You might hear fans refer to Talib Kweli as an “underground rapper,” but his career has actually been supported by a multi-national corporation for the last seven years. After making his name on New York’s famed indie label Rawkus Records in the late ’90s, Kweli found himself at the mercy of an ever-changing corporate structure when Rawkus attained major label backing from Universal. Feeling like he was losing control of his own career, he rushed out his 2005 release Beautiful Struggle in the hopes of founding his own label elsewhere. With a little help from his manager, Corey Smyth, Kweli has created Blacksmith Entertainment, his own Warner Music Group–distributed label which will release not only his solo records, but those of artists like Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady. With his next album, Eardrum, in the works for a summer release, Kweli sat down with XXLMAG.COM to discuss exactly why he had to take his career into his own hands.
Your new label is distributed through Warner. Why didn’t you stick with your old label?
I had to get off Geffen or Interscope or whatever it was. When I first got in this business I knew not to sign no bogus contract, so the reason I signed with Rawkus is because they were saying, All we want is one song. It developed into us putting out a single and then putting out the Black Star album and then putting out the Reflection Eternal record. But it initially started with, We don’t want your publishing, we just want to pay you for the rights to put out a record.
This is the “Fortified Live” record, right?
Right, which for me was a win-win. The Rawkus thing was nice but as they got bigger as a label, I got bigger as an artist without being able to make any decisions as to where I wanted to be. I ended up being distributed through Priority, then I ended up on MCA which really was Geffen, which was really Interscope’s stepchild. All of a sudden I looked up and my career was in a place I didn’t want to be, and I didn’t enjoy making music. It felt like a job as opposed to something I love.
Do you think there was something specific about Geffen that made you feel that way?
Jordan Schur at Geffen, he’s a music guy who blew up around the time of Limp Bizkit. He was respected for his bottom line and the money he brought into MCA, but he didn’t know anything about hip-hop. He’s an ambitious music guy but he don’t know anything about hip-hop. He had no respect for it. What MCA did is they signed a lot of artists who were respected in hip-hop like the GZA, Blackalicious, myself, Common, the Roots, Mary J. Blige. They did the basic minimum for these records. They just put them out in the marketplace because they knew these artists would work hard enough to make the album happen. That was their strategy. The Quality record and the Beautiful Struggle record came out through their system.
You mentioned that you felt like Geffen was an Interscope stepchild. Was that ever a factor?
I still don’t understand how that worked. Geffen, A&M and Interscope linked up but because Interscope was the bigger of the companies, it was assumed that they would make all the decisions for the other labels. I’ve been in this business for a long time but I still didn’t understand how it worked out. Like, I’m on this label, but I gotta answer to people at Interscope? I didn’t get it, but at first it seemed like a cool situation. Before I was working on Beautiful Struggle, Jimmy Iovine came in. He had a five-minute meeting with me at a party and was like, Dr. Dre fucks with you and 50 and Eminem fuck with you, so you must be all right. So, I’ll fuck with you.
Sounds promising. What happened?
The first single, “I Try,” was mixed and ready to go, but [people at Interscope] were just really cool on it, like, Uh, whatever. I had the meeting with the president at Geffen; he was like, Yeah, let’s go. I went to the president at Interscope and he was like, Whatever. It was just confusing for me. I started to realize I had to get out of that situation. It’s interesting to hear Slim Thug talk about him allowing the label to dictate what he did on the record when he first got signed. It was crazy seeing how much they tried to get involved in his project.
At the time I was like, Damn, why they ain’t trying to get involved in my project like that? But I understand he’s doing it in Houston and Houston was about to be big. So the Houston thing was about to take off and this label is about to go in a different direction. So I was thinking, Let me try to get out of here. I tried to push the Beautiful Struggle album to get out, even though they really weren’t trying to put it out. They told me, Wait ’til next year. My goal was to get back on the road, and if I put a record out in the marketplace, I could support myself with shows for a year while I tried to figure out what I was going to do next.
So it sounds like you were just trying to get that record out there to get out of your deal with Geffen.
When I fist started working on Beautiful Struggle, I wanted to make a record dedicated to the community. It wasn’t so much about me being a battle rapper or me being nice on the mic. Mostly every song is about [the community], so I feel like I accomplished that with the record. I felt like I could have kept working on the record, trying to come up with other songs or come up with a better marketing strategy, or I could just put the record out into the marketplace and let it bubble. I knew the label wasn’t ready to put my record out and I knew they weren’t going to support it.
So you feel like no matter what you would have done, Geffen wouldn’t have supported it?
I feel like if I had waited they would’ve said, We’ll put it out next quarter, get some more Neptunes tracks or something. But I didn’t believe that, because they had been telling me lies the whole time. I believe that if I had done that, I would just languish, and they would never put it out. So we just had the meetings and we just forced them like, Look, we gotta put it out. We have no choice. They said, Fine, let’s put it out. We did the video for “I Try,” and then we tried to get started on the next single, at which point they stopped returning our phone calls—the basic label shit when you know that they don’t give a fuck about you no more. We started having meetings.
At this point I told my manager, “We gotta start our own label. We can’t trust these labels because you never know what’s going to happen with them.” He said, “Let’s see if they give us enough money for this video [‘Never Been in Love’]. If they give us enough money for the video, let’s take the money for the video and then leave.” So we went to them and they were like, No, we’re not putting out another video. So I did it myself. I came up with the idea and me and Corey were in control of every aspect of it. We spent our own money and got so much more run out of it. So you know, it’s just a learning process for me, because I came in the game with a situation where I didn’t have to worry about those label pressures or creative control, and I ended up in a situation like that and I had to find a way out of it.
Did you feel like they were this way to other artists as well, or just you?
I think they were like this to other artists. On their last album, I don’t think they did The Roots properly. I don’t think they did Common properly on his last album. I think the reason Be did better—it’s a great album of course—is because of G.O.O.D. Music. You have the energy of Kanye West, and Kanye has been consistent with whatever artists he’s working. But I think that that’s what they do. Interscope artists come first. The whole G-Unit/Aftermath/Shady thing, that comes first. Gwen Stefani, will.i.am, that comes first. It would have been different if my record deal had come from Jimmy Iovine coming to a concert and seeing me and signing me, but that’s not how it happened. I just kind of ended up there.
So you felt like Interscope’s control wasn’t something you had signed up for?
Yeah, people who I never met from a different building come up to me from Interscope and and say, Why you left the label? We loved having you there. But it’s all good. Interscope is a monster that’s really good at what they do and they dominate in this business, but I need to establish my own identity and figure out how to connect to my audience. I need to dominate what it is I do.