Rapping with hip-hop artist and producer Talib Kweli

by B.J. Hammerstein

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

22 January 2008


2007 was a big year for Brooklyn-bred MC Talib Kweli.

On New Year’s Eve, he released the critically acclaimed “Liberation,” his collaboration with uber-producer Madlib, free on the Internet and followed that up with “Eardrum,” a summer release that debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The masterful “Eardrum” beautifully bangs between mainstream sensibilities and underground edge and is Kweli’s first album on his own label, Blacksmith Records (with distribution through Warner Bros).

As 2008 begins, Kweli is on top of his game and pushing his two artists: female flow queen Jean Grae and West Coast group Strong Arm Steady. Fans, meanwhile, hope the 10-year anniversary of his breakout classic, “Black Star” (with Mos Def and DJ Hi-Tek), may bring the three back together on wax or live.

5 NOT-TO-MISS KWELI MOMENTS Talib Kweli’s blitzkrieg flow, provocative lyrics and ear for high-quality production have made him one of the most critically revered stars in hip-hop over the past decade, from his group Black Star (with Mos Def and Hi-Tek) to collaborations with everyone from UGK to Justin Timberlake. Here are five smoking takes you should turn up loud. “Definition” from “Black Star” (Rawkus, 1998) With a hook that goes, “One two three, Mos Def and Talib Kweli/We came to rock it on to the tip-top/Best alliance in hip-hop,” the dynamic duo (with production from Hi-Tek) showed either brilliant foreshadowing or big egos. Either way, they delivered on this high-powered jam. “Get By” from “Quality” (Rawkus, 2002) Produced by a little-known Kanye West, the original version shows up on Kweli’s first solo record (without Hi-Tek). But the superstar remix that features verses by Mos Def, Jay-Z, Kanye, Talib and Busta Rhymes over a cracking piano-based beat is not to be missed. “Raw Shit” from Jaylib’s “Champion Sound” (Stones Throw, 2003) Kweli shows up on this masterpiece collaboration that teamed Madlib from L.A. and Jay Dee (Dilla) from Detroit for one of the best underground records of the past decade. The track features `Lib and Kweli rotating styles and party rhymes over Dilla’s tripped-out beat. “Black Girl Pain” from “The Beautiful Struggle” (Rawkus, 2004) As a whole, “The Beautiful Struggle” was labeled too mainstream for die-hard Kweli fans, who consider “Reflection Eternal” his solo masterpiece. However, “Black Girl Pain,” which features Blacksmith artist Jean Grae over interpolated ooohs and aaahs, is a timeless, soulful groove that shows a softer side and maturing artist. “Hot Thing” from “Eardrum” (Blacksmith/Warner Bros., 2007) How does this single not get more airplay? The “Hot Thing” video breaks off into the Kanye-produced “In the Mood,” another scorching number sticking with a love theme.

We can’t talk hip-hop and Detroit without referencing the late Jay Dilla, Detroit hip-hop producer James (Jay Dee) Yancey.
Jay Dee was an architect of the sound that I employ. When they talk about myself or Mos Def or the Roots, Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo, Common—this is the sound Jay Dee mastered; he truly embodied it. I had a great working relationship with him. His passing was tragic, but it just shows me we got to celebrate people’s lives now.

Compared with when you first came onto the scene 10 years ago with Black Star, hip-hop now is on a truly different level. From pop culture domination to big business enterprise, hip-hop is way bigger, but is it better?

A: Musically, I think it’s better; on all different levels—on the pop side, on the club side, on the more conscious rap side. Artistically, in general, it is better, but the perception of hip-hop is at an all-time low. It used to be that hip-hop was this rebel music that was trying to be shut down or ignored, but now hip-hop has become so bloated. The mainstream perception of hip-hop has become so bloated that mainstream culture is now very dismissive of hip-hop, now more than ever before.

Last New Year’s Eve, you gave fans a big treat by putting your collaboration album with Madlib, “Liberation,” online for free. How did you come to that decision?

A: It was real simple, actually. I had a bunch of Madlib beats. At the rate I was creating these songs, I was leaning toward a whole Madlib album. So I had all these songs developed, and I thought it would be really cool if we put something out and call it “Liberation” `cause it had “Lib” in it. And then I thought it’d be even cooler if we gave it out for free. I had resistance from people on both my side and Madlib’s side, but it was something I controlled, something in my control.

It was something I had just done for the sake of it. Black people, oppressed people in general, cannot really afford to do art for the sake of it; we have to do art for survival. When I was a young MC, I’d go out and rhyme in the park for free, and it was important because of the art in it. And this was a project I created based on the art—because I love Madlib as an artist. All the trouble over clearing samples, and who was going to put it out—I woke up New Year’s Eve day and just thought I’m gonna put it out today over the Internet. I’m gonna do it. The response was phenomenal—not even like critically, which it was, just by people downloading it.

Your latest album, “Eardrum,” is the first one on your own label Blacksmith. Is there a difference between Talib Kweli the artist and Talib Kweli the label head?

A: Oh yeah, certainly—I’m still learning to be a label head. I learned this year that sometimes being a label head you have to be a jerk. Not to say that artists aren’t jerks because plenty of times as an artist I’ve had to pull the jerk shirt out—which is a real sad part of the business. I think my career as an artist, I didn’t want to confront people that way because you want to maintain an even keel; you want everyone to feel comfortable and feel good and like your music.

But as a label head, you have to be demanding. You have to be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to this type of business. Not just for me, but for my artists. Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady, this is their first albums with a major label—they rely on me. It’s easy for me to go out and represent them—not to say that I don’t represent my own (stuff), but I try to keep it humble.

A lot of your lyrics have a political consciousness. However, you’ve been pretty forward about not voting in elections because the system is broke and you typically don’t believe in any candidates. Has Barack Obama changed your mind or is it politics as usual?

A: Obama is very inspiring. Certainly I am considering whether or not I am going to vote for him, which is a big step for me. When I was younger, I might have voted for Bill Clinton in his first election, but haven’t since. There is still a long time to go before Obama even gets nominated; we just have to see what is going to happen. But I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t impressive. I still feel the same way I do about voting, but I have never seen anyone like Barack Obama before. I’m equally impressed with Hillary Clinton as a person, but she to me is definitely part of the system. She doesn’t inspire me the same way he does, you know?

Topics: talib kweli
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