Talib Kweli Talks Growing His Independent Business Model With "Gravitas"
Exclusive: Talib Kweli shares how input from Ryan Leslie and inspiration from Louis C.K. led to more profits, and he reveals that MC Hammer is a Black Star fan.
When something’s happening in the world of Hip Hop—and something’s always happening in Hip Hop—people usually go to one man to make sense of it: Talib Kweli. He recently appeared on political TV network MSNBC multiple times to first discuss New York’s stop-and-frisk policing policy, and then to share his thoughts on the recent trend of Rap lyrics being admitted in court cases as evidence. Meanwhile, he was talking to traditional music media outlets about cultural appropriation and Macklemore’s place in the rapping world as encapsulated in the Seattle emcee’s record The Heist winning a Grammy for Best Rap Album. As Talib says below, he’s situated in the perfect place to dish on all that because, “I know every musician who does all this Hip Hop and R&B and all that.”
Not very many rappers out there could be on political talk shows and then turn right around for an interview with a Rap news website and be equally at home in either setting. But that’s exactly what Kweli recently, with just one caveat: no more questions about Macklemore or his text to Kendrick Lamar! Laughing, he said, “But everything else is good.” HipHopDX heard the BK MC loud and clear, and let him break down what’s happening with his new website, KweliClub.com, which is unique in its dedicated, direct-to-fan mode of distribution for his newest album, Gravitas. He also clued DX in on his most recent musical work with Mos Def, what’s up with his new music label, and dropped knowledge on cultural trends in society at large, like whether the definition of a conscious emcee needs to be expanded or even rethought.
How Louis C.K. & Ryan Leslie Factor Into Talib Kweli’s KweliClub.com
HipHopDX: When did you come up with the idea for Kweli Club?
Talib Kweli: I came up with the idea for Kweli Club, not in name—I didn’t have the name—but the website, to do something like that, when I saw what Louis C.K. did with his $5 comedy special. I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was genius. But when I researched it, it seemed like he spent a lot of money to have his website built. And as a comedian, he’s just saying things out of his mind, rather than a musician… I don’t make beats, I don’t sing hooks, so other people have to bring that in. I have to clear samples. There’s a whole different set of production values for a Hip Hop album, my type of Hip Hop album, than for a comedy show. So I figured I would try at some point to build this website and figure out how it could be done. And then Ryan Leslie, who’s a good friend and someone I admire, just decided to come to me, just talking about the website he built himself. Apparently Ryan Leslie is way smarter than I am, and he builds websites as well as makes beats and sings and writes and raps. He built my website. He was very gracious to do that. Once he did that, it was like a snowball effect. It made me want to create Gravitas; it made me want to create Kweli Club. I was still promoting Prisoner of Conscious, but I was very excited by the idea of having something of my own.
DX: What month and year did all of this happen?
Talib Kweli: September. Louis C.K. dropped his thing over a year ago, and when I heard about that I immediately started doing the research for how I could do it. But it didn’t become a reality until Ryan Leslie brought his idea to me in September.
DX: When did the website go live?
Talib Kweli: I think it went live in November.
DX: How did you know Ryan Leslie and his company, Disruptive Multimedia, in the first place?
Talib Kweli: I know Ryan Leslie. I know all the musicians. I know every musician who does all this Hip Hop and R&B and all that. Ryan is somebody I was familiar with, but I asked him to get on the song “Outstanding” for a mixtape I did with Z-Trip, and we became good friends after we did that song together. Then the song came out so good that I put the song on my album. It was a bonus cut for Prisoner of Conscious, and then Ryan Leslie directed the video for it. Look, he’s rapping, he’s making the beats, he’s singing the hooks, he’s directing the video, and he’s building the website. He’s just a good person to have in your corner.
DX: In designing the website, what kind of input did you have? The “About” section seems to have been written directly by you.
Talib Kweli: Ryan has his own team of people he works with, and he connected us with his team. His team was the one we were talking with day-to-day, but Ryan was CC’ed on every e-mail, and he would chime in when he felt the need to chime in. He’s been on the road promoting his record. I’m very analog. I’m not very good with any of this digital shit, because I just know what I need to do to participate and compete, so I align myself with people who know how to do it. The Javotti Media team is myself, the general manager of Javotti, Donna Dragotta, and that’s it. We have a couple of interns, but as far as the core team, that’s really it. So it was us and Ryan’s core team, but Ryan’s team was only two or three people as well.
Talib Kweli Details Direct Marketing & 100% Profits From “Gravitas”
DX: What appeals to you about a mode of distribution like Kweli Club?
Talib Kweli: The first thing that appeals to me is the direct contact with the fans and the fact that I receive their e-mails. That’s the most direct way for me to receive e-mails from my fans who have already proven that they’re willing to spend money with me. That’s the best thing, the fact that they can reach out to me at KweliClub.com. I can reach back out to them. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the fact that the money comes directly to me when you buy the album from me. It goes directly to my account. There is nobody taking their cut. When you deal with the music business, any artist—even the most indie artist—who sells their music at Amazon or iTunes, they’re only making 60% of their sales at the most. So 60% of something, I’m making 60 cents on every song that sells on iTunes, right? If someone wants to listen to my music streaming, for me to make that 60 cents, they would have to listen to that song 160 times for me to make 60 cents on that song.
So you have a generation of fans who, because they’re not knowledgeable about how it works, they think they’re really supporting the artist when they’re streaming. When they’re buying music on iTunes from an indie artist, they’re thinking that artist is getting all the money. Having it on your own website is the only way you can guarantee that you can get all the money. Now, when I say that, it’s not to disparage any of my business partners, like iTunes. iTunes, to me, is a great service. I feel like when you use the iTunes service in the way that it’s supposed to be used as an indie artist, it’s a great tool for you. And I plan on continuing to have music up there. This was just something I wanted to try and experiment with, because you know I have 12 or 13 albums you can buy on iTunes. I want to have one that maybe I get all the money from.
DX: How is KweliClub.com going so far? Do you prefer it to the other ways you’ve released albums, like iTunes?
Talib Kweli: I do prefer it. But it’s still at the point where it’s not developed enough to where I can ignore these other mediums. When I put my albums up for sale, I want people to hear it. People should have the option to listen to something before they buy it. I put things up, teasers and songs and stuff on Pandora and YouTube, and this album Gravitas may end up on iTunes at some point. I want to get enough e-mails first, because that’s what really the goal was. But at the point when I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from it, for everybody else who doesn’t know about it who strictly buys their music on iTunes, because iTunes is still like 90% of people buy music there, I’ll put it up for those people. But this is for the fans who are coming to me. They should get it first.
DX: What stands out about Kweli Club is that a lot of artists, even if they’re not releasing it through a record label, they still have the release supported by another company. What made you decide to strike out completely on your own rather than using one of these other supported routes?
Talib Kweli: The Louis C.K. thing coupled with Ryan Leslie with the way to do it. I was blessed. I pay attention to the right people and make the right relationships. Look, I’m not above partnering with brands. It’s not that deep to me. If anybody’s trying to come in and help me, I’m down for it. If Samsung had come to me… I’ve done things with Samsung before. Last year I did a lot of work with Samsung at South by Southwest. If they had to come me, or maybe if I had had the foresight to go and do this with someone, maybe that would have been an option too. I’m not necessarily opposed to that. But I do think that what I’m doing with the help of Ryan Leslie, I do think what I’m doing is revolutionary. I appreciate that part of it, and I think it’s a great example for other artists.
Talib Kweli Shares Plans For Upcoming Javotti Media Releases
DX: The way the website is set up right now, with its own web address and its own electronic payment system, it seems like it could handle a lot more traffic and functions other than everything you have on there now: your album Gravitas and a poster of the album artwork. Do you have more plans for the site in the future?
Talib Kweli: I agree with that. I think that’s an accurate critique of what we’re doing. Again, it’s just me and Donna. Literally. Right now I’m talking to you sitting in my kitchen. That’s how we’re running this label. We’re working on some videos for Cory Mo’s album Take It Or Leave It. I got Res sitting right here next to me in the kitchen on her computer. We’re trying to get this Res album together through Javotti and EOne Music. I got this artist, Niko Is, we just signed to Javotti. He put out a mixtape called Good Blood. We’re very excited about him as an emcee. We’re working on his album. On top of, I’m discussing Liberation 2 with Madlib, on top of I’m working on this project with 9th Wonder, on top of my next solo album, on top of promoting Gravitas, on top of promoting Prisoner Of Conscious, on top of… Shit, I got kids that I gotta see every once in a while, a wife. So that’s really all that is.
