Interview w/ Talib Kweli
Sessions at AOL.. 3/19/03
by Davey D transcribed by Donna Walker

Davey D All right? Well, right now, weíre here at Sessions at AOL and we have special guest Talib Kweli. How ya doiní?

Talib What out, Dave? How ya feeliní?

Davey D Good to see you.

Talib All right.

Davey D Uh, let me just get right to the point. I mean, on your new album, ďQualityĒ uh, you seem to ex - , you seem to have expanded in terms of how you approach making music. Uh, first you hear a lot of live instrumentation. Uh, second you have a variety of cuts, including a soulful track with Bilal, a ballad and, uh, even one that we might, uh, see as spoken word. Uh, what was the story behind this, uh, approach?

Talib Uh, behind that particular song or just the whole album?

Davey D In general, the whole album.

Talib I wanted to make an album that was quality, of course, and an album that reflected my musical taste. People know me from Black Star, from Reflection Eternal and those were great groups that Iím still a part of and, uh, we have a great vision with those groups, but I wanted to really articulate my vision and things that Iím interested in, you know. The song we did over with Bilal is one of my favorite songs, uh, you know, and I just did things that I - you know, I just kind of tried things that I wanted to do.

Davey D You know, uh, one of the things that you mentioned is that youíve been making albums as a group, you know, with Hi Tech and Mos Def and, uh, youíve also done your own solo albums. Which do you prefer? Working with a band or working, with people who just produce tracks and do you prefer doing solo or collaborating?

Talib Uh, you know, the foundation of hip hop is the MC and the DJ, so, of course, thatís where we start at, but thatís just the foundation. The foundation is just a base of a building. You can build a whole building with other things, um,other voices, other instruments, other concepts and, I mean, Iím a lot more comfortable with groups of people. you know what Iím saying. Like, um, I think music is made better with groups of people, but sometimes, you know, you canít quite get your vision out there, so thatís what the solo thing is for. Itís like a fix, you know, but I, I enjoy making music with more, with more people.

Davey D Okay.

Talib I mean, even my solo project, thatís why we, uh, put pictures of everybody, or almost everybody who was involved in there because it has my name on it, but I really feel like itís a collective effort.

Davey D Okay, we have Weegun01 and heís an AOL user and he wants to know, ďIs it true that you cannot find Hi Tech and, if not, what has happened?Ē

Talib Oh, no, thatís not true at all. Um, itís true that Hi Tech chose not to do beats on the ďQualityĒ album, and itís true that, um, during the time I was recording the album, it was hard for me to be in touch with him for whatever it was he was going through, but um, you know, itís not true that heís missing.

Davey D Okay.

Talib You know, I know where heís at.

Davey D All right. Uh, you know, today you did, uh, three songs and I want to make sure that people understand the inspiration behind them, so letís, uh, go through them. Tell us about ďGet By.Ē What was that song about?

Talib Uh, ďGet By,Ē I mean, just, you know, talkiní about our situation as black people, as poor people, as oppressed people, uh, and what people do to get by, uh, weíve, weíve, weíve learned how to just get by and survive and weíre not actually living and I think people could 13:15:30 benefit from actually waking up and live, like Bob Marley said, and, um, you know, I just think thatís a problem in our community - self-esteem, self-worth, uh, lack of those things and I think to just get by is, is the result of that and to live is when you are really, truly free.

Davey D You did this song, ďThe Blast.Ē Talk about that.

Talib ďThe BlastĒ was the last song that me and Hi Tech recorded for ďReflection EternalĒ album. We needed to do a song that talked about who we were as a group, how to say my name, exactly who we are and that was really the purpose of that song, to just put ourselves out there.

Davey D Okay, and the third song?

Talib ďGood to You,Ē uh, which was also produced by Conyer West who produced ďGet By,Ē um, man, thatís just me, you know, thatís just me spin, right there, you know, and I really enjoy performing that song and, uh, itís a fun song.

Davey D You know, on the album, you have a song called ďPut It In The Air,Ē where you teamed up with DJ Quik. What made you come out to the West Coast and hook up with someone whose music, on the surface, seems to be so opposite of yours?

