Music — July 23, 2019 18:24 — 0 Comments

Talib Kweli On Freestyling, Reading, Black Star And Lauryn Hill

If you came of age in the 90s or early 2000s, backpack or underground hip-hop was likely a large part of the music in your favorite CD binder (and later your iPod). That being the case, one of your favorite rappers was likely Talib Kweli, the Brooklyn-based emcee who rose to fame with his brother-in-rap, Mos Def (aka Yasiin Bey) and other fellow mic rippers like Common Sense and The Roots. Since those years, Kweli, who plays Nectar Lounge July 27, has solidified himself as an important voice when it comes to socially conscious ideas and practices. To preview his upcoming Emerald City show, I caught up with Kweli to ask him about those early years, if he read a lot as a kid and when he first began to write and perform.

Do you remember the first time you wrote a rhyme?

The first time I wrote a rhyme that would be considered a rap, I was in 7th grade or 8th grade. And I was doing it for someone else. I had a friend who was a rapper and I really was inspired by what he was doing and I said, “Here, here’s a rhyme, try this one out.”

And he liked it?

I don’t think he did, I don’t remember if he did or not. But I did that a couple times and that quickly turned into me writing my first rhymes, which came shortly after that.

When did you first start sharing your work with any type of audience?

With hip-hop, I might be speaking for myself, but I feel like for most people, for most rappers, it’s almost immediate because the art of emceeing – the word emcee means “master of ceremony” – so, without the ceremony or without the performance of it, you’re really not doing it. It starts for somebody like me by banging on lunchroom tables, making beats and rhyming in groups around a lunchroom in a high school and then it goes to, for me, rhyming in Washington Square Park. For others it’s any place or gathering where there would be a bunch of rappers. In the city, we were going all over to boroughs to find rappers to rap with or battle. It wasn’t fierce, but it was competitive. It wasn’t like what you see when you watch freestyle battles now, where it’s very in your face yelling. It wasn’t fierce but it was definitely competitive. It involved using a different muscle, which was closer to improvisational jazz.

I always imagine during one’s first freestyles, you must be so nervous. Were you nervous in those early days?

It’s definitely a muscle memory thing. When I was in high school or late in college, I would place myself amongst the elite freestyles that I heard in my life. But I’m nowhere near that level now, that’s not something I’ve practiced. I don’t keep up to date with my freestyle skills. I don’t practice that. So, I go through bouts where I’m performing on stage and I’ll be freestyling and sometimes it will be good and sometimes it won’t, you know? But that’s a skill that I’ve had and it’s a skill that helped me get to where I’m at. But now I’m focused a lot more on songwriting and the lyrics and the content and being cohesive and other things that, just being a musician, the ability to come up with things on the fly is not something that I needed to continue to practice as often.

You’re a very verbal rapper. Did you read a lot as a young person?

Yeah, I did. My parents are educators so there had always been books in the house. I always did well in school. I was blessed to work at a black-owned bookstore in the beginning of my career, which me and Mos Def actually purchased. And when we couldn’t afford the rent for the bookstore anymore it became a community center type situation. But now I have the bookstore on my web site, Nikiru Books. I have the books in my house and I’m selling books. So, books have been very, very integral to my process both as a man making a living and as a creative.

It’s been just over two decades since the great Black Star album you did with Mos Def came out. When you look back on that time, is there a memory that’s most prominent for you?

In terms of making it, yeah. Most Def – excuse me Yasiin Bey – was working on a movie at the time, I think it’s called Where’s Marlowe, and he was staying at the Beverly Laurel Hotel out in California, in Hollywood. And he flew us out to stay with him. He had this huge hotel suite and we all stayed in there. It was myself, Hi-Tek and J. Rawls and my man Rich, who was a good friend of mine. We were all just in there. And my friend Kendra Ross, who is an artist who was on a lot of my records, her father owned a studio and we’d go over to his house out in North Hollywood. He would rent – there would be a bunch of gangsters in there. And this very organic, brotherly process [began], we were all in there together cooking this record up. So, that’s how it started. The meat of the album, the majority of it, the ideas on the album came from those sessions.

You were part of a group of rappers that came to prominence in the early 2000s, that included Mos Def, Common Sense and The Roots. Do you have a favorite conversation you had with any of these artists about maneuvering through or dealing with fame?

Black Thought [the lead emcee of The Roots] is probably all of our favorite rapper, out of anyone. I’m blessed to be born the same day as him. And there’s a Roots’ song called, “Double Trouble” with Black Thought and Yasiin Bey [aka Most Def]. Originally I was on that song but my verse didn’t make the cut and it ended up just being a back-and-forth between those two. Amir [aka Black Thought] mentions that in the credits on the album, which, just for me as an artist, that was a defining moment in my career. I was in the room and got to attempt to be in the song but I just did not make it. That means the next time it happens, I’m not going to let that happen again. I ended up on two Roots albums after that. And a session when I went to record one of the songs, it was just me and Black Thought in the room and he told me he was the one that decided not to have my verse on [“Double Trouble”]. But then he also told me since that decision was made and since that album came out, he’s grown into a huge fan of mine, which is why he wanted to have me on other songs. Now he’s one of my best friends and we’ve done countless songs together. But he told me that he was never in it for the fame. He was never in it to be in movies – and he’s acting now but at the time Mos was acting and Common was acting. But he was like, “With me, it’s always been about other rappers saying that I’m the best rapper. I’ve only ever done it for other rappers.” When he said that, him being my favorite rapper, I was like, “That’s exactly how I feel.” We talked about the fame aspect and, since then, Black Thought has used to his credit his fame as being the best rapper to propel him to now being on the Tonight Show and he’s doing movies and television and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

You came out with a song called, “Lonely People,” which featured a hook from “Eleanor Rigby.” Do you ever think about that song today?

