Talib Kweli
Touching Everything

kweli1.jpgThere’s no doubt Talib Kweli can hold his own, but the Brooklyn MC has also been half of a couple of hip-hop’s most prolific duos. He first flaunted his skills with fellow Brooklynite Mos Def on 1998’s Black Star and with producer Hi-Tek on 2000’s Reflection Eternal. Three solo albums deep, Kweli is still highly regarded in many circles, even while his commercial sales have failed expectations, particularly 2004’s The Beautiful Struggle. Last year, he tacked his Blacksmith imprint (a venture with longtime manager Corey Smyth) onto Warner Bros., bringing indie artists like Jean Grae and Phil the Agony. Before releasing his next effort, Ear Drum, Talib is offering the Blacksmith mixtape Blacksmith: The Movement, and his latest album, Liberation, is a 10-track Internet-only collaboration with Oakland beatsmith Madlib. Talib spoke to xxlmag.com about his recent projects, his Blacksmith movement and how he absorbs the criticism.

Talk first about this project you did with Madlib. Was it always intended as an online-only album, or did it start out differently?
My original plan was to give it out at shows. But when I started working on Ear Drum, I had about 400 beats from Madlib. I was like, “I can’t possibly put all these beats on my album,” so [I thought about] doing an album with him. Then I was like, “I can’t do that, ’cause a lot of those songs have samples in them, and Madlib is real hard to get in touch with.” I was like, “The only way it would work is if I just did it, recorded it and gave it out for free.” This way, I won’t have to worry about sample clearance, and I wouldn’t have to worry about tracking Madlib down.

You’ve worked as a duo with Mos, Hi-Tek and now Madlib. What made you want to work with him, and why do you see working as a duo as a benefit?
A lot of the classic albums in hip-hop—Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main
Source Breaking Atoms, any Gang Starr album—are handled by one producer. Only a handful of producers can handle a whole album. Like, Erick Sermon is someone who’s done whole albums for himself, EPMD and Redman, and he hasn’t gotten a lot of props for it. Hi-Tek, Dr. Dre, 9th Wonder. And, also, Madlib is just a very consistent producer. When Jay Dilla passed, I was in a similar situation with him. I had a whole bunch of beats, and I didn’t know which ones I was gonna use. All these wonderful dudes in my life, I just want to take the opportunity to work with them when I can. As I’ve grown as a musician, I’ve experimented with different sounds and wanted to try different things, and my fans would always roll with me. Sometimes they think I’m bugging out, but that Madlib sound is the sound that I think they’ll appreciate me on.

How do you think Liberation will benefit your actual album?
Well, the selfish part of me is saying that, “Look, if I gave you a free album, the least you could do is buy my album.” But at the same time, I’m trying to make music that touches people, whether you listen to hip-hop or not. Sometimes when you do that, you lose people in the process, because you’re trying—I don’t care whether or not you think I’m the best MC. I already know that I am, so I’m not trying to prove that on my record. And, so, the Madlib album was a way for me to say, “Okay, I still can rap circles around your favorite MC. Matter of fact, I’m so good at that, I’ma do it and give it to you for free. But now I need you to take this journey with me when I’m trying to do it [on a major-label album].”

You also said that about Right About Now, your Koch album.
Yeah, Right About Now, the mixtapes, all that. Because I realize there’s a certain segment of my fan base that I can’t forget about. I’ve lost some of them on Beautiful Struggle. I don’t make music for the fans, so I’m gonna continue to make my albums the way I want to make them. I’m not gonna listen to your suggestions about what I should be doing. But you want to hear me on some gully shit? You wanna hear me on some underground shit? You wanna hear what you’re used to me doing? Then here’s Right About Now, here’s Liberation, here’s the mixtapes. That’s for you. Because those fans—I did that for two albums, and they didn’t run out and buy them. Neither one of ’em were platinum or gold.

