Talib Kweli: Say Something

Growth and maturity go hand-in-hand. Although Talib Kweli has had plenty to say on records since his career began over a decade ago, he’s traditionally been tight-lipped in interview settings. Like other Hip-Hop greats such as Scarface and Dr. Dre, perhaps this only added to the Brooklyn MC’s mystique. On a laid-back summer afternoon, the silence breaks and the Blacksmith entrepreneur opens up. Then on the fringes of releasing his (now available) Ear Drum album, Talib touches on his mixtape motives, past label relationships, spirituality and snitching. What the experienced rapper says may come as surprises. Like KRS-One, it appears that Kweli has evolved from a sharp-tongued product of revolution to a man offering insights to others aspiring to achieve. What’s more: the MC hasn’t weakened his message or his craft. As the summer closes with a perfectly-timed labor of love from one of Hip-Hop’s most accessible voices, AllHipHop.com hands the man a microphone to get his ideas between the lines out for those in the know. AllHipHop.com: At the height of the RIAA crackdown, you and Madlib released Liberation, which was a free download through Stones Throw Records’ website. It was all original beats and rhymes, and rightfully, it garnered a great response. Why was it pulled from being free and then sold by online vendors? Talib Kweli: Timing is everything. I didn’t plan for [Liberation] to come out around the whole RIAA thing, it just sort of worked out that way. When DJ Drama and them got caught up, the story of Liberation got picked up because here is an artist who did it this way. So that was great timing for me. The idea behind Liberation was really about freedom. When I started in this business, it was about finding beats and working with producers. You weren’t worried about sample clearances or sellin’ it, the radio or video – it was just about hot s**t. I wanted the freedom to do that. With Madlib having the “lib” in his name and me having the “lib” in mine, that made me call it Liberation ‘cause it had me on the page where I just want to rap to hot beats. That’s how I used to do. In this business, I just want to make songs that touch people. What happened was, after the album started developing, I said, “You know what would be really fly? Since the album is called Liberation, let’s give it out for free.” I always was gonna give the hardcopies out for free, at shows and whatnot. But one day I was sitting in my crib thinking, “With the Internet, I can just put it out.” It was around Christmas time, so I decided I’d put it out at New Years. I made the decision literally three hours before I put it out; it wasn’t even a planned thing. F**k it, here’s my gift to you – the hardworking people who support me. AllHipHop.com: Nine months later, do you think it served its purpose as not just liberating and free music, but as a quality set-up for Ear Drum?Talib Kweli: Yeah, hands down. I have a lot to learn and I’m trying to fill my role as an executive [for Blacksmith Music]. Last year, Warner [Brothers Records] wasn’t in position to build my buzz; I built my buzz with dropping “More or Less” and dropping Liberation. We had Blacksmith: The Movement as a mixtape as well. Jarret [Meyer] from Rawkus [Records] called me the week that Liberation dropped and said, “Yo, that’s dope. That’s what you should have done, good move!” That’s good. If the president of the label that I started my [career with] is telling me that I’m making the right moves, then that means I’m going in the right direction.AllHipHop.com: You’ve got “Holy Moly”, “Hostile Gospel” and “Give ‘Em Hell” on Ear Drum. What role was religion playing in your life these last three years?Talib Kweli: I’m not really religious; I’m definitely into spirituality, and I try to address that on the song “Give ‘Em Hell.” The stuff that I talk about in that song is the stuff that’s really on peoples’ minds. Everyone questions their relationship with their…with God. That’s something that’s universal. These are things that are thought about everyday but not addressed in mainstream Hip-Hop. In the whole spectrum of Hip-Hop, there’s people who have addressed it, of course. There’s plenty of independent and underground artists who address these subject matters, but when you hear Hip-Hop on the radio, or Hip-Hop talked about in the mainstream, these issues don’t come up. Music is in a very celebratory state right now – it’s about going to the club, being voyeuristic, and not worrying about your problems. For people who are downtrodden, that’s needed. But the conversation is needed as well. I have a unique opportunity to be an artist who can walk into a grimy, underground-ass Hip-Hop club, get on stage and do my thing – or I can get on stage at The Meadowlands with Kanye [West] and Jay-Z. I can juxtapose those two worlds. It’s my responsibility to make music that speaks to the subject matter that you’re not hearing in a mainstream conversation. AllHipHop.com: Whether it was the Five Percenters or Christians, do you find that there is an appreciation for spiritual diversity within Hip-Hop? Talib Kweli: Yeah, Hip-Hop is a unifier – not just in terms of spirituality, but in terms of color, class…Hip-Hop is as big as it is globally because it can cross all those lines. I’m not a Christian, but “Jesus Walks” [by Kanye West] is one of my favorite records; it stresses Christian themes that I relate to. I’m not Five Percent; I’ve been both [a Christian and Five Percenter] before in my life, but I love “Wake Up” by Grand Puba [recorded with Brand Nubian]. That record speaks directly to me. I think I was Five Percent when that record came out [in 1990]. It’s not like I’d disagree with it because I’m not Five Percenter.My take on religion is that it divides people - from my life, my studies and my experience. I just see the similarities. To me, that’s one of the biggest problems of the world. I talk a lot about Black love, Black self-esteem, and Black self-worth in my music; that’s my jumping-off point. But man, the problems we’re having in the Middle East and the problems we’re having in America where religion is tied up into politics… people are fighting holy wars and making decisions based on their faith, and it’s got to be addressed. I personally feel like the artists have to address it. AllHipHop.com: You mentioned the song “More or Less” earlier along with Rawkus Records. On the song you rhyme “More Blacksmith and Def Jux.” It’s interesting that a decade ago, you and El-P were label-mates on Soundbombing releases, and both of you are running thriving labels now in respective lines now. Would you have ever predicted that?Talib Kweli: Nah, it’s a great thing. It’s funny, because that song got recorded before we had Blacksmith, the label. I mentioned some other label like ABB or Rhymesayers, because I was thinking about independent labels leading the charge, as far as real music. Then we got my label, so I scratched out the other one. “Def Jux” still rhymes with the line before it, “Geffen and the rest sucks.” El-P had Def Jux poppin’ off before I signed to Rawkus. The same way I’ve got a Blacksmith deal with Warner Brothers, he had a Def Jux deal with Rawkus – when I was first comin’ into the game. There’s a whole style of music that Def Jux is at the forefront of, and I wanted to pay tribute to them kids – ‘cause they ignite the fire under this whole rap s**t. When this s**t comes crumbling down, those kids’ll still be doing this creative s**t. So I wanted to shout out those kids who listen to Def Jux out, as well as shout El-P out for being a shining example; I got Blacksmith based off of watching El-P, based on watching Dilated, based on watching Heiro, and on a major level – Master P, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Jay-Z. AllHipHop.com: Does it anger you when the media spends as much time talking about a personal situation in your life as they do your lyrics or your business acumen? Talib Kweli: Nah, it doesn’t anger me, you’ve got to take it in stride. You’re referring to the specific incident [with my wife] at 50 Cent’s house, and it’s like…I’m a public figure. Right now, my celebrity level is catching up to my respect level. People have always respected me in the music industry, but now you’ve got people who know the name Talib Kweli or know my face and have never heard my music, they just know I’m famous. I’ve never had that before. So I have to make sure I put myself in situations that I’m safe in. I can’t be a public figure or a celebrity and go out with my girl and have an argument that gets physical. Because I gotta realize that the next day that s**t might be in the paper. I have to take responsibility for that, and make sure that I handle my business in a certain way. With that said, yeah, sometimes it is disheartening when people have so little going on in their lives that what’s going on in your life becomes the most interesting thing for them to talk about. I gotta take the good with the bad and say, “S**t, at least people are interested.” It means people are paying maybe too much attention to me, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if I’ve got a record to put out.AllHipHop.com: You’ve always released albums in the fall or winter months. After seeing Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, it really dawned on me that your music is ideal for the summer. Do you think the fact that you’re releasing in August will change the way your art is received? Talib Kweli: I totally do. Releasing the single “Hot Thing” – I’ve released singles that have talked to women before, whether it was “Waitin’ for the DJ” or “Never Been in Love.” “Waitin’ for the DJ” failed miserably because I don’t think [Rawkus] was behind it, and I think Bilal was too abstract for a lot of listeners, even though I personally love what he did on that record. “Hot Thing” is another record that Will.I.Am has produced, and it’s a real feel-good record. I always knew I was gonna release it, but I was never sure if it was gonna be the first look off of my album. But like you said, people heard “More or Less,” we dropped “Say Something” into the marketplace, and now that it’s summertime, it’ll be my first summer release. We’ll see how that effects…God willing, it’ll be a beautiful thing. But if people don’t respond to it, guess what? I’ve still got mad other s**t in the pipeline comin’. AllHipHop.com: One of my favorite lines of yours is from “Going Hard,” where you say, “Those who will trade their freedom for protection deserve neither.” With a line like that, what are your views on snitching?Talib Kweli: With the “Stop Snitching” movement, the conversation that needs to be had is not being had. What’s happening is… you’re listening to an argument, and both people are making different points, and as an outsider, you can sit there and see why they don’t understand each other. When I watched Cam’ron on [60 Minutes, interviewed by] Anderson Cooper, Cam’ron wasn’t answering his questions. Cam’ron was explaining…in a real street level, what it is peoples’ minds. Cam’ron went on that show to represent a street mentality, but that wasn’t made clear; it seemed like he was just a jerk. It seemed like he just didn’t care, and I think Cam’ron’s got too much love for his community to just not care. He was blindsided by the questions. Understanding the relationship that the police have in the ghetto is a healthy thing. People don’t trust the police for a reason – not ‘cause [those people are] criminals or evil, people don’t trust police because the relationships that the police have in the ghetto. Police have not been there to serve and protect us, they’ve been there to serve and protect the property. So if someone has been oppressed, beaten down and treated like a suspicious person by cops all they life, you expect they’re gonna run to cops in times of trouble? No, that’s a realistic thing that needs to be dealt with; you can’t just say “stop snitching!” “Stop snitching!” came from revolutionaries in the hood that was trying to do good, when you had Uncle Tom n***as [acting] like coons, ratting them out to police. That term doesn’t come from drug dealing; that term comes from the Black Panther movement. Once that conversation is had, then people can talk about it honestly. The answer that Cam’ron should have probably gave was not “If I ever found out a child molester was living next to me, I’d move,” no, the members of the community will mobilize and we’ll do something about it before we go to police.