There’s a lot more I could be doing with all my platforms. We have Javotti Radio, which I’m about to do a podcast for, which I’ve had an idea for for about a year. I just haven’t had the time to get into it. We need more help. This label is growing faster than I can keep up with it. Recently I brought in some people to help with the label, who are gonna help me on the side, some industry people who know what they’re doing and can help me with certain things. But that’s a new development. As of right now, yeah, that’s one of the focuses, to get more things on Kweli Club. To really utilize it as a store, so you can find all things Talib Kweli there. Right now I just have the capacity to focus on Gravitas.
DX: Why did you decide to use a system where you have to give an e-mail address in order to buy the album, rather than just letting people buy the album and then leave?
Talib Kweli: If I was gonna just let people buy it, I might as well just put it on iTunes. The whole point in having my own site is so that I’m able to do direct marketing. Right now the business model that most people employ is, you spend X amount of dollars to canvass the entire marketplace, hoping that you might grab a few fans here and there. You’re hoping that someone sees it on the side of a bus, or sees it on a blog, or hoping that someone catches a video when it comes on, and this or that. Rather than do that, I think it’s smarter to do what iTunes does. When you spend money with them, you give them your e-mail. And then they e-mail you stuff, ideas, and they keep in touch with you, and they do direct marketing to you. So does Amazon, YouTube, GMail, and all these companies that we give our content to and make money off of our content. They do direct marketing to their fans, so why can’t I? They do direct marketing to my fans, so why can’t I?
DX: So what will you do with the e-mail addresses you’ve gotten so far?
Talib Kweli: I’m gonna spam the hell out of everybody. Nah, I’m not. So far on the e-mails, I’ve thanked people for buying the album. I’ve told people to share with me your thoughts and your hopes and your dreams. People have e-mailed me for advice. People have e-mailed me for advice with help on their homework for papers that they were writing and shit. Right now the e-mail is an interactive community, me being in touch with the Kweli Club members. But what I’d like to do for the next project I put out is to be able to e-mail all of them and be like, “Hey, check it out.”
When you’re dealing with people with who you’ve developed that level of trust with, then they’re gonna open those e-mails. Most of the time when people are marketed to in the way that I’m talking, they’re not opening the e-mails. But if they know that it’s me sending the e-mail direct, and it is me sending the e-mail direct, then they’re 100% more inclined to open it. So it gives me the opportunity to, instead of spending the money to canvass an entire area, then I just hit the people I know who are willing to spend.
Talib Kweli On “New Leaders,” J Dilla & Expansion Via Idle Warship
DX: You are now an established independent artist who has done international and national tours and shows to go along with multiple albums releases that have received both critical and popular acclaim. Why is Kweli Club coming out at this point in your career and not before?
Talib Kweli: It’s the information. I’ve been in every single situation, like you said. I’m definitely an artist who believes in, “Adapt or die.” I don’t think it’s the fans’ responsibility to figure out how I’m gonna make money. So I’ve tried many different things, and this is an experiment. In the long run this may not work. In the long run I might be trippin’. But it seems like the right thing for me and any artist in my position to do. It just feels like the right thing to do. The numbers seem to favor this thing for artists at this point in my career. I think that what I’m doing would be very hard for an upstart or someone who hasn’t done all the things you talked about. It’d be very hard. But yeah, this is something I probably could have done very long ago, but you don’t know what you should be doing until you have some sort of experience of it.
DX: What are your plans for Gravitas next, in order to publicize it?
Talib Kweli: So far it’s been a slow roll out for Gravitas because I’ve been cautious with it. The idea is to see how I can make the most with the least amount of spending money or spreading myself too thin marketing-wise. So we released a video for “Rare Portraits” that just dropped. People seem to be enjoying that video. We have an animated video for “State of Grace,” and then a month after that we’ll drop the video with me and Raekwon for “Violations” that was directed by R.A. The Rugged Man…do some TV, do a show in May, and that’s really it. And I’m doing a couple interviews. This is one of the interviews.
DX: In the Gravitas liner notes, you say of the rapper duo The Underachievers, “They’re part of the new leaders I’m looking for.” As someone who has had a decades-long career, how do you view younger rappers and emcees today? Are they competitors, students, unrelated acquaintances?