Do you feel kinda bitter about that?
Not bitter, [but] I do feel like it’s seductive to get caught up in what you think the fans want from you. That’s how a lot of artists fall off, and I’m very careful not to do that. If I [was] the same artist on Black Star that I was on Reflection Eternal that I was on Quality, I would be very boring and people wouldn’t be challenged. And so I have to make sure, as I get older in this game, my music remains challenging. If the same kids who loved Reflection Eternal love my new album and that’s it, then I haven’t been doing my job, ’cause I haven’t been growing.

How do you feel you’ve improved, either lyrically or otherwise?
I feel like I’m definitely stronger lyrically. I feel I’m more confident, more in command of the microphone. I feel like my range is better, as far as what I’m able to rap on, the subject matter I touch. I feel like my resources have increased. I can work with any producer I want to work with.

kweli2.jpgHow much do you pay attention to the critics of your music?
I pay attention to the constructive criticism as much as possible, ’cause I believe that it makes [me] better. I read album reviews, and I actively go out and search for them, and when someone tells me they saw a review, I want to read it. And that might be a vain part of me, as well—to see what people are saying. People are real passionate about my music, a lot of my fans, so sometimes they’re so passionate that if I do something they don’t like, they’re equally passionate about how much they don’t like it. And so I get a lot of negative comments from so-called fans. But it drives me to be better.

What do [fans] want you to do that you’re actually working on? What have people said that you’re like, “Maybe I should do that”?
You know, one thing the constructive criticism has helped with has been the shows. I do 250 shows a year, and that’s very draining on my body and on my voice. And when you do hip-hop events, you’re not doing places that have great sound systems, so I’ve developed a habit of wanting to go hard. Plus, my music is considered soft and conscious and smooth, and sometimes that doesn’t play well for the stage. So I come out real rowdy and loud and screaming. It started changing the way I sounded onstage, and I started noticing criticism of that, like, “I don’t like the way you sound onstage.” So I went to a throat doctor, and she gave me some tips on how I can be better, and that’s something I’m still working on, but I feel better onstage, and I’ve seen the results. ’Cause now those same Web sites that were saying that, I’ve noticed people saying, “Oh, his live show is back to where it was.”

As far as Ear Drum, you said it’ll be a different project with different influences, compared to Liberation. How so?
That’s a little bit misleading. Madlib is doing three, maybe four tracks on Ear Drum, as well as Pete Rock, Hi-Tek, DJ Khalil—these are people who embody that sound that people have come to know me for. But I also have a record with Justin Timberlake. I have a record with Norah Jones. UGK, KRS-One [are] on the record. Liberation is sort of like [no-holds-barred]. This one, there’s definitely some rules to it. Like, I’m not putting a beat on there if it doesn’t sound right.

Can you update us on what’s going on with Blacksmith?
Strong Arm Steady has a mixtape that’s doing real well. Jean Grae—other than the song we have on the Web site, “The One,” which we released a couple months ago, I don’t know if Jean has anything new out, but Jean always has a video on YouTube. She makes her own videos. Jean is real prolific and very easy to work with. My album is the jump-off, so as soon as we get my album out, we’ll have the other albums on schedule. Jean, her album’s called Prom Night. Strong Arm is Bombs and Hammers.

Do you think hip-hop is dead?
I think hip-hop is in a wonderful state. I think the problem is that, when people make judgments about hip-hop, they’re only talking about the commercial, top-ten hip-hop that you hear on radio. I don’t even separate the terms—I look at hip-hop and rap [as the same]. We all grew up listening to Run-D.M.C. No matter how many times you say, “I’m just a hustler, not a rapper,” nigga, you know that you love rap, so stop frontin’. I appreciate the fact that you got skills selling drugs, but don’t say that you don’t love rap, you know. We all love it. I think the musical landscape of what you see on the radio and hear on the radio seems bleak, but I’m blessed to really live hip-hop. So my interest in hip-hop goes far beyond BET or MTV, or even XXL, for that matter. Even though I pay attention to all of it.

