Interview: Brendan Frederick

kweli2.jpgIn 2003, Jay-Z let the world know his true desire: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be, lyrically Talib Kweli.” The line seemed to legitimize the Brooklyn-bred MC in the eyes of Jay-Z fans across the globe, who may have previously written Kweli off as one of those rappers who likes to read books. With Jigga name-checking some of the illest Okayplayers, for a moment it seemed that maybe skills could sell. That is, until Kweli’s next album, Beautiful Struggle, came out in 2005 and sold less than 300,000 copies. As it turns out, skills can only sell about 10 percent of what Jay-Z does.

Perhaps hoping to close the sales gap, Kweli has now taken a page from President Carter’s book, founding his label Blacksmith Music. With distribution from the Warner Music Group, Blacksmith will first be releasing Jeanius, Jean Grae’s long-awaited collaborative album with 9th Wonder. Next up will be Kweli’s solo album, Eardrum, which features work from Just Blaze, Hi-Tek, UGK, Midi Mafia, Kanye West and Madlib. Before his first Kwamé-produced street single “Listen” hits the streets, Kweli caught up with XXLMAG.COM to discuss his boarding school experiences, shopping for gold fronts in Houston and the rise of the working class MC.

When Jay name-dropped you on “Moment of Clarity,” did you ever feel pressure to live up to people’s expectations?
Yeah, but it was good pressure. A lot of my career and the way people get aware of me is through other artists showing me love. I have to be so grateful and humbled by that. It made me feel like I’m going in the right direction. It definitely made me feel like I can’t slack and I can’t slouch if people are paying that much attention.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Talib who recorded “Fortified Live” and “2000 Seasons” wasn’t really a big Jay-Z fan.
Completely wrong.

You were a fan even back then?
Yeah. If you listen to “Fortified Live,” the big thing when I recorded that record with New York MCs [back then] was rapping like they were Colombian drug dealers. I said, “The highest caliber, make it a night to remember like Shalamar/Then escape to Havana with Assata, do what I gotta/Planes get shot down by Cuban air force over the water.” I was thinking, I’m going to talk about Cuba like all these other rappers, but I’ma talk about Assata [Shakur] instead. I was acutely aware of what was going on in hip-hop. I always paid attention to all aspects of hip-hop. From the moment I heard Jay-Z on the Jaz record, I was like, This kid is nasty. But when “Dead Presidents” dropped, I wasn’t a fan of that record. I liked him rapping, but I didn’t like the video. He was definitely flossing hard, and the image didn’t appeal to me at that age. But when he dropped Reasonable Doubt, everything about it was a complete hip-hop album.

Do you feel that hip-hop is in a better place now than it was in 1999?
Definitely. People complain about hip-hop all the time, but in 1999 people like Murs and Little Brother and MF Doom and Danger Mouse would still [have been] struggling to get their 12 inches out in a crowded 12-inch market. In 2006, those same artists can be on MTV2. They can book tours and travel the world. It’s the rise of the working-class MC. The blue collar MC. Like my man J. Sands from Lone Catalysts. Sometimes Sands gets frustrated. He went to college, he got a degree in some sort of mathematic application, but he left to pursue hip-hop. The idea that he can live in Pittsburgh with his family and make hip-hop records for a living, that’s a beautiful thing. Sometimes he gets frustrated, but you get frustrated with a 9-to-5. He may not be famous, he may not be on TV, but hip-hop has made a world where you can be a working class artist. You don’t have to be on MTV flossing like that. I think that hip-hop is still a relatively young music, but a lot of jazz artists do that. You have a lot of studio musicians who may not be rich and famous, but they can make a living. That has not always happened for hip-hop artists, ’til now.

You don’t talk a lot about your time in boarding school at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. After being raised in Brooklyn, that must have been a different experience.
It was definitely a positive experience, but it was also shocking at first. The Black kids would always be on the basketball team basically, except for me. We used to get full beer cans thrown at us out of trucks, and people shooting at us in the town. There was a lot of negativity, a lot of hate. A lot of stereotypical behavior. But then I saw a lot of the psychologies that are usually associated with the ghetto at boarding school. Someone doing crack in front of me, teenage pregnancy and a lot of shit that you associated with inner city living. There was a lot of rich spoiled kids going through that stuff. That was a shock. Before [you] get there, you think White culture is perfect, that they don’t have any problems. Then you get there and see the problems exposed. Not saying it’s the school’s fault, but there were a lot of kids who had parents who paid a lot of money to not deal with their kids. And the kids have basic social problems that teenagers have, but they didn’t have nobody there to help them. These kids were off the chain!

What is the most important thing you learned while in boarding school?
The most important thing I learned at Cheshire Academy was how to be around different types of people. But the most important lesson I learned there was when I got caught selling weed and smoking weed at the school. Normally, at a school like that you get kicked out for selling drugs. But they had a meeting with me. I was on the Blue Key Society, Drama Club, Honor Roll, Student Council Vice President. I was in every club. I was the only Black kid up there doing that and I wasn’t on the basketball team. They were like, Listen, we can’t afford to kick you out. You gotta stop what you’re doing.

So they couldn’t kick you out because you were Black?
Yeah, because I made myself indispensable to that school. Even though I clearly broke the rules, they put me on probation for a month, which meant that instead of sleeping through breakfast I had to get up for breakfast. But that’s what I learned about society. It’s like the rules don’t apply if you make yourself indespensible. If you make it so that they need you, you can dictate how you live.

So when are you going to write a song about flipping weed to White kids?
[Laughs.] When I run out of shit to write about I’ll write about my Cheshire experience.

How did you hook up with UGK on the new album?
I been hanging out with Bun and trying to do music with him for a year now. We did a record for his album that we couldn’t get the sample cleared for, so I put it on my Confidential mixtape. But for my album, Bun laid a verse in Houston at Corey Mo’s studio. Corey Mo is my man from Houston who puts out independent records. I spent a lot of time in Houston and I was actually down there for New Years when Pimp got out [of jail]. Already in my mind I wanted to do a UGK record, but I didn’t know he was getting out then. Then a month or so later it hit me that I could get him on a record. I started putting in the phone calls and we handled the business really quick. He got on the record and it was all love. He raps about how Bun put him on to Black Star in the song. It was an exciting record.

So you spent some time down in Houston…When are we gonna see Kweli rocking grills?
I’m from Brooklyn, and we don’t rock grills, we rock fronts. When I went down to Houston for the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, I went to the Sharpstown mall and bought some fronts. The grills aren’t really my style, but I rock my fronts from time to time. Since the grill thing got big and out of control, I stopped rocking my fronts. It’s like I can’t compete. I can’t rock my little $1,000 fronts and you got like a $30,000 grill. Fuck it, you win, dawg.

Now the obligatory question: can you please kidnap Mos Def and lock yourself in the studio with him?
Damn, I thought that you weren’t going to ask that.

Is there going to be another Black Star album?
Sure. To be completely honest with you, there has actually been talk of going into the studio and doing that. But there’s been talk of that before and it didn’t happen. Mos raps all the time, he’s just not always happy with the label situation. But he’s always in the studio. I’m down for whatever.