Talib Kweli: I think all three: competitors, certainly. Students… Some are unrelated acquaintances. From my vantage point, things get better. Emcees get better. Producers get better. I was recently at a B-boy battle. The stuff they’re doing now is far more advanced than the Wild Style days. But since there’s this nostalgia and sort of this need for the OG shit, the original shit to be respected; it makes people blind to that and numb to that. And so when I hear newer emcees, I’m constantly impressed by where they’re going, whereas a lot of Hip Hop fans my age are like, “Oh no, these new emcees ain’t doing it like they’re doing it now.” With that being said, I haven’t heard nobody who’s been fucking with a Pharoahe Monch, recently. There’s emcees and their styles from when I was first starting that I feel like haven’t been explored or touched. But I think those things are the exception to the rule and not the rule.
DX: The Underachievers are from Brooklyn, just like you. Do you think it matters as much now where you’re from geographically, or has the Internet leveled the field in terms of that?
Talib Kweli: I do think the Internet has leveled the field. Before the Internet, you could be dope where you’re from, but you would have to go to the coast. If you were from Detroit, you would have to go to L.A. If you were from Florida, you’d have to come to New York. Definitely, the Internet has made it so that you can represent from where you are.
DX: Recently some videos popped up on YouTube of you covering a Stooges’ song. Can we expect some more art from you in this direction, with a full tour or full album?
Talib Kweli: You should be familiar with Idle Warship. It’s me and Res in a group called Idle Warship. We released an album in 2011. You should check it out. It’s called Habits of the Heart. That album was not at all a Hip Hop album. It was sort of a dance-rock-soul-pop album. That might be the most accurate way to describe it. I did some rapping on there. I did some singing on there too. But that’s something I’ve employed as far as with Idle Warship and my live show for a very, very long time. I’ve been doing that Stooges’ cover for a couple years now. I did something up at BoomBox Media where they wanted me to cover a song that wasn’t mine. So far I think rappers have covered other Rap songs, and the cover I know the best is The Stooges. So that’s why I did that.
DX: You had a show at Webster Hall on March 23 in New York that celebrated J Dilla’s life and music. Besides being a fan of his, you’ve also rapped over some of his beats on your albums Quality and on Gravitas. What did J Dilla’s beats teach you about rapping?
Talib Kweli: J Dilla’s beats taught me how to not take myself so seriously. How to not have to enunciate everything, and how to rap the actual rhyme has to be part of the music. I think of Slum Village, the work that he did with Slum Village, when you listen to how they’re rapping on those beats. Some of the beats they’re mumbling on. When you hear “Fantastic,” when they’re like, “He said fan-tas-uh-ruh / He said huh…wuh…” It’s not very lyrical at all. But the shit sounds and feels great. And that’s what I learned from J Dilla’s production.
Talib Kweli Details His Kinship With MC Hammer
DX: Black Star dropped some new stuff in 2011, but another album never came. You and Mos Def also have a show together on March 31 in London. Will there be another Black Star album?
Talib Kweli: I don’t see it any time in the near future. But anything is possible.
DX: You’ve battled with the conscious label. What’s the distinction that separates someone like MC Hammer, who wasn’t perceived as conscious but spent a lot of his own money employing people from his community who otherwise wouldn’t have had jobs? Why is Hammer derided when some of these so-called conscious rappers aren’t doing anything for their fans or communities?
Talib Kweli: I think that’s an excellent question. I think too often the problems and the tragedies and the pathologies of our community—when we’re talking about music—are placed on the shoulders of conscious emcees. You hear this discussion about conscious emcees. You don’t ever hear a discussion about conscious journalism, or conscious deejays, conscious party promoting, conscious radio stations. I can’t recall anyone ever debating those other fields. I think it’s because people [feel] they don’t have to talk about being conscious on records because they think, “Immortal Technique will do it,” or, “Talib Kweli will do it.” [They say,] “Lupe Fiasco will say something,” or, “Mos Def will make a video.” And then it becomes all about the emcees. We don’t look at enough of what that means in our community.