Do you think fans just accept what they’re fed or that they should expect more from their rappers?
One thing that’s hard for a progressive artist to realize, and what makes them bitter, is that the average fan doesn’t want to turn on the radio and hear Talib Kweli talk about the state of the union. The average fan turns on the radio and wants to hear a song about shaking ass or going to a party, something that’s gonna help keep their minds off the problems they’re dealing with. So as progressive artists, we can’t stick our noses in the air and think everyone’s supposed to listen to conscious music just because we happen to like it. I feel I’m dope enough that I can spit a rhyme that has gems and jewels in it and the average head will still love it, just ’cause the rhyme is dope. Sometimes I hit the mark. Sometimes I don’t. But nothing’s gonna make me stop trying for that.

  • http://www.myspace.com/eklecticsrecords SliM

    the greatest.

  • ny till da end

    1ST

  • Money Carlo
  • dameSTATii

    he’s on those pink toes..

  • My Effin’ Opinion

    I really can’t make up my mind on who’s the best lyricist Talib or Black Thought, but they’re the 2 best MC’s in the game … fuck what the sales say!

  • bruce wayne

    kweli..so underrated and under appreciated..a lil arrogant, but still..him hot as the next..no doubt a top five mc

  • Flip

    Never understood what people see in this guy outside of Black Star. And he was the weaker member.

  • stoneyisland

    “NEVER BEEN IN LOVE BEFORE”

    “I dont care what people say, as long as me and you ok, cause I never been in love before, you see I use to playa but all of this is new to me, and this where I wanna be but I never been in love before”

    tALIB IS WITHOUT A DOUBT ONE OF THE TOP 5 MC’S ALIVE. BETTER THEN MOS, BETTER THEN NAS AND BETTER THEN ANY DOWNSOUT RAPPER.

  • john cochran

    He has always been dope to me. I hope he comes with hot beats this time though, cause I didnt like the shit on the beautiful struggle. He’s very under rated. He should get together and do an album with Blakc thought. Thats my nigga too. I’m also gald that he understands radio music and is not knocking it or acting all hollier than thou.

  • BIRDSFLYSOUTH

    FLIP, I WONDER WHO YOU LIKE? YOU GOT THAT D4L POPPIN OFF? WHAT ABOUT THAT PRICE OF FAME? SORRY, YOU PROBABLY DO NOT HAVE THE INTELLECT TO UNDERSTAND TALIB’S RHYMES.

    TALIB WILL DEVOUR YOUR FAVORITE RAPPER ANYDAY.

    FOR THE RECORD, MOS DEF PUBLICALLY SAYS THAT TALIB IS MUCH BETTER THAN HE WAS.

  • Yun

    Umm stoney island Talib is great and all, but he’s not better than Andre 3000, he’s really not

  • chris

    i’m lookin 2 get a talib cd. i was thinkin blackstar or the one with hi-tek. any input would be appreciated

  • neu-sense

    fuck that there aint no best!just as long as their making good music fans should support ur artist. u feel me.and yes blackthought and talib need to do an album with 9th wonder on the boards and a couple of calabos with phonte from “little brother.” that some fantastic 4 shit right there!holla!

  • neu-sense

    fuck that aint no best! as long as their making good music u should support ur artists.and blackthought and talib should do an album with 9th wonder on the boards and a couple of calabos with phonte from “little brother”.thats some fantastic 4 , dream team shit right there…..holla! p.s. YUN dont know what the fuck hes talking about (period)

  • Adrenaline

    talib is one of the sickest lyrically… no comparisons hes a real mc to me in this modern age of bullshit.

  • blaQ

    talib…keep makin that good music. forget the haters

  • Big D

    ANYBODY WHO HATES ON THIS TALENTED ARTIST IS NO DOUBT A DICK SUCKER.

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  • stealth man

    Talib, u r 1 of da G.O.A.Ts.
    cant wait yo nu lp.

  • jacquez
  • Yun

    Look I like Talib, I really do, but yall muhfuckas are callin him the greatest, I mean damn yall must be dickridin because there are rappers better than him, he wasn’t even the best in Black Star, no offense and i got respect for dude but yall are talkin reckless sayin he’s one of the best to ever do it, I’d say he’s top 20, maybe top 15..but not top 5.IMO

  • Three4

    Talib is one of the best, maybe not the best one…Liberation is the shit!