Talib Well, you know, you hit it right on the head when you said Ďon the surface.í Anybody whoís a true fan of this music and this culture knows exactly how important and how innovative Quik is to what we do. I mean, heís one of the premier producers of, of our generation and his accomplishments have shadowed most producers. Um, uh, not shadowed but, you know, overshadowed most, most, most producers accomplishments. Uh, you know, Quick was playing the Blast when we stopped in to thank him and, um, you know, he told me how much he music and I told him how much I liked his. He was, like, ďLetís get together and do some joints.Ē We did, like, three joints. One of Ďem is, is the intro, is on the intro to his album. You know, ďPut It In The Air,Ē we put out, and itís just a real good working relationship. I got the utmost respect for him as a musician.

Davey D Okay. You know, also on the ďQualityĒ album, you did a song called, ďGorilla MonsoonĒ which happens to be my favorite. It features Pharaoh Monche and Black Thought, who are, arguably, two of hip hopís most skilled lyricists. What made you want to team up with them and were you at all concerned that they might actually outshine you on the record?

Talib Well, one thing is.. thatís another song that Conyer produced and, um, his sound is being associated, even though itís real hip hop, is samples and soulful music because of his work with Jay Z and his sound is being associated with this sort of commercial sound and, um, or with this club sound. When you think about MCís, like, as much respect as Pharoah and Black Thought and myself get, people donít associated us with those type of tracks. Even though Iíll argue to anything Black Thought or anything Pharaoh put out is harder than most of the stuff you hear on the radio, you know, with respect to brothers like Jay Z and other brothers whose music I do listen to and do enjoy, I wanted to take a Conyer track with that sound and put Pharaoh and Black Thought on it to just let us shine as lyricists to show that we get these titles and these prefixes in front of our names, like Underground or Conscious, but given the same bed of music, we could shine equally or better.

Davey D Now, because Black Thought and Pharaoh are dope lyricists, did you have to step it up, or were you concerned that, if you didnít come in with all the Pís and Qís, that -

Talib I mean, yeah, definitely. I mean, Iím a baby in this compared to those brothers and these are brothers whose music I grew up listening to, so itís definitely a challenge to myself, um, you know, itís always a challenge when youíre dealing with that caliber of lyricist, you know.

Davey D This is, uh, from AOL user RymusReturns. He asks, ďDo you personally, do you personally feel the need to step into the rap game and change peopleís narrow thoughts of it? Uh, to put it simply, rap is starting to reflect on hip hop and hip hop has nothing to really do with rap and some people get the two mixed up. Do you feel that being a pioneer/soldier of hip hop, that you should draw the line between the two, so people can see whatís negative and whatís positive?Ē

Talib Um, no. With respect to the, to, to, you know, the brotherís um, compliment, um, I donít draw that line at all. I know there are a lot of purists who get involved in that discussion ĎWhat is rap and what is hip hop?í Hip hop is real and itís a foul element in the culture of rap. Itís just a corporate, uh, you know, just dealing with the MC and just selling it, but, um, I understand that discussion, but I donít think thatís the relevant discussion for me to be having... It's like, Iím real hip hop and Nelly isnít. You know what Iím saying? Like, thatís not progressive. Thatís not providing a solution to, to our culture. Iím more a fan of getting together with brothers like Nelly or whoever, uh, is considered rap and whateverís considered hip hop and putting it together and seeing what comes out of it together because every single dude whether he has, heís on a commercial beat, on the radio or whatever, he started out loving hip hop culture the same way a hip hop purist or somebody whoís considered underground did. Itís just, whatever happened in his life and their life lead them to make the musical choices and the career choices they make... You donít know the next manís experience to know why an artist takes a certain position. So, Iím more a fan of reaching out to these artists and if they say something I like or appreciate or I can relate to..

Thereís a lot of songs Nelly made that, that I love, even though people will be dissing him all the time, like as far as underground hip hop. Um, you know, Iíll reach out to the, to them people and letís do songs and letís get it together because thatís the way youíre gonna change the culture, not by separating and saying Iím over here and youíre over here.

Davey D Do you see one as negative and one as positive?

Talib Not at all because thereís a lot of negative stuff in underground so-called conscious rap. You have people who are not good enough to appeal to people, so they latch onto activism and show up at activism events and rap because thatís the only play they can go. You got underground cats whose sound quality is just not that good, you know, and thatís the reasonís no oneís heard of Ďem, not because theyíre underground or because theyíre independent. You have commercial cats, same thing, who are only on because they might have a certain look or because they work with a certain producer or they know somebody. I mean, itís, itís negative and positive doesnít, automatically equate with underground or commercial.

