Talib Kweli
Let’s Get Free (Part Two)

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.

Click HERE if you missed Part One, where Kweli breaks down why his old record label was “Interscope’s Stepchild.”

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.

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  • gerv

    Talib straight doin his thang I respect that but I still don’t believe another Black Star album is commin out.

  • Stealth

    Good interview, shout out to a true hip hop mc. Big up from London/that’s right/Hackney E8 in ya face/ready to blow a lyrical bullet in da place. Peace!

  • EnglandRepresent

    Nuff respect to Talib, do ya thing playboy. Shout out to all my Brixton manz, Southwyck House, The Barrier Block, stand the fuck up, London stand up tall.

  • http://www.fromdastreets.com Anwar

    Great two-part interview. I really respect Talib Kweli and the whole Okayplayer camp. I never thought I’d hear him do a song with UGK though, kind of like the UGK-Little Brother hook-up. Where I’m from, DC, it’s hard to find a balance between NY and Southern rap music so I look forward to hearing it.

  • http://www.murphyprojects.com SHAHEIM ALI

    talib you nice kid! do you!!! IF YOU AND MY NIGGA PAPOOSE GOT DOWN FOR A JOINT TOGETHER THAT SHIT WOULD BE OFF THE MEAT RACK!!!!!!!!!!!!! ONE LUV BABY… PEACE -SHAHEIM ALI

  • Renigade

    TO SHAHEIM ALI BELOW ME: There’s a track on Kweli’s new Blacksmith album, “Right About Now” that has a track with him and Papoose called “The Beast”. Pap and Kweli rip the track, mayne.

  • E

    If skills sold…. lyrically….Sean Carter would be Tilab Kweli…

  • http://www.amsterdamsfinest.nl Koos

    Respect to the real hip-hop! Respect to talib, mos, hi-tek, gang starr(premo & guru), de la soul, TCQ and all the others!

    Peace from Amsterdam

  • bluerid

    PEACE AND MAJOR PROPS IF IT WASNT FOR U GUYS MY MIND BE GONE.

  • http://none Nonpareil

    With all due respect I always knew something wasn’t kosher with Talib’s albums. When I heard the Rawkus Soundbombings, the Reflection Eternal joint and the Black Star joint I expected A LOT from him on his solo projects. When he dropped Quality I have to say I was disappointed. That’s when I knew he wasn’t in total control of his music. I could sense the conflict and reluctance in his voice. Both of his solo efforts had some great tracks like the Nina Simone-laced Get By, The Proud, Around My Way and Beautiful Struggle but there were tracks that I call “filler tracks” that really diminished the lyrical quality of those albums, no pun intended. I am an unconditional supporter of Kweli and I have faith that with him being in control of his music there will be uncompromised creativity. Stay true to yourself my brotha. In the words of Big Rube, “Right on to the real, death to the fakers.”

  • Mozeek

    Love ya, Talib! Get back with Mos!
    Matter of fact, get back with Hi-tek, too.

  • dragonheart10

    Talib will always be one of my favorite emcees, of all time, no matter what. I love the albums he’s put out, but I have to agree with some of the s**t these people have said. He has put out some “fill in tracks” and those have disappointed me. I really feel the next one is the big one, the one that brings “underground” Hip Hop to the surface. I hope there will be a revolution, and I hope it’s televised, I want to see all the real emcees just smash on the cowards, and real Hip Hop shall be restored.

    Peaceluv to all Hip Hop fans

    P.S. I really hope Mos, Kwe, and Hi-Tek hook up again, that would be an album to die for.

  • alleyeCNTower

    can’t be mad at anything about Kweli… that dude is what’s right with hip hop.
    but he really ought to speak about his drug selling experiences, cause he’s the ~perceived~ DEFINITION of “backpack/underground” rapper, and although it’s not a bad thing, people still don’t understand his image properly. they don’t punk off Mos Def for being smart, but Kweli gets no respect, and I think it’s wack.

    all the intellectual, business-suit-wearing drug dealers stand up and show these street thugs how to play the game smarter!

