Talib Kweli: Everything Man

posted February 11, 2008 12:00:00 AM CST | 15 comments

It's a chilly Thursday night in Philadelphia. I dropped some prior arrangements to a last minute invitation to interview Talib Kweli, who's doing some red-eye, twilight recording work. I get there early, park my car in front of the studio, and listen to Ear Drum for the um-teenth time in the last six months as I wait.

The album has played four times, as I fold my second newspaper. I'm down to my last handful of quarters for the City of Brotherly Love's fifteen-minute rate meters, and I'm exhausted. Hip Hop journalism at its most typical. I leave a message with Talib's assistant, and head the 20 blocks home, nearly three and a half hours after I put my temporary rental in park. As I drive, I remember trying to chase Talib down in 2002, when he was touring the States with Rawkus, in the most epic game of phone-tag I'd ever played, over 300 interviews deep. When I finally caught up with him, it was the gratifying kind of interview I miss.

I get home, lose the jacket and start to cue some tapes for transcription. The 'Berry blows up, and Kweli's 10 minutes away, in the midst of a stressful day of his own, and apologetic. "Do you still want to head over?" For Talib Kweli, nearly a dozen of phone interviews, but never a pound later, the question requires no thought.

Fifteen minutes later I'm in The Roots' studio room, sans The Roots, where Talib and songstress Res are catching up, discussing the wave of viral web talk garnered from "Industry Diary," which leaked last week [click to listen]. A few jokes and stories later, Res is monstrously crooning vocals that sound like Power Pop on acid; light subject matter with an eerie nuance. The Idle Warship is launching, and we ain't heard shit yet.

Talib's listening to her various edits of the vocals, but not actively. With a borrowed pen and tablet, he's scribbling rhymes, mumbling uniquely-Kweli cadences to himself. Less than five minutes later, he looks up, glances at me, we finally meet, and he says he's ready to talk. "You need to finish what you're working on?" I ask. "I just did," he says.

Sporting designer aviator glasses, Talib Kweli eats a chicken cheese-steak as we discuss politics, Blacksmith and this breaking side-project, Idle Warship, for HipHopDX. The whole affair takes 20 minutes, tops. The questions are answered, jokes are exchanged, and one emcee that's forever worth his weight - (and any wait) goes back to work.

HipHopDX: Last week, you wrote an open letter in support of presidential candidate Barack Obama. You werent pushing an opinion on too many people, but said simply you used to be apathetic to the political world, but were inspired. We dont see these actions in Hip Hop too often as least in that format. What was the reaction like?
Talib Kweli:
The people who pay that much attention to that kind of stuff are really adamant about their opinion. So I got strong reactions. [The letter] really came from a sense of family. I sense that the people who reacted negatively to it dont deal with the same type of family situation that I deal with. Whether they have children my age who are going through what theyre going through, or whether its the people they come from. Im not ashamed to say that my family, my peoples was very involved in my decision to write that. They pushed me to write not that, but they pushed me to check out Barack Obama, to see what he was really about. My brother made it part of his life. Hes on the campaign trail. For my brother to do thathe felt the same way that I do about politics. My brother still voted, but when we have political discussions, he agreed [only he] still votes. For him to go that hard, it made me evaluate it. Ive seen Barack do different things that I havent seen politicians with electability do. That just made me feel like its that time for me to support this man. I dont have to support the system just cause I support Obama.

DX: You were one of the first people in Hip Hop to even mention that name on Say Something. People who followed your lyrics looked into things. Last week, on NPR some analysts were saying that in the summer, when Ear Drum released, Obama wasnt even perceived as a leading candidate. What kind of reaction did you get back then from that endorsement? Did people say anything to you about looking further into him? Was that happening?
I think there was an awareness to who he was by the time I said his name in the Hip Hop community. Otherwise, it wouldnt have had an impact. His name just sounds good in a rhyme. Ill always maintain that. Thats all it was at the moment. I wasnt planning onthere wasnt enough stuff that he had done that I had seen with my own experience to make me be like, Okay, Ill support this dude. I was impressed with him, I liked him, but not enough to be like, Other people should too.

DX: As an artist and entrepreneur, are there any meaningful policies at stake in this election to you?
I think [the election] will effect creative output, slightly. I think the Bush Administration has definitely effected creative output in peoples decisions in terms of what they make songs about. Other than that, the presidential office is still symbolic. Barack Obama can become an important symbol. We have a system of checks and balances that makes it not function sometimes. Im not saying that bad or disparaging, but Im saying human error always exists. I put more faith in it as a symbol of changing peoples lives.

DX: One of my favorite films is Style Wars. I woke up this morning to realize that its director, Tony Silver, somebody whom Id interviewed a bunch of times, died. Whether Pimp C, Proof, others, this has always affected me in some kind of way and I cant listen to those old tapes. Your song Holy Moly deals with this issue extensively. Even down to Country Cousins or your work with Dilla and others, how do you listen to material with people who arent alive anymore?
They are around, because of the songs. Thats what the important thing about hearing the songs is. I never feel bad, I always feel good cause its always like, Hes still here with us. Thats why music is so precious. You know what? People should spend more time thinking about the music theyre making, and how it affects the world, because its something thats here to stay especially in the digital age, where everything is available to you.