Davey D Okay. And also, the lyrical content can be positive and negative, as well.

Talib Of course. I mean when they bring up gangster rap, or thug raps, or commercial raps, I buy all them albums, so I can point to examples of anybody from Jadakiss to Nas to Jay Z to Nelly to whoeverís big right now, I can point to examples on the album of them doing revolutionary stuff and conscious stuff, but itís just not played or played up. When you make a decision to put out a single, you have to put out a single that fits into the mix format of whatís going on or else save your money. Donít spend money on a video or trying to market a single to radio just do tours, but if youíre gonna put out a single and play that game, you got to play it the best way possible and thatís what them brothers do.

What we need to do, as people who see the other side, is big them up on the other things theyíre doing, because I know, when they go out on the streets, they hear, like Fat Joe - I heard there was a issue with Fat Joe where he said on the radio, he, he wouldnít necessarily do songs with me and Mos Def, Ďcause heís tired of reading magazines that say, weíre real hip hop and whatever heís doing is not. And this is a Puerto Rican dude who grew up in the Bronx. How can anybody say heís not real hip hop? ĎCause he got it strong with Ashanti because he might use - you know, thatís not a, a, you donít, some, somebody from, who donít live his experience donít have the credentials to judge what that man is, you know what Iím saying? And, when I went on the radio, I reached out and said how much I love his music and then the day, the same day, he got back on the radio and told everybody about my album, but I know itís because he might have automatically assumed, from what he read about me in a magazine, that I wasnít a fan of his, and when he heard me bigginí him up, he decided to big me up and thatís what we need to do more of.

Davey D Okay. This is from, uh, Cupid, uh, 1279 and EbonyPrincess04, uh, ďI feel there has been an emergence of hip hop which is predominantly R&B-based. While I believe most of this is a marketing tool by record companies to tone down hip hop and deliver it to a wider range of audience, i.e., white people, I feel that itís taking hip hop away from the original raw form that it was originally based on. Do you believe that this will be the demise of hip hop, as a whole, and what do you feel is the future of hip hop?Ē

Talib The corporations donít have the power to kill the hip hop. The people are the power to kill hip hop. What Iím noticing as I go from city to city, people at, when on tour with Common and Gang Star, audiences are frustrated. Theyíre very frustrated with the hip hop music theyíre hearing. They come to the shows. They got T-shirts that say, ďHip Hop Is Dead,Ē and, you know, they really just, they, they talk to me and they ask me questions like, ďWhat do you think about how stagnant the state of hip hop is?Ē I donít feel like that. I donít feel like it is stagnant at all. Now, the problem is, is people are allowing the corporations to decide what hip hop is and not taking it control.

Since when has any record company or any media outlet decided whatís real hip hop and whatís not? If you were judging it, based on what you hear on the radio, you already lost and thatís what it is. Since when has the radio been the vanguard or the standard for what hip hop is? It never was. So why are you giviní Ďem so much props? That question, with respect to the sister, is giving the radio and the corporations, and the media way too much props. Youíre allowing - youíre taking the control - you have the control. Go buy, you go buy a Dead Prez, turn-off- the radio CD everytime you see it, if you can afford it. You know what Iím saying? Make sure you buy the tickets for this show.

Make sure you give it out to your friends as Christmas presents, you know what Iím saying? Make sure that you talk about that in your school. If everybody do that, you take the control for the music back. Do not allow the radio to say this is your station for hip hop and R&B and theyíre not playing nothing you can relate to, you know? The control is with the people, Iím not like, Iím not a fan of boycotting the radio stations either. I think, I donít know if thatís the right thing to do. Someone wants me to do that, Iíll sign a paper. Iím down with it, whatever, but I think, we should start our own radio stations, or make our own albums or, or, or make our own concerts or create a culture the same way you started, you know?

Davey D Okay. FrostyMac17 and, uh, WooBrotherNumberOne ask, ďWhatís your inspiration?Ē your music really inspires them, - Well, actually, what they want to know is whatís your inspiration and, uh, what artists do you, what artists do you like right now? What songs are you listening to and who inspired you?

Talib My parents inspired me, uh, more than anybody. Whenever I get the question of what artists have inspired me, I donít answer it because itís so many that to sit here and talk about the artists that inspire me would take up the whole conversation. As far as right now, um, Dead Prez, Scarface, I really like what 50 Centís doing right now. Um, my home girl Santi Wright (?) got a band called Stiffed and that, thatís my favorite little record right now, ďSex Sells

Davey D Okay. Uh, -

Talib What has a great album? Jean Grae has a great album sheís put out.

Davey D Okay. Yeah, Jeanís pretty cool. Uh, how do you feel about being labeled as an underground rapper or socially conscious rapper? Do you feel it limits you as an artist?

Talib Yeah, it does. Just like if you label Jay Z as a gangster rapper, that limits him. Artists have a hard time with being put in boxes. Um, the media and the corporations work hand in hand to put artists in boxes because it makes it all, easier all around to sell it. If you say, well, itís this type of thing so you can sell it to this audience and book it at this venue and play it on this station, but if they have to start being creative and think about how they have to market you, it becomes a problem for them, and um. You know, so, yeah, I accept it for what it is. Um, underground, by definition, means that people donít really know about you. I got a lot more press in URB Magazine, uh, before I sold over a couple hundred thousand records than I do now because they focus more underground artists that people arenít familiar with. So, am I underground in that sense? No. I do respect the values, the (quote-unquote) ďvaluesĒ of the underground because the values of the kids who are considered underground light the fire under hip hop. Iím a fan of demolishing those terms because I think those terms divide our music, um, and thatís why, you know, I fight against those, those prefixes and those titles on my name. That is what I am, but thatís not all that I am and if you just put that in front of my name, you limit the amount of people who might want to check for it.

Davey D Expounding upon that question, we also have labels being put on rap based upon ethnic group - Latin rap, and White Rock rap - how do you feel about those?

Talib I mean, you know, hip hop is hip hop is hip hop and hip hop, you got to be down by law and Iím saying, like, you know, somebody like Eminem, I wouldnít consider that White rap because Iíve seen him in the trenches and Iíve seen him in the struggle, as far as the, the MC struggle, you know what Iím saying? As far as battling in hip hop, Iíve seen him doing it with my own two, two eyes, you know. I mean, is Fat Joe and Big Pun, is what they doiní Latin rap? Or is what Gerrardo was doiní, what that Latin rap? You know, I donít, I donít know, you know. Latins and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were at, at hip hop from the, from the start, so I donít see the point of separating it.

Davey D Several years ago, you and Mos Def put together an EP that addressed the issue of police brutality. You gathered some of hip hopís dopest artists and put something out. Are there any plans to do a similar EP to address, say, the war or any other political issues?

Talib Well, I know thereís been a coalition of artists in the Bay who were putting together, like, an anti-war project and, um, in New York, you know, thereís a bunch of artists. Uh, you know, I, I was reading, you know, a bunch of artists, a bunch of big-name artists were, you know, with Russell Simmons are doing a project. Iím not personally involved in anything. I think people are clear on how I feel about the government and the war right now. Uh, the Hip Hop for Respect Project, Iím very proud of it because of the responses and reactions I got from real people on the street. From an industry standpoint, we got no support for that project and it was kind of, it was, if it wasnít such a positive cause, it would have been disheartening because it was just, it was just, the fight we had to get people to pay attention. You know, with, with the amount of work we did, we get forty artists, over forty artists to come on, on that track and organize Noise to produce it and, you know, to fight to get the video. I mean, you know, it was, you know - I commend all those people and, of course, it was done to celebrate the life of Amadu Diallo and, uh, to condemn police brutality. So, those are the real issues. If we raise any awareness on those issues, Iím, Iím happy.

Davey D Okay. We have, uh, KrisNip and Sera9. ďWhen are you coming out with another Black Star album with Mos Def

Talib Um, you know, that question is simple and difficult at the same time. Thereís no beef. Itís just, we just havenít done it yet, and, you know, when itís time, weíll do it and I know that itís hard for fans to hear that, um, because they, they are fans and they want to hear the music now, but, um, you know, itís not something that weíre rushing. Itís not something that weíre in the studio recording now, but itís definitely something thatís gonna happen and I just canít say when.