    ;)
    peace to Talib Kweli, you know who smokes you out right when you come to Toronto

  • http://www.worldwide-underground.blogspot.com Worldwide Underground

    did you say new album?!?..well aiight then, kweli just dropping joints left and right..dude stay making music. When he said he was the highest music contributor on okayplayer he wasn’t lying..

  • http://www.myspace.com/nucpromotions Noetik

    Bravo!! This articles explains it all from a man of many words and messages to be heard!! Big Ups to J.Sands he from my area Pittsburgh,PA stand up!!

  • blakpower

    Talib is da man. him and mos def need to do another blackstar. d 1st one wuz a classic.

    got mad luv 4 talib in d UK

  • wimpye

    BLACKSTAR 2 SHOULD HAVE -
    COMMOM.
    MOS DEF.
    SLUM VILLAGE.
    KANYE.
    JOHN LEDGEND.
    NAPPY ROOTS.
    HI-TECK(FROM CINCINNATI BIG UP DOGG!)
    YOU KNOW ALL THESE NIGGAZ FIT YOUR STYLES DOG.MAKE IT HAPPEN DOGG

  • ri067953

    Talib is the truth. When the greatest MC’s of all time are mentioned he should be in the top 5. True, his solo albums left a bit to be desired but I think that he was trying to flex and show some different styles. If he were to keep giving us albums like “Reflection Eternal”, which in my opinion is the greatest hip hop album of all time, we would eventually call him on it and say it was time to change up. In due time, another masterpiece will come from Talib. Much respect to Talib. I bump his shit everyday and his songs take up a considerable amount of space on my ipod, for sure.

  • Big Black From 5314

    As a lot of people, i too really respect Talib. I cant wait to hear what his new shit’s gonna sound like. Even though beautiful struggle wasnt my favorite record, i still bought it to support dude…i will keep buying ya shit, support some pure hiphop. Do ya thing nigga…
    peace from the 010 , Rotterdam Holland 5314

  • Hector

    Not to start any arguments, because everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I feel that “Quality” was by far one of his best works. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing comments like “his solo albums left a bit to be desired”. OK already. He doesn’t make music only to please you. Hip-Hop is changing and so must are heros if they want to last in the arena of grill wearing, bentley pushing freeks. If you haven’t realized yet, change is good. Isn’t that what our movement is all about.

    Quality was a breath of fresh air. All Love.

  • J SUN

    YO SHAHEIM ALI, YOU GOTTA HERE THAT TRACK “THE BEAST” WITH PAPOOSE, THAT SHIT IS FIRE B.
    BIG UP TO TALIB. RENIGADE YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS. TRUE MC’S KEEP BANGING…..

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  • http://source.com ONE

    are you people deaf?this nigga is one of the wackest emcees ever.all his albums suck except for the black star
    cd,and that was because mos def was on it.i think it’s his voice i hate the most.he sounds like a winney lil bitch on the mic.when he does recoreds with other rappas he gets out shined constantly.how could a nigga like this be considered one of the top ten?i guess the standards of being a dope emcee have been lowered.
    maybe thats why the east has fallen off so much!ehlzi from slum village
    is the dopest emcee right now.dont believe me?then check out a slum village record.ehlzi even served phonte on the minstel show(thats little brother for all you dumb asses
    that dont know.)fuck talib kweli.
    CALI LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Nee

    PLLEEEAAASE!

    Starving for another Blackstar album.

  • Cg

    go talib and dont let the flame going anywere!

  • http://myspace.com/mardigraz MardiGraz

    Oh god please please let them do a blackstar 2 the beautiful struggle is a classic and the new danger is insane!!! Another classic. I can’t wait for that.

  • coco

    i went to cheshire acedmy. word to the wise DONT SEND YOUR KIDS THERE. unless you want them to hate you forever.