  • babyboy

    top 10 rapper nodoubt

  • TaZ

    A Fucking Mazing!!!

  • Intifada

    When is Eardrum gonna drop?

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  • let the games begin

    one of the best ask jay he said he wanted to lyricaly sound like him so….

  • BC

    Yun, I hear you about Andre 3000. He used to be killin it and we really need him back rappin.

  • Bama Nigga

    U niggas crazy. he rap aight and shit but he aint fuccin wit big boi let alone Andre when he start spittin

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  • old skool

    U youngins dont understand “true” lyrics…anyone can spit…only a few have lyrics…dont confuse a guy that can rhyme snow with blow, or head with dead with a great mc such as talib…lol…what’s all this talk about dick ridin? R U an internet gangster?…lol dont talk grimmy on the net if you dont talk grimmy in real life…lol…go outside and play…and shut my screendoor!

  • Yun

    ^^you not funny, quit talkin like young cats dont know how the game is played, learn how to spell “grimey” before you try insult anybody and take your ass back to school, don’t hate because the game is passin you by.

  • daesonesb

    how is talkib kweli gonna make a song with justin fucking timberlake?
    and norah jones?

  • Telec

    I like talib, am not a snap music fan and am old enough and educated enough to know when a MC spits “true rhymes”…

    BUT TALIB KWELI IS NOT A TOP 5 MC.

    Fact.

  • Tek

    XXL get your shit right…Madlib is from Oxnard not Oakland!

  • Grenegade

    Talib, you are most loved by your brothers in Ghana. Keep spitting the knowledge man. One

  • http://www.goill.blogpsot.com Sean CK

    Talib, good read… good ish..been a fan since they glory days… and ive liked every record. however i have to disagree.. and say that rap and hiphop have been seperated…. a lot of these cats.. did listen to the same music as the real heads did… but its about what u do…what u talk about…how u portray yaself… an these cats… is takin money coke cars hoes.. and its misleading people about real hiphop… so thanks my thoughts…

    CANT WAIT FOR EARDRUM

  • john cochran

    I dont like 9th wonder. He’s too repetitive with the drum patterns, def over rated by you hip hop heads. As a matter of fact, I’m starting to get bored with producers that always sample old records. Switch it up sometimes, thats why skateboard p and timbo is out here makin all the money.

  • RESPECT THE EAGLE

    ^^^^ john cochran i totally agree with you & dre is 1 of those producers who uses recylced beats in almost all his beats. your also right about pharell & timbo they shit is so fresh & new each & every time.

  • RESPECT THE EAGLE

    trying ryhming circles around cam’ron or juelz santana i bet any 1 of them would tear you a new ass hole you pussy you aint from the streets you just a back pack rapper.

  • lolz

    wtf…Talib being top 10 or 20 all time? LOL. Jesus. Yall haven’t heard much hip hop in your lives have yall? Probably started listening to this shit back in 97 or 98, probably 2000. Sorry young fucks, yall missed the greatest, purest eras ever (everything from 86-96). To call Talib a Top 20 MC is an insult to the 20 other FAR superior MC’s who’ve come before him. Talib would have a tough time cracking my top 100, honestly.

    Damn you young kids that dont know shit about hip hop piss me off, go back and listen to some music before 1998.

  • Knowledge Speaks

    Talib is by far the realest emcee hands down. The most well rounded one as well, but I can’t wait to hear his new shit. Prom Night? I thought that Jean Grae’s album was gonna be called “Jeanius”?

  • general_jeff_hood

    talib is talented…im coping the album got the rest might as well..the nigga is versatile period… you got love a mc that can switch styles

  • ATL Southside

    nas could eat that nigga alive

  • SilverBack Gorilla

    Kweli is a lyrical monster!! Wasn’t feelin’ that Beautiful Struggle tho’. Not in my Top 5, but top 20. I kinda wish he & other conscious artist found a more visually appealing approach to their videos. They ride nice whips got & got nice shit but don’t even allude to it in their videos. I know they being humble & not tryin’ to stunt on mu’fuckas, but it might help bridge the gap.

