Talib Kweli has never been the flashy type. He’s a reliable rapper. While the radio is telling youth in America what dance to do, Kweli, a Brooklyn native, stays true to himself. With his third solo album, Ear Drum dropping in August, Kweli is on the road, doing last minute promotion. He stopped at London’s premier hip-hop spot Deal Real for an afternoon in-store performance, before answering a few questions about his Lyricist Lounge days, the pressures of being a label CEO, his greatest accomplishments in the rap game and whether New York City has ever really fallen off.
At 32, Kweli is taking the game even more seriously than before. This is, after all, the occupation that puts food in the mouths of his son and daughter. Far from being pessimistic about declining SoundScan figures, he believes that people now, more than ever, have the chance to broaden their musical horizons. “With the Internet, there’s no excuse not to expand your horizons,” he says. “And if you go on the Internet and you really participate in the hip-hop lifestyle you’ll see there’s plenty of artists â€“ artists right here and artists all over the world doing progressive, positive music.”
Having been a visitor of London for almost a decade now, his three date residency at the Jazz CafÃ©, backed up by his favorite rapper and Blacksmith artist, Jean Grae, was well received and for those who couldn’t make it to the world famous Camden venue. Having carved out success as a solo artist and as a member of a group with DJ Hi-Tek and Mos Def, Kweli has steeled himself for the next frontier of the industry â€“ being the boss.
“There’s a reason why music has to be pop and it has to be cookie-cutter. There has to be balance.”
Format: There are a lot of artists out there who stay in the limelight. Your movement is slightly low key. How is the movement moving?
Talib Kweli: Things don’t have to be seen to be moving, but when you finally see it, the impact is great. I came in this business with a lot of artists. I’ve been coming here to London since Mr. Bongo’s was open. I’ve been here for a minute and the reason why I’m able to come and some of my peers who started out with me can’t, because of the moves and I never said I’m just this or I’m just that. I’ve never said Iâ€™m going to do Deal Real and not go to HMV or I’ve never said I’ll just go to the underground club and not to the commercial poppinâ€™ club. I do it all and I try not to let the trends affect my music, but I pay attention to them, because I’m still competitive.
Format: You had a bunch of guests like Norah Jones, UGK and Sizzla on Ear Drum. Was there anyone you wanted to get on the album who you couldn’t sort things out with?
Talib Kweli: Yeah, Bjork and Premier.
Format: Did you actually contact Bjork or was it just one of those dream collaborations?
Talib Kweli: I didn’t try. As far as joints that I did, I did joints with Marsha Anbrosius from Floetry and that didn’t make the album. I got one with Justin Timberlake, which is going be one of the bonus tracks on the album and Sizzla, which is also going be a bonus.
Format: Why didn’t the track with Marsha Anbrosius make the album?
Talib Kweli: I don’t want the album to be too long. The song with Marsha is dealing with deliverance and I’ve got a track on the album called â€œHostile Gospelâ€ where the hook says â€˜deliver me’ and I felt that the song was more necessary for the album.
Format: Whose your favourite rapper out at the moment?
Talib Kweli: Jean Grae.
Format: And who do you enjoy working with?
Talib Kweli: I enjoy working with Kanye, Hi-Tek and Mos Def, but someone I learned a lot from working with in a studio is DJ Quik. He’s a genius when it comes to sonics and when it comes to the studio. That’s the first time I went to the studio and somebody produced my vocals. That had never happened before. I think when I talk about how I was influenced, about how to record and what I learned in the studio â€“ I learned more from Quik than anybody.
Format: So what made you want to leave Geffen?
Talib Kweli: They didn’t really know what to do with me. They’re in the business of selling records, but they’re not really in the business of artist development, so when I got there they had artists that were already developed like The Roots, Blackalicious, GZA, Common, Mary J. Blige â€“ none of these people started at Geffen. But they ended up at Geffen halfway through their careers, because Geffen was lazy, they didn’t want to develop nothing. Years later they didn’t know what to do. They worked hard on Common’s album, because Kanye did all the beats and they really wanted to be successful with that. The Roots had to go to Def Jam, I had to do my own thing, but you know, that’s what it is.
Format: Is there another Blackstar album coming out sometime soon?
Talib Kweli: No, not sometime soon, but we might do one. It’s not like I ain’t busy. I’ll tell you why you say I should do one, because I’ve been so prolific. If I hadn’t been as prolific you would have been asking Mos Def, ‘Yo, what happened to that nigga you used to rap with?’ I appreciate the love. The reason why you love it is because me and Mos Def have still been working hard. If we didn’t work hard at what we’re doing you wouldn’t care about Black Star.
Format: How did your collaboration album, The Liberation LP, with Madlib come about?
Talib Kweli: I’m a big fan of Madlib, he’s got three beats on Ear Drum. When I was working on the Ear Drum project, I was working with so many Madlib tracks that I felt I could do a whole Madlib album. So I did and I didn’t want to worry about whoâ€™s going put it out, how it’s going come out, so I just put it out.
Fomat: What do you think about Oprah and Al Sharpton’s recent comments about hip-hop?
