People tend to forget that in Arabic, “Talib” simply means “student”—it’s a term that takes one into the realm of abstract inquiry or, on the other hand, action. The translation is in the eye of the beholder. Talib Kweli is a hip hop artist who has made his mark over the last 15+ years as a wordsmith who melds astute observations of everyday life and a lyricism in the same vein as some of the best poets of the 20th century—Claude McKay, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and even more recent activists like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Saul Williams. Origin Magazine caught up with him on the occasion of his new album Prisoner of Conscious.
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Paul D. Miller: One of the things that’s made you stand out is your connection to the literary. Your mom curates the Black Literary Festival in Brooklyn. You have a new project called “Art Imitates Life.” I want to riff with you on with technology versus art, because I know that’s something that’s informed your practice. You want to speak on that?
Talib Kweli: “Art Imitates life,” of course, is that phrase by Oscar Wilde. I called that song “Art Imitates Life” because Oh No was in the studio and he actually came up with that hook. When I was trying to figure out a name for the record, it just kind of made sense.
PDM: I know Black Thought is also very conceptual about the way lyrics impact everything from poetry to literature and so on. You and Saul Williams have always been people that have helped push the idea of innovation in lyrics. If you’re looking at Oscar Wilde and then thinking about 21st century Brooklyn, what’s the next step? Back in the ‘90s with Rawkus, started with James Murdoch—what’s your take on that?
TK: It’s interesting. What Rawkus did—you know how Lana Del Rey came out this year, and she was presented as this indie darling who was a sensation, singer/songwriter who was on the block? And then she got on Saturday Night Live and she didn’t do so good. And they were hard on her, and the press was hard on her, and hard on the label for sort of selling us a dream that wasn’t real. Right? Well, Rawkus pioneered that. But I think the dream was just a bit more real. Brian and Jared were friends with James Murdoch.
PDM: James Murdoch went to Harvard, and Brian and Jared were someplace else, right?
TK: Brown University. Brian and Jared were music guys. They partnered with a guy they knew from college who had a lot of money. Guy was tied into Rupert Murdoch. Rawkus presented what we did as underground, as independent as fuck. They kind of co-opted and made that their brand, but they succeeded because they threw millions of dollars at marketing concerts. So while other labels couldn’t afford to make a mistake, Rawkus made plenty of mistakes but just threw money that the mistakes and fixed it.
What’s interesting now is that my fans like to be romantic. I feel like I’m creating at least at the same level or even a higher level of creativity than I was at twenty-one. I’ve gotten better as an artist. Now I’m thirty-seven. I feel like I have way more resources, way more experience. I’m better. But my fans romanticize the earlier stuff, and I don’t think it’s just like a nostalgia thing of “He’s not as good”—I think it’s because that earlier stuff was aggressively marketed as a lifestyle to them. My latest stuff, if you’re not following me on social network, you might not know it came out.
PDM: One of the things I’ve noted is that you’re really into social media. You and people like Questlove have really adapted to social media very quickly. I remember one of your earlier EPs, you had Nelson Mandela even say he’d been checking out some of your mixes.
TK: That was actually Dave Chapelle. Yeah, that was before he was famous, so he did an imitation.
PDM: You know what? For many years I would scratch that sample in on mixtapes. I always thought—[laughs]
TK: People, to this day, come up to me and be like, “How did you get to meet Nelson Mandela? How’d you get him on your album?”
PDM: Oh my god. You just blew my mind for the morning. Okay.
The beautiful thing about you and Mos Def and of course the whole spoken word movement: I think of it as an update of some of the Harlem Renaissance issues as well, where people were looking at culture becoming far more conscious.
TK: Want to hear something funny? I deejayed this restaurant in New York. I’m in the restaurant and I’m deejaying, right? I’m spinning records and I look across the restaurant and I see somebody who looks Asian. And I’m like, “Yo, that looks like Yoko Ono.” I’m like, oh, I can just meet—that’s going to be great. Then I look carefully and I’m like, “That’s not Yoko Ono, that’s Bruno Mars.” And it was Bruno Mars. That just happened recently. I was bugging out. Because that was totally not Yoko Ono at all.
PDM: She’s actually feeling a lot of hip hop lately. Quest is playing drums on her next album. She’s always been very supportive of my work, as well. She’s mad cool.
But if anything, one of the things that you always push is the idea that lyrics are about complexity and ambiguity. There is no specific agenda beyond political progress. Do you think your mother influenced that?
TK: Definitely, my parents are my biggest influences. My parents and my city. Brooklyn, New York, New York City, the community I grew up. I don’t feel like I’m special in that. I feel like that’s everybody. I feel like Lil’ Wayne is New Orleans. I feel like your city—with hip hop in particular, because we’re always beating our chest and shouting where we’re from—your city is just as influential as your parents. Even the grimy, hardcore gangster rap from New York—KRS-One and Wu Tang, the stuff acknowledges it.
PDM: A lot of emcees are deejaying right now. Do you have anything to speak on that?
TK: Are you familiar with the mixtape I did with Z-Trip this summer? I did it with Z-Trip because I was like, I’m going to do a mixtape. To me, I still hear the word ‘mix’ in mixtape. I love making those mixtapes. I love it. I think it was genius. But I wish that that was an album.
