Talib Kweli: Listen Up Part 1

Ever since Talib Kweli quietly stepped on to the scene in the late 1990s, his bars penetrated the ears of its listeners with stinging truth. His early classic, “The Manifesto” plowed the minds of the youth with lines like, “We pickin’ 100% designer name brand cotton, they still plottin’” and “Back in the day they […]

Ever since Talib Kweli quietly stepped on to the scene in the late 1990s, his bars penetrated the ears of its listeners with stinging truth. His early classic, “The Manifesto” plowed the minds of the youth with lines like, “We pickin’ 100% designer name brand cotton, they still plottin’” and “Back in the day they stole our smile, so we clothe our teeth in gold and we frontin’.” Lyrics of fury like these made their way to the radio with crossover hits like 2002’s “The Blast” and 2003’s “Get By,” respectively.

While Kweli and the Rawkus movement proved themselves as a formidable alternative to Master P’s tanks and Puffy’s shiny suits, some would say that the indie model can’t compete with the profit-starved industry in 2006. Kweli has responded by bringing his Blacksmith imprint to Warner Brothers, where his Ear Drum album will set the tone for Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady albums to follow. Already facing resistance from mainstream radio programmers with his single “Listen”, Talib Kweli discusses the evolution of his message, the changing times, and his revised manifesto to combat an ever-changing industry.

AllHipHop.com: You were a key figure of the Rawkus Hip-Hop movement in the ‘90s; what do you think was so special about that time…going back? I remember back in the days, if you saw another cat with a Rawkus shirt, you just give him dap for being a head—being a part of the movement.

Talib Kweli: Rawkus was able to tap into a movement that was already existent, between artists – people like, Danny Castro and Anthony Marshall from Lyricist Lounge. You know, there was already a movement put in place of underground artists doing their thing independently, but Rawkus was able to put some money behind it and put some steam behind it and so they get a lot of props for it.

AllHipHop.com: You were vocal about how as things transpired further down the line, your disappointment in business affairs over at Rawkus. How is your relationship with them now?

Talib Kweli: I mean, yeah, even when I was being vocal about my disappointment with them, it didn’t really strain my relationship with them; I’m still very cool with Jared and Brian. Rawkus is the beginning of my career, you know, they gave me a shot. And yeah I didn’t like, when it was happening, a lot of the decisions they were making. But you know, they were learning—it was a learning process for them as well.

AllHipHop.com: Why do you think, with all of the momentum developing during that time, everyone went in separate directions? The fans were loyal and the momentum was there, don’t you think that should have translated into record sales and following up to all the projects that were started from that?

Talib Kweli: Well, there’s a certain ceiling, in terms of how much Rawkus was able to put into it each project. They couldn’t spend what the major labels were spending, but they could spend a lot more then the underground independent labels, so they were somewhere in the middle that was a gray area. I think Rawkus signed artists that they loved because they were fans of theirs: Pharoahe Monch, [Kool] G Rap, Smif-N-Wessun, but they didn’t necessarily have the setup to give these artists the freedom they needed to give them. They signed theses artists because they had a great respect for their body of work, but then tried to fit these artists into a mold of what was going on, on the radio at that time, but you couldn’t really do that.

AllHipHop.com: So, is that what stalled out doing a follow up to Reflection Eternal to BlackStar, or did things just change?

Talib Kweli: No, I mean as far as Reflection Eternal and BlackStar, you know, when BlackStar came out, Mos Def became a more prolific artist and started having more work. When Reflection Eternal came out, Hi-Tek started being looked as the DJ, the producer behind BlackStar, behind Reflection Eternal behind Kweli and Mos Def, and he really wanted to be seen as Hi-Tek and be seen as his own man, and so he made the necessary moves to make sure people saw him for what it was instead of him just being the background DJ.

AllHipHop.com: So when you first came onto the scene, even before “Get By” you did the song “Manifesto”, which really made you a staple as an MC, especially during that time. What was the concept behind that song? And why do you think that song was so important?

Talib Kweli: “Manifesto” was just… you know, I’m a big fan of [Notorious B.I.G.’s] “Ten Crack Commandments” and I wanted to do a song like that, but I don’t know nothin’ about sellin’ crack, so I had to do a song about what I knew about, and those ten points are points about being an MC—and that’s what I know about.

AllHipHop.com: What do you think your role and your responsibility as an MC has changed from “Manifesto” to “Listen”?

Talib Kweli: I think of “Manifesto” as making bold pronounced statements, which was easy for me to do because people didn’t know who I was, but now people expect me to make those statements, so now it’s a little bit more tricky and probably a little bit more subtle. That’s why on the record, “More or Less” which is what we’re going to do a video for, I make bold statements on that record that are similar to “Manifesto” –statements that I haven’t really made in a long time—since “Manifesto.” Like, this is how I see the music, this is what I think we should do; this is what we need more of, or this is what I think we need less of. I started to stray away from that because it really painted me into a corner—a corner that’s very uncomfortable for an artist. So while for every person who celebrates you because of a song, like “Manifesto” like “Yo, that’s my joint,” and I got a lot of fans out there, who’s like, you said, that’s the song that made them feel like, okay he’s a reputable artist, like he can do this. You know, it’s cool, it makes you feel good, but at the same time it makes you want to challenge yourself even more like, “Okay, I got that, I can do that, but what else can I do?” I want to have fun at it as well.

AllHipHop.com: I know you made a bold statement on “Going Hard” talking about: lyrical cowardice now in Hip-Hop. Where do you think that stands now today?

Talib Kweli: One of the saddest things that you hear is people saying stuff like, “Oh, I just make music for the people—I’m just givin the people what they want. If people want ignorant music, I’ma give ‘em the ignorant music.” Or when you hear people say, “Oh, I would talk about something, but all of our leaders that talk about something die.” That’s a real cowardly statement. And you know, we, as a community, raised cowards…raised young men and women who have no connection with history—have no idea what the struggle before them was, and so they think it’s all good. They think they see someone on TV with a Bentley and some diamonds on and they think that people are free and we’re not strugglin’ no more. It’s all good, like, we don’t do it in vain, we do all this to celebrate: the parties to celebrate, to get things, to have things, we deserve that just like any other American citizen, but we can’t get things and have things if we ignore what else is going on in the community.

AllHipHop.com: A few weeks ago, your song “Listen” was up for HOT 97’s music meeting and your song got turned down. How do you think radio, and music videos and the rotation of it has changed since your last big hit with “Move Somethin’ which was really getting spins.

Talib Kweli: “Move Somethin” didn’t even get that many spins. As far as spins with me, I’ve had the “The Blast” and “Get By” those have been my two most visual records—the records that people associate me with. Other than that, I don’t have any other radio records. That’s a small, minuscule part of my body of work though—“Blast” and “Get By.” I just came from doing Angie, you know, Angie and Enuff and there are individuals within the radio system who always hold me down and are always gonna have my back. But I would be a fool to think that my career is gonna be made or broken from radio play. This is my seventh album, they’ve never played my music on the radio like that. So it’s like at this point, I gotta do what I gotta do for myself. If the radio plays it…groovy, if not, whatever. I think at Music Meeting it was Clipse and it was Cassie or something. These are records…I go out a lot…these are records that have been spinning in the nightclubs for months. My record “Listen”—I heard it in nightclubs, but it’s not necessarily your obvious nightclub record.

AllHipHop.com: So do you feel like it was unfair to put your record against those other records?

Talib Kweli: Oh, it’s definitely unfair, but radio has never been fair. I’m not delusional about what it is. It’s not like there are any DJs or any commercial Hip-Hop radio who do a set where they might play some Roots or Common or Mos Def. They don’t do that. They did maybe five years ago; but they don’t do it anymore. I’m not delusional about what it is—radio is a dinosaur. I have a show on XM Radio Blacksmith Radio where I play what I want to play. You know, if they play it—they play it—whatever. If not, I got so many other outlets I can tap into.