Talib Kweli: I love Oprah and I love Al Sharpton. I think they are wonderful, respectable people and they have been on the frontline of black culture for a long time. I do think that their stance on hip-hop, right now, is misguided. I think Al Sharpton, sometimes, he’s right on point and sometimes he’s misled. But, I think their intentions are grand and they deserve a lot more respect from our peers and contemporaries, even if we don’t agree with everything they say, we have to disagree respectfully, because we owe them that respect as elders and people. The stuff that Oprah went through and the stuff that Al Sharpton went through is pretty tough stuff, so we got to give them respect, even if we don’t agree with them.
“…people say New York has fallen off, I’m in London doing shows. I’m good.”
Format: Are you checking for any British artists?
Talib Kweli: There are artists that I’m associated with like Ty. Me and him did â€œDown For The Countâ€ and we talked about doing some other records. One of my good friends is Est’elle. I spend a lot of time with her in the States, I really love that girl. Kano, I like Kano a lot. Last time I was here, when I was performing at the Kanye show, Kano ripped it down. I like Roots Manuva, I like Blak Twang â€“ the classics. I like Kano a lot, I don’t know what his label situation is, but I think he a style that could work, not just for the UK, I think it could work worldwide.
Format: On a global level, what do you make of hip-hop today?
Talib Kweli: Well, I think hip-hop is progressing. I think sometimes people get angry when they have no access â€“ when they listen to the radio and watch TV and they get very depressed with the hip-hop they see. But at this stage, in 2007, with the Internet there’s no excuse not to expand your horizons and if you go on the Internet and you really participate in the hip-hop lifestyle you’ll see there’s plenty of artists. Artists right here and artists all over the world doing progressive, positive music. It just doesn’t reach the mainstream, so people get mad like, why can’t the majority of people hear this artist or that artist, but it’s not really designed that way. There’s a reason why music has to be pop and it has to be cookie-cutter. There has to be balance. I wouldn’t be able to be what I do so successfully, if it wasn’t for someone like Nelly being so successful with what he’s doing. It’s symbiotic, we all need each other.
Format: Are you planning to rap for a while longer or are you going branch out into something else?
Talib Kweli: I don’t look at it in terms of how many albums I have left. I don’t want to have to depend on hip-hop forever. Right now, it’s my career. If I want to do something else I’d have to make a complete shift.
Format: Would you get into movies?
Talib Kweli: Sure. I went to school for acting. I’d rather write something and own it. I’ve been on a bunch of auditions and that’s not a very fulfilling experience.
Format: What do you think of the assumption that New York has fallen off?
Talib Kweli: That doesn’t really have anything to do with me, because while people say New York has fallen off, I’m in London doing shows. I’m good. Everybody knows I’m from Brooklyn, I talk about Brooklyn and I identify with Brooklyn, but people associate me with hip-hop. They don’t associate me with New York City and I’m not regional like that. But you know, I do think it’s over hyped. Everybody has their chance. The West Coast was making big noise a few years back and down south.
“When I started performing over those Hi-Tek beats, my style really started to develop and I started to develop a following.”
Format: How did you get your start in hip-hop?
Talib Kweli: I made a demo tape, a whole bunch of demo tapes, but for one I was part of an artistic community. Before I thought about making a demo tape I was going to Washington Square Park, I was freestyling in the park with Bush Babees and John Forte and Supernatural and 8-Off The Assassin, and it was just like a crew and my only goal in life was to be nicer than them. Then I started making my demo tapes but no one listened. I was in New York City so I’d go up to every label, sit in the lobby and try and meet with the A&Rs, promotion man or whatever and no one listened â€“ my tapes would end up thrown out. I went out to Cincinnati to start making music with Hi-Tek. When I made music with Hi-Tek, my goal was to perform this music instead of trying to shop it. I used to perform and people were like, I love his lyrics and it’s cool he can rap, but it wasn’t like I was getting my thing off. When I started performing over those Hi-Tek beats, my style really started to develop and I started to develop a following. And around the time I started doing shows, Mos was doing shows and Shabaam Shadeeq was doing shows and Company Flow. My roommate was John Forte and he was best friends with Jarrett from Rawkus, they actually started the company. John was the first A&R at Rawkus. He bought them down and I met those dudes and they were already doing a thing with Mos, so it made perfect sense from there.
Format: What kind of advice would you give to up and coming artists?
Talib Kweli: Create a community of artists that can critique each other and make everybody better. The more you do these type of events, not like how you all were just freestyling before, you should do this at least once a week here, at least. Create a community, so there’ll be stars in this community and then when one person gets a deal, there’s always a backing behind them.
Format: When Jay-Z shouted you out on â€œMoment Of Clarityâ€ you had a whole bunch of extra eyes on you. Did you feel more pressure then or now with this album, knowing you’ve got a label on your back?
Talib Kweli: Yeah, when Jay said that it was great, but I do feel more pressure now, because now it’s not just about me as an artist, it’s about Blacksmith and Blacksmith’s failure will be my failure. I’ve got Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady, and they put their trust in me. They could have signed with anybody, but they ran with Blacksmith, not because we have a track record, but because of my track record, so it’s more pressure, but it’s good pressure.
Format: Finally, what would you say the highlight of you career has been?
Talib Kweli: Being able to raise my children and pay for what they need through music is a highlight. As far as getting to meet certain individuals like Nina Simone, like Harry Belafonte, like Prince â€“ getting to meet these people and chop it with them, that’s always nice.