I just got a new manager. He’s like, “So what do you want to do with the deejay thing?” I’m like, “The deejay thing for me is more my hobby.” It’s great when you can supplement your income, when you have a weekly or something, it’s fun. It’s really a hobby, because I don’t want it to take away from what I do, which is emceeing. And he’s like, Yo, I’m going to pluck you in with such-and-such’s company, Scam Artists, right? And I’m like, No! I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be booked for the same gigs as DJ Vice—I’m not trying to do that. I look at the deejay thing as a tier thing. If I’m not going to compete on that level, I’m just going to do it as a hobby.
I look at myself as more of a Q-Tip, D-Nice—well, D-Nice has actually transitioned into almost a top tier deejay—but I’m more like a Q-Tip/Questlove type of thing, where you’re coming to see me. Because I’ve made my name in hip hop, I have a luxury of people coming to see me whether I play for the crowd or not. I don’t take that lightly. I look at the deejay thing as something—I’m good at it because I have my own music. I have enough rhythm to blend at this point. I have enough rhythm to blend one song into another. But man, I have such respect for the art of deejaying. I hesitate to even call myself a deejay.
PDM: What’s beautiful about emcees deejaying is, it takes it way back to old school days, where I think the skill set was combined, everything was kind of in one place, one-stop shop.
TK: Right. Everybody could write, deejay, rap. Everybody could do it all.
PDM: I think things got more specialized in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now it’s all converging again. But for me as a producer and artist, I’m really interested in hearing how emcees make mixes, because they’re really focusing on the lyrics of a track. It’s kind of cool when people spin, what words they select, how they scratch, stuff like that.
What’s the game plan for the next album? You’re dealing with a lot of these issues about consciousness, and looking at some of the stuff with Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember you’ve spoken out against that, as well.
TK: Well, actually, this album is called Prisoner of Conscience precisely because it may not be as heavy-handed as some of my other work. I feel like people mislead themselves when they tell themselves they’re into me because of the lyrics. From my vantage point, people aren’t into me because of the content, because of the lyrics. Because there’s a million of rappers who have great content. Just because someone has great content doesn’t mean you like them as a rapper. I think people are into me because of my music choices and my musicality.
You know, it’s hard to tell a fan that, especially a fan who’s mad at commercial radio. They’re like, “Nah, fuck you, I like you because you don’t talk that, you’re not on that bullshit.” Yeah, you think that, but you really like me because I’m a good rapper. Because if I was not on that bullshit and I was whack, you wouldn’t like me. I gotta be dope first. I gotta be appealing to your senses, and to what you like first. Then the message happens. Then you relate to the message.
With Prisoner of Conscience, the focus was—I’ve worked with Madlib, High Tech, Kanye West, J Dilla. I feel like I’ve worked with some of the greatest of all time. That’s been overlooked. That’s been overshadowed by the weight of the lyrics. With this album, I wanted to focus more on the musicality of it.
PDM: Let’s pull back for a second to the macro level. Since the ‘90s, you’ve done emcee shows all over the world. How do you think about hip hop and globalization, and the way that people have responded to your New York style? You go to South Africa, you go to Brazil, Japan, Korea. Any spots that you feel have really resonated with what experiences you’ve come out of?
TK: Sure. Hip hop is at its essence a folk music, because it speaks the language that people are still speaking at ground zero, it speaks the language that people speak on the streets. By the time you get into other kinds of music—R&B, country, or whatever—it becomes something that’s romantic. It becomes something unattainable. Never-ending undying love. And in hip hop, we’re still taking direct inspiration.
As far as my New York influence, one thing I’m proud of in my career is, I rep Brooklyn, New York all day. But people don’t look at my music as New York music. People consider my music underground music. They consider it East Coast hip hop, but when you’re thinking New York, even though me and Mos Def certainly are from New York, people are thinking the Lox or Wu Tang.
But I like the fact that I can rep New York, but my style does not—I’m not trapped in a New York thing. I can do art songs with other artists and it’s seamless. Working with HI-Tek early in my career helped that.
PDM: Japan, Korea— hip hop is really booming in a lot of those spots. Any kind of words on that?
TK: Hip hop has always been, for us, for artists who are pure to the craft—any place overseas, whether it’s Australia, any place in Asia, Germany, Africa, it becomes something where you can still go and work. Hip hop is an import culture. We’re spoiled by it here. It’s homegrown. So it’s like, you see somebody rapping and you’re like, “Nah, my cousin can do that.” You’re spoiled by the experience. Overseas, it’s still something that people can appreciate. Hopefully, we learn to appreciate it here so that it doesn’t go the way of jazz. Jazz is the greatest American art form and our greatest export. We don’t pay attention to the youth of jazz, don’t stoke the fires creatively for the youth coming up. I feel like jazz musicians became too much of purists—with Donald Byrd doing funk jazz in the ‘70s. I see that happening with hip hop purists now. Where you have an artist like a Kendrick or a Drake, who are really trying different things emotionally, different things musically, and on a mainstream level. And you have underground hip hop fans dissing it, for the simple fact that it’s mainstream—not because what they’re doing is whack, or what they’re doing is not sincere.
PDM: We love what you’re up to.
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