When you look at our community, Stanley Burrell, MC Hammer, is somebody who’s been exemplary in our community with the moves that he’s made. I was someone who, as I was growing up, hated MC Hammer. I was 14 or 15, and he represented everything I hated about corporate Hip Hop. But then you become an artist for a living, and you understand that everybody comes from a different region. Everybody comes from a different emotional mind state. Everybody has a different age, and everyone has a different focus. And you stop judging people on their creative output and having personal feelings about people based on what they create from their heart. You start looking at the person. It’s interesting that you made that parallel with MC Hammer, because I don’t know if you know this, but those Black Star songs you were talking about that came out in 2011, we recorded those at MC Hammer’s house in Oakland, because MC Hammer is a huge Black Star fan. He came to our concert, picked us up, we chopped it up, he said he had a studio at the crib, and we were like, “Let’s go record some shit.”
Talib Kweli Talks Political Media, The NFL & EDM’s Rise
DX: Recently the NFL has debated regulating the use of the N-word on the field through penalties and fines, and there’s always an ongoing discussion about its use in public forums. What do you think of non-black men in corporate positions deciding how people use a term that’s predominantly used in and in regards to the black community, especially in a league like the NFL, where a lot of the players are black?
Talib Kweli: I think race is more of a factor than they’re willing to admit, because if race wasn’t a factor, then they’d be trying to monitor foul language rather than one particular word that has a lot of historical context. I think it’s very backwards and hypocritical, and a sort of pandering way to approach that situation, on top of being completely and utterly unrealistic.
DX: At times you’ve had a love-hate relationship with the political media. You’ve criticized its bias reporting on some of your songs, such as “The Proud,” when you called out newspapers for publicizing Muslim terrorists and not Timothy McVeigh. However, you’ve also recently appeared on MSNBC. What role do you see yourself fulfilling when you interact with the media?
Talib Kweli: I think it really depends on the platform. When you see me on MSNBC, it’s because I’m respecting Rachel Maddow, or I forget the name of the guy who was filling in that day. But I did my research on [Ari Melber] too. When I’m on that show, I was on that show to discuss music and race. Some other forms of media, like this interview, I’m focused on my album. It really depends on who I’m talking to.
DX: Electronic dance music has been getting more and more popular with the rave scene and artists like Skrillex. EDM’s sales are up, and Rap’s aren’t going down, but they aren’t growing as quickly as they used to. Do you ever see electronic music completely interfacing with Hip Hop so that it could become like Jazz and Soul already are in your genre?
Talib Kweli: To be real? I like Skrillex just like the next man, but I think the trend is shifting a little bit. I’m not saying this just because I’m a fan of Hip Hop, but because I go out a lot, and I notice these things. It seems to me that Hip Hop—especially Hip Hop that sounds like early ‘90s Hip Hop—is what people are excited by. I think those are the artists that people are really excited about on the Internet. I also think that the recent sales are reflecting that.
I think what you’re talking about would maybe have been a year ago. But I think recent sales reflect a move back to Hip Hop. And I also know as someone who goes out to parties a lot. When you play all that stuff, when you play every music that’s popular right now, it’s a constant, steady party environment, people pumping their fists and having a good time. But when you go to House of Pain and “Jump Around,” or M.O.P. and “Ante Up,” the party goes to another level. And I don’t think this other type of music competes with that. That could just be my biased perspective, but that’s just what I get.
DX: You’ve kept from having your sound musically boxed in by your past critically acclaimed work, like Quality. Why do you keep trying out new sounds, especially on your more recent albums, when many artists are content to find a sound that works for them and then stick with it?
Talib Kweli: Shit, I’m an artist. I create. It’s against my constitution to be stuck in one sound. That’s death for an artist. There are artists who have been very consistent with one sound and stuck to one thing. The ones I can think of in particular are Gang Starr. Gang Starr had a very successful, respected run doing one sound, and that’s DJ Premier and how he approaches it. To me, as an artist, you just heard me do “Search And Destroy.” I can’t be boxed in. I refuse to be boxed in, whether other people like it or dig it or not. If they don’t dig some new sound I’m trying, they just have to go back to listen to what they like over and over again.
DX: As more music and Hip Hop moves online, do you think there’s a certain interaction being lost in the culture?
Talib Kweli: I don’t think that’s limited to Hip Hop culture. Interaction is being lost in general. Society has been moving that way for a long time before the Internet.
DX: You’ve announced some plans to write a book. Do you see that as just a natural evolution for someone who already writes, just in a format that’s different from a book?
Talib Kweli: Yeah, definitely. I like to write a lot. So I mine as well find other avenues and mediums to get my writing out there.
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