DX: I thought one of the interesting things thats happened in Hip Hop in 2008 is Jean Graes performance with her mother, acclaimed Jazz vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin
in New York last month. Was that something that Blacksmith had a hand in planning?
I wasnt there, I was out of town. That was something that was completely her own thing, and its beautiful because thats what the beauty of someone like Jean is: she has her own thing and adds to it.

DX: On the single Hostile Gospel, youve got this line, Hip Hop is not a nation. What will it take to make us one?
I dont think we necessarily need to be a nation. A nation is bigger than a genre of music or a lifestyle. A nation requires nation-building. It requires real structure. Thats not what Hip Hop is about. Hip Hop is about rebelling and being free not that a nation isnt about being free, but nation-building needs leaders and Im not sure that Hip Hop needs leaders.

DX: ?uestlove advocated a few years ago for honoring Hip Hops elders making sure people like Kool Herc are a reflection of the wealth this culture now sees. Although we might need leaders, we might not be a nation, do you think we need a structure for properly paying pioneers their due?
Yeah. I love Kool Herc, but I think its about realizing what youre responsibilities are as a man, and realizing your responsibilities as an artist. I think that he should get way more respect than he gets, and when I say respect, he should get paid. Im trying out the best way to word this[Laughs] You just gotta know your responsibilities as a man supercede whatever type of rap music you listen to.

DX: Lupe Fiasco is getting a lot of radio love with a record like Superstar, whereas his last album got little radio love in the nation. They really worked a lyrical, thought-provoking artist into a format that radio could use. With Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae, do you have ideas like this on how to climb over that same wall?
Im just trying to have a groundswell to where it becomes a phenomenon where radio doesnt even really matter. Whether radio gets involved or not, it doesnt matter for their careers because to bank on radio is a mistake. I think Lupe and his crew have done a good job of developing a certain sound that sounds good enough, clean enough and strong enough to compete with these records that are on commercial radio, but still has the substance and the depth to be a Lupe Fiasco record. I think theyve started to figure out how to do that consistently. I think it is a great victory for real music in general.

DX: Its Black History Month. Africa Dream taught me, as a white kid, more about black history than most of what I learned in what was a very progressive school. What were you trying to accomplish in writing it?
Africa Dream, I wanted to produce a song. If you look at the credits, that song is produced by me. I took the structure of a beat that Hi-Tek had and I wanted to create a song that went from the beginning of African music to where we are right now. The song starts with the drums. Then theyre talking over the drums. Then other instruments start to come in, one right after the other, until you have this full-blown record a dance type of record. Then you have the horn come in, then the cutting and scratching at the end. Thats supposed to signify where were at right now with Hip Hop. Its supposed to be a journey through black music, that record.

DX: The reason youre in Philadelphia tonight, working with Res is a project thats snuck onto the radar called Idle Warship. Tell me about it
Thats just a vanity project, something to do for fun. Its more light-hearted. We have some deep shit on it too. I think Res needed to create an outlet and I need a creative outlet outside of what people are used to hearing from us, so we decided to do this project.

DX: Was it listening to certain records, or just seeing a change in times that made you itch to go that other route?
Its definitely inspired by other records, but its also being inspired by how to put out the records. Res has done all types of crazy different music in her lifetime. She just got off touring the world with Gnarls Barkley. I had success in putting out the Liberation album with Madlib. We was just like, Fuck it, lets put together a group. With the idea of doing that with Madlib, why couldnt I do that with someone like Res? Were at the same places a lot of the same time, it just started working out. I started listening to a CD from this kid Zephyria out of Miami while I was cleaning my house, and I said, Wow, these tracks. It wasnt stuff that youd hear on a Kweli album. We were in a different setting, and it comes off better.

DX: Are you planning a similar approach that you and Madlib took as far as getting it out there for free?
We put our Myspace [click here] page up. Weve done a couple shows as Idle Warship. Me and Madlib was more like a coast-to-coast, over computer thing. This is more like have a group, and just build it from the grassroots level. Were just gonna build it from people talking about it, seeing what were doing, and trying to see where it goes from there.

DX: It could end up like Gnarls Barkley did. That started as a mini-project and ended up at the Grammys.

DX: Not to get jumbled up talking about too many projects, but you told us that youre hard at work at Reflection Eternal album. How do you pick up after eight years, and simultaneously give those that asked for it so many times something similar to the first while getting the progression of you both now?
Me and Hi-Teks album is gonna be different. We have started working I guess we have started working; weve been working on it for years and recorded many songs. But I dont know. I dont know how yet. It is what it is. Im just really excited about all the Blacksmith stuff. The 9th Wonder [and Jean Grae] Jeanius album, Hostile Gospel video was just shot in Nigeria, the Strong Arm Steady Arms & Hammers which is just an incredible-sounding album, then just following with the Hi-Tek thing. I think by the time we get to the Hi-Tek thing, itll be right. Its gotta be right.

DX: Youve always rhymed about your trips to Africa. What specifically about Nigeria spoke to you about that video?
TK: Corey Smyth
went to Nigeria to work with Femi and Fela Kuta on some projects last year. He enjoyed it so much that we had the opportunity to go back and film a video for MTV Base with an African artist to do a cameo his video. We flipped it. We stayed a couple of extra days and shot my video.

DX: Thats the best part of running your own label

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