher on wax. The original is hard as nails with a drum break snatched from a ‘60s psych-rock classic, while the remix is built around heavy drums and a funky wah-wah guitar. The energy on the “Scenario” remix builds toward a climax in the form of Busta Phymes’ earth-shattering verse.
5. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "ELECTRIC RELAXATION" (1993)
Where “Bonita Applebum” found Q-Tip solo, caught up in the sweet, uncertain rush of young love, “Electric Relaxation” adds Phife and offers up a very adult ode to sex and the art of seduction. Built around snapping drums and a gorgeous jazz bass and guitar sample, the track is as tasteful and fresh as anything Tribe has ever done.
4. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "CAN I KICK IT?" (1990)
Immediately following “Bonita Applebum” on People’s Instinctive is “Can I Kick It?,” a song that highlights A Tribe Called Quest’s knack for creating playful, colorful anthems. Centered around a melodic upright bass sample, a little bit of slide guitar, organ, and crunchy, pounding drums, “Can I Kick It?” is one of the most complete and original productions in Tribe’s hit-heavy catalog. The song still sounds as fresh today as it did blasting out of cars and across the airwaves when it first came out 30-plus years ago.
3. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "AWARD TOUR" (1993)
As the lead single from A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, “Award Tour” was tasked with preparing audiences for the arrival of the highly-anticipated album. The late Dave “Trugoy” Jolicoeur of De La Soul pops up to handle the chorus, as Q-Tip and Phife confidently display the chemistry and contrast that made them one of the best rhyming duos ever. For the production, Tip has explained that the beat was crafted around an electric piano sample from jazz legend Weldon Irvine, and a cavernous bassline inspired by Jade’s 1992 R&B smash “Don’t Walk Away.” These elements are combined with a pitched-down, one-bar electric guitar loop and knocking drums, to create one of A Tribe Called Quest’s most enduring, definitive songs.
2. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "BONITA APPLEBUM" (1990)
Arguably rap’s greatest love song, “Bonita Applebum” approaches Black teenaged puppy love with a high level of emotional and sonic sophistication. From the trippy, flange-effected “la-la-la” on the song’s intro to its beautiful electric piano loop, the production on “Bonita Applebum” uses expertly layered samples to capture the feeling of pure infatuation. As the song reaches its conclusion, we are struck with the voice of the late radio host Rick Holmes chanting, “....sex, sex…freaks…peace…,” pulling off the song’s sweet, wistful veneer, and revealing the lustful, horny impulses behind it.
1. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — "LYRICS TO GO" (1993)
With songs like “Electric Relaxation,” “Clap Your Hands,” “Oh My God” and more, the second side of A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 masterpiece, Midnight Marauders, is packed with elegantly constructed beats. Placed in between the lowkey jam “The Chase, Pt. II” and the Busta Rhymes-assisted “God Lives Through,” “Lyrics To Go” is one of the finest productions in Tribe’s nearly-impeccable catalog. The track opens with a stuttering fuzz guitar riff that is gradually enveloped by a dreamy electric piano, and high-pitched vocal sample pulled from a section of Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love.” Built upon a hypnotic three-bar chord progression and slapping drums, the production on “Lyrics to Go” is deceptively simple and undeniably banging.
John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.