Davey D Nate345 asks, ďI heard that, at one point, that you wanted to be an actor. Do you have any plans to get into acting?Ē

Talib Uh, not really. I mean, what Iím doing now requires a lot of focus and energy and attention and if this slows down, maybe Iíll try some other things, you know.

Davey D You know, tell us about your first break or what moment you thought you got your first break in this business.

Talib The moment I got my first break - my first break is, uh, I donít know, um, when I, when I signed up with Rawkus Records, I guess to put out ďLive 45

Davey D Okay. Let me see here. We have MaxXXX221. ďHey, whatís goiní on, Talib? I know that you and Mos Def try to teach the hip hop community to elevate our minds and others. What do you think about publications that discuss hip hop and expose what it has become? Iím mentioning The Source and XXL rivalry, and do you think that because someone of another, do you think that someone of another race can be blamed for the so-called ďdownfall of hip hop.Ē

Talib Um, I would say wholeheartedly no, not at all. No one individual can be blamed for anything as big as hip hop. The people have control. If hip hop is gonna fall, itís because the people allow it to. Um, heís referring to Eminem. Um, I think Eminem is an excellent addition to hip hop culture and I think any magazine beef, whether itís editorials between magazines or pictures with illustrations and cartoons, I think all that stuff is silly. I donít have anything to do with it. I think itís a waste of time and I think it diminishes the value of our culture for the magazines to be behaving in that way instead of having some sort of journalistic integrity. It doesnít seem like thereís any with, with some of these stories and some of these things that these magazines do.

Davey D ColumbianFalco1, ďI truly respect your work, straight up, but I just wanted to know what do you suggest a young talent to do to get better? Itís like, what did you do to get your position in the hip hop game?Ē

Talib Well, you know, I was force, because of circumstances, to get better. I was always good at writing lyrics, always good at putting thoughts together, but then I had to learn to write hooks, and I had to learn how to put Ďem into songs. Then, when my songs were good enough for people to respond to Ďem, I had to learn how to bring that to the stage. Then, when I, when I finally got that, bringing that to the stage to the point people were paying attention to me, then I linked up with Mos Def and he made me step my game up. You know what Iím saying? Then I went on to the Spitkicker Tour and had to tour with De La and Common, who were seasoned vets and Pharoah Monche and they made me step my game up. Then, I went on the ďOkay PlayerĒ Tour and had the Roots backing me with Dead Prez, Slum Village and Bahamadia, some nights the Juice Crew with Big Daddy Kane and, um, you know, just everything, every situation I place myself in or been put in has forced me to step my game up. Even, you know, having to record a solo album, and itís just a constant progression. Uh, you know, you donít stop growing or learning until you die.

Davey D We have Mariners, uh, Fan5129, ďTalib Kweli, was it really cool to star in ďMadden NFL 2002

Talib I donít know anything, really, about video games. What I understand is that my character is a receiver on the Echo Team and is pretty good, but thatís all I really know.

Davey D I hear that. Uh, how has the Internet affected your music and your lifestyle?

Talib The Internet has definitely allowed my fans to come closer to me. It has been nothing but a positive influence in, in my music. Um, you know, I have - my core fans are the type of fans who use the Intenet and who are up on technology and that stuff. I really am not. Thatís why I make the distinction to say itís my fans who are and it, itís served me well. You know, Iím not at a position where people are bootlegging my records to take advantage of me. Because thatís definitely real and that definitely happens to a lot of artists, but Iím at a position, if people are downloading my, my music, theyíre really, truly fans and they want to hear it. And, you know, of course, some of them are going to download it and not buy the album, but the, I, I, I hope and I like to think, and it seems to me that the vast majority are people who would download my stuff, would go out and buy the album, as well, because they want, they want the full experience.

Davey D Plus, theyíll come to your shows anyway.

Talib Theyíll come to the shows. Theyíll find out where Iím at, all that stuff. Itís just been something thatís positive.

Davey D Well, I appreciate that. Anything else that you would like to add for folks that are listening?

Talib Uh, eat your vegetables. Say Ďnoí to drugs.

Davey D I hear that. All right, thanks. So, now we, uh, I guess weíre done with the interview here, so we got a bunch of drops for you.

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