    Oh, yeah… Black Thought is sicker than Kweli, cause his flow is more on point… sometimes Kweli tries to fit too many words into one line. He still spit anthrax tho’.

  • jasmine

    Im going to always support Talib Kweli because honestly he’s the truth. Mostly everything he says is real and with a highly biased..superficial rap game, You learn to appreciate it.

  • steve

    kweli, quit feeling yourself, you are dope, but not the greatest.

  • http://www.myspace.com/soulkhan Soul Khan

    Kweli didn’t rap on beat until 2003.

  • ruben

    Talib a true lyrical genius/living legend..listen to his words of wisdom

  • mike

    Yes He is a great rapper !!!
    i spent the second solo LP !!!

    peace

    ————————————–New Album : “Danger Zone” by Lord Kossity !!!!!! out now !!!
    feat elephant man, vibz kartel, and other !!!

  • SANLEANDRO510

    Reflection Eternal is a classic you can listen to front to back. There’s not many full albums you can say that about these days.

  • http://www.myspace.com/officialhitnrun Matthew

    Hot beats for any cats out there rappin or singin..

    http://www.myspace.com/officialhitnrun
    Got plenty of hot beats just holla if you want some;)

    Hit ‘N’ Run Productions!

  • http://www.thesbdexperience.com livefromthe225

    a few things…

    kweli impressed me w/ “country cousins” the joint w/ ugk…i mean they really made that work

    jean grae is a great performer and quite pleasant to look at as well

    black thought does have a sharper delivery, but is monotone w/ the flow which makes him boring as talib at times

    common is king of the “conscious” emcees

    can Kweli really outspit the following rappers:
    a) wayne
    b) game
    c) luda
    d) chamillionaire
    e) andre 300
    f) T.I
    g)saigon
    h)beanie siegel
    i)lupe
    j)kanye
    k)common

    if you cannot definitively say yes without blinkin an eye, then u shouldn’t say he’s top 5 of all time, b/c neither are none of the above

  • NYG

    RESPECT THE EAGLE Says:

    January 21st, 2007 at 11:50 pm
    trying ryhming circles around cam’ron or juelz santana i bet any 1 of them would tear you a new ass hole you pussy you aint from the streets you just a back pack rapper.

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    hahaha nigga is that a joke you fuckin idiot. Juelz is wack and Cam spits nursery rhymes and I’m a fan of dipset but you gotta off of their dicks no joke. Talib is hot not top 5 but he’s definately up there

  • NYG

    RESPECT THE EAGLE Says:

    January 21st, 2007 at 11:50 pm
    trying ryhming circles around cam’ron or juelz santana i bet any 1 of them would tear you a new ass hole you pussy you aint from the streets you just a back pack rapper.

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    hahaha nigga is that a joke you fuckin idiot. Juelz is wack and Cam spits nursery rhymes and I’m a fan of dipset but you gotta off of their dicks no joke. Talib is hot not top 5 but he’s definately up there

  • http://BS hiphop

    Talibs the man but he’s not better than Black Thought and Andre 3000.
    Talib has to make consistent music first.

  • st.

    justin timberlake? norah jones? what don’t you just through john mayer and sting on there with some phil collins and make it a lite fm classic. that’s some straight garbage right there.

    i understand dude wants to sell but when you are blessed with great talent you live it out and it gets accepted and bought while you are alive or it gains greatness after you pass. that is the price of being above heads. it’s not right, but it’s the way.

  • CMoney

    Talib Kweli is that nigga! It’s too bad that even though he has a strong following, people STILL sleep on him :-/

  • J S-O-T

    Talib is the shit. he’s maybe top of the league………thats the league below the top league wiv artists suck as Jay,Nas,Em,Pac etc etc, top 5?, thats jus crazy talk lol

  • DRew

    yea.. Kweli is one of the last “REAL” Mcs out there.. as long as he puts out, ill buy, its jus a shame no one Listens.