That’s a song I enjoy performing. I think the song is a timeless, timeless classic. It’s been done so many times. Aretha Franklin has done the best version. Her “Eleanor Rigby“I think is superior to my version.

Do people come up and ask you about your song, “Miss Hill,” and how it hit them at the time?

“Miss Hill” is actually one of my most popular songs. It’s like, “The Blast,” “Get By” and “Miss Hill.” People really love that record and it resonated with people in a lot of ways. When I first did that record, I was on tour and I tried to perform it several times. And every time, I tried to perform it, I messed up the words. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not a superstitious man, but I took that as sign that that’s not a record that I should be performing for a crowd. So I’ve never performed it since then. The record came out in 2005, 2006, something like that? I remember performing it, trying to perform it and just never nailing it, always flubbing the words. To me, it’s always been a more personal letter. And it’s kind of misnamed, it’s not even to Miss Hill, it kind of is. But it’s kind of really to us. It’s kind of really to her fans who claim that we love her. Like, is this how you treat people that you love? Like, what did she do wrong to us, you know? I wrote an essay about it, called “In Defense of Miss Hill.” The whole premise of the essay is: what are we really owed from an artist? And are we asking more than we are owed? Then you get into these relationships about business that people who have never had ownership of anything don’t have an understanding of what it means to own your soul and own your art and what the parameters are. It’s a very easy thing to misunderstand. To think that, like, if you go to a show and the artist doesn’t show up that somehow you take that personal, like something is being taken away from you that you are owed. You were never owed a good time. You paid for the hope that you would have a good time. That’s essentially what you paid for. And the venue owner can make a decision as to whether or not you deserve to get your money back and you have every right to ask the venue owner for that money back. But as an artist, myself or Miss Hill or anybody else, doesn’t have a contact with you. We have a contract with the venue owner and what our relationship with the venue owner is is really none of your business as long as the venue owner respects you. And you have a choice to make: you can hear that truth and decide, “I don’t want to rock with an artist anymore. This person keeps not showing up and I won’t buy their music anymore.” You have every right to feel that way. But no matter how you feel, it’s not going to change their artistic output. It’s not going to make them less of an artist. And that’s the part that’s hard for people to understand. And that’s a privilege. It’s a privilege for me as an artist – I could go outside and do crack and smack somebody’s mama, I could be the worse human being on earth but it doesn’t diminish the art. It doesn’t diminish – I’m still going to be Talib Kweli. You can’t fire me from being me. You can just stop fucking with me, you know? You have every right to not support me. But it doesn’t change who I am. That’s the whole problem. There’s a lot of artists that take advantage of that, you know? But there are a lot of artists that are, you know, troubled or have personal problems – you’ll never know why they don’t show up.

Yeah, it can be lazy or overly easy to complain in these small moments when you don’t think of the bigger picture of what’s going on in an artist’s life.

Even me having this conversation with you is a privilege. I’ve lived my life as an artist. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have to go through that a lot of people who are working class do not get to do. I’m a working class artist but one of the privileges of being a working class artist is I get to set my own schedule, I get to be my own boss. There’s a lot of things that I get to do that a lot of people don’t get to do. That informs my worldview in a way for me to see Lauryn Hill’s perspective a little more. But because of that I’m protective of her, as an artist. I’m protective of any artist who I feel like has given to the culture something I can’t replace or give back.

You’ve been vocal about police brutality and social activism in your career. What form does your activism take today?

I’m currently mapping out my giveback right now. When I did the Prisoner of Consciousness album – I’ve been seen as a socially conscious artist. But I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t own that until around the time I did the Prisoner of Consciousness album. My answer would always be, “No, no, I’m not an activist. I know activists and will introduce you to them. But I’m an entertainer. Activists can use my music as inspiration but I’m not an activist.” But I started involving myself with activism more with the Prisoner of Consciousness. Firstly, because I named the album that. I didn’t want to name the album that and not be doing everything I could be doing for actual prisoners of consciousness. That led me down this path where I discovered the Dream Defenders and Black Lives Matter and organizations like that a couple of years before they were thrust in the spotlight – not a couple years, but really with Trayvon Martin in 2013. Definitely Trayvon Martin spurred a lot of things that happened around the time I was putting out the Prisoner of Consciousness album [released May 7 2013]. So, I was able to connect with activists on a different level with those worlds coming together. My entertainment really connected with my activist side around that time. From 2013 to 2016, approximately, I really did a lot of activist stuff. After that I focused on music, I did the Styles P album [The Seven] and Radio Silence [in 2017] and I dove heavily back into just being creative. But now I’m changing the way that I handle my business and I’m trying to add an activism side to my web site. But in order for me to add an activist side to my web site, I have to have to have things going on. So, there’s a lot of connections with people that I’d been working with in 2016 that I’m actively looking to reconnect with now.

Does Brooklyn still feel like home?

Yeah, I mean I have a place there and I’m there often and my family’s there, so absolutely.

Okay, last question: what does the word “hip-hop” mean to you today?

Hip-hop is the most beautiful thing on the planet. There’s nothing more diverse, there’s nothing that connects more people of different creeds, races and cultures. But at the end of the day, it’s a tool, it’s a vehicle and it can be a blueprint for life.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney