“Kweli you should rap about this/ Kweli you should rap about that/ Any more suggestions? Yeah, you in the back/ You should rap on beat/ you should rap more street and never ever get your mack on please.” ~Talib Kweli on “Stay Around Me”
Whether Talib Kweli realizes it or not, his work with Mos Def and Hi-Tek reintroduced a generation of hip-hoppers to Native Tongue-influenced hip-hop. But although some of his predecessors managed to remain conscious while regaling us with talk of their street crimes and the player’s anthems, Kweli — whose third full-length, Eardrum, was released in August — has been forced to be a one-trick pony. Whenever he has ventured to other topics, switch up the flow or seek different production, fans and critics have hissed. But longevity in hip-hop is achieved through a fine balance of giving the people want they want and reinventing yourself to keep the product fresh. Granted, some of Kweli’s decisions have warranted criticism, but for the most part he hasn’t quipped back. But now he has a clear message to fans and other emcees: Better watch your mouth.
You recently moved to Los Angeles. What was the reasoning behind that?
It’s not like I don’t live in Brooklyn as well. I do business in more than one place, so I need to be in more than one place.
On “Stay Around” on Eardrum, you talk about some of the criticism directed at you during your career. Why did you choose to address it now as opposed to in the past?
I think I have addressed these things in the past. I think I have addressed these things in Right About Now and the Beautiful Struggle. I think I have touched on this before.
But it seems like “Stay Around” is more directed. You go after specific criticisms — that you pick the wrong beats or your flow is off, for example.
I think it’s easy to speak about those things. No matter what has been said, I am still able to put out records and remain relevant. So no matter how many conversations we have about what I need to do or whether I am relevant or not, I still somehow remain the topic of discussion and I am still able to put out these records.
A big difference now is that you are no longer the underground unrecognizable artist. Do you think that makes it easier for people to criticize you?
Yeah, I do think there are certain critics and fans who love listening to artists that they believe belong exclusively to them. And when that artist no longer exclusively belongs to them, they start to find all these holes in what that artist is trying to do. It seems more like they are trying to destroy that artist than support that artist. But I think it’s natural, and it comes with the business. People live through these artists; a lot of people don’t have things going on in their life that’s cool. So in order to be cool, they need to nitpick these artists in order to convince themselves that they are a part of this inner circle. I think that is what the Internet has given rise to; someone who is anonymous can give their opinion and have that opinion carry weight — or at least there is the perception that their opinion carries weight.
The Internet has certainly blurred that line. You and artists like Pharoahe Monch and Common have had to deal with your fans becoming your critics. Now that you are running Blacksmith are you guiding them any differently or are you letting them find their own way?
They are different types of artists with different songs and subject matters. One thing I do notice is that people may not give Jean Grae or Strong Arm a listen because they are not a fan of mine; the assumption is that they are a female version or a group version of what I’m trying to do, which is completely not the case.
Jean Grae is in my opinion one of the best emcees out there. She hasn’t had that platform yet to get that exposure. How do you plan on exposing Jean to the market?
Getting them out on the road for shows, doing big Internet marketing, parlaying my relationships with deejays and tastemakers. I want to have people check for them. The exciting thing about both Jean and Strong Arm is they do a lot of their own work.
When you dropped Beautiful Struggle and the single “I Try,” you talked about how this was one of the first records where you got a really big response from the streets. Was that the case? Was the street audience a segment of hip-hop you always wanted to reach but weren’t able to?
I think it was dangerous — the quote unquote underground and commercial hip-hop being divided all along racial lines. And that was a dangerous thing for me, because a kid from my neighborhood would potentially not hear my records simply because my record is classified as being white rap or nerd rap. The idea that I could make records that resonate in the hood and still maintain my independent status was a great thing for me.
I’ve always thought mixtapes were really important, and that’s something you have recently done. Mixtapes are more directed to the street and usually help generate a buzz. Do you feel this has contributed to your success in the streets?
The street response is more like a buzz thing. It does not determine your sales; there is a myth that you need the streets to have sales. You can sell records with or without street-level marketing or street buzz. But my music is not just about records sales; it is about the community. It is more important that those people hear my music than for me to have hipster credibility.
You have this message and you want it directed at a particular audience, but in the end it attracts another one. Does that get frustrating?
It is not frustrating at all. At the end of the day, I am musician. I don’t care who comes to the show. They can be from Mars, I don’t care. It’s not like I get to the show and see mad white people and get frustrated. It does make me realize that it is beyond the record industry’s responsibility to reach my community; it is my responsibility to reach my community.
You remain very active in your community. Are there any causes or issues that you find particularly compelling right now?
I am involved in a lot of hurricane relief projects. That stuff has not had the proper exposure on a major level. There are huge problems because of Hurricane Katrina. But I am not really an issues-driven guy. My thing is a general self-esteem issue where you have to look at yourself and be proud of yourself and realize you can’t let certain things happen in your community, whether it’s gun violence or the lack of a national response to a hurricane.
On Eardrum, there is a line where you talk about your daughter telling you how to wear your hat. It seems like no one is parenting anymore, and it seems like we can’t have certain things on TV because we no longer take care of our kids.
Ideas and concepts are more dangerous than words. If there is something my children need to see that’s powerful and meaningful but it has some curses, I don’t feel too bad. But when it comes to dealing with images and ideas that are threatening to their mindstate, I do some filtering. But is has nothing to do with language.
I think that although hip-hop has many issues it needs to address. There are broader systematic conditions that critics neglect to address.
That is why their argument is so ignorant, because the argument does not take into account what really is going on in hip-hop.
On the new album, UGK shows up on “Country Cousins,” and recently Pimp C has gone out to air out a few people in hip-hop. But I think the part that gets overlooked is his statement that there is no longer reality in hip-hop. You have also talked about this in your Mims cover “Lie a lot.” At what point do you start airing out some names and expose some of the fakes out there?
There is no need to do that. It is silly to attack artists for expressing themselves. It is silly to attack a label for trying to make their bottom line. When I speak critical of hip-hop, it is because I really truly participate in it. I say what I say about you rapping on the mike because I don’t feel a lot of other rappers can rap better than me. If you can rap better than me, then you have the right to challenge me. If you can’t rap better than me, then shut the fuck up. That’s how I honestly feel about it, and that is why I get the respect that I get. It’s not like I’m looking from the outside and being critical; it’s me from the inside. I am at the fight clubs, shaking these dudes’ hands. I do two hundred shows a year. But you will never hear me dis another artist by name — that is not my call. I show the example by creating the alternative. If I don’t provide something better, I am apart of the problem, not the solution. With “Lie a Lot,” rappers do lie a lot in general. I don’t have to name names for you to know what I am talking about. The numbers and facts are there. When people talk about being in the drug game or being in the streets, I feel like that stuff is destructive. That is why I stress what I do — this is why I’m hot, this is why I’m hot. “I can tell you wack because you’re still selling crack.”
In the jacket of the Blackstar album, Mos Def said if he could be remembered by any track it would be “Respiration.” What would be the track you would like to be remembered by?
If I had to choose one, that would be a good candidate.
How did the track come about?
We knew we wanted to have a guest on the Blackstar album. This is before we did the song with Wordsworth, Punch and Jane Doe. We had to pick one emcee, and Common was the one we picked. Partly because he was my favorite emcee at that time and is still one of my favorites, but also because Mos had a relationship with him and he could get at him. Mos was scattered, doing his movies and stuff, so I spent a few months chasing Common down. At the time I didn’t know him personally, but we became friends through this project. I chased him down to the point where he had a show with Mos Def and I took a train out to Chicago just so I could catch up with them. We recorded the song the next day. At this point, I was dead set on using this beat that Hi-Tek did — it eventually became the beat for a song I did called “Sharp Shooters” with Dead Prez. I was like, “This is the beat,” and none of them agreed — Mos, Hi-Tek or Common. After a couple of listens I eventually changed my mind. We did it, and it was probably the last song we recorded for that album.
What are the projects you have coming up with Blacksmith?
Right now it is all about Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady. Jean’s album is called Prom Night and Strong Arm’s album is Bars and Hammers.