Talib Kweli: Return of the Conscious Rapper

TalibOne too many people around me have been making reference to the lack of "conscious" and/or "quality" hip hop out there today. Who are the people making these statements? Are they active in the hip-hop community? How are they defining "positive?" In fact there are several hip hop artists making music today -- signed and unsigned -- who are carrying on the torches lit by the original conscious hip hop artists like Grandmaster Flash, KRS-1, and Public Enemy. There's Common, Mos Def, Black Thought, and Andre 3000, to name a few. But perhaps the one most worth watching is Talib Kweli.

"While he battled emcees in Washington Square Park, he also worked for five years at the country's oldest black bookstore"
Like most folks outside of New York Citys poetry and underground hip hop scene, I was first introduced to the emcee born Talib Kweli Green when he and DJ Hi-Tek released their now classic underground joint, "Fortified Live" in 1997. Kweli's electrically charged, melodic cadence and his thought-provoking lyrics -- infused with references to literary masterpieces, jazz melodies, and revolutionary elegies -- was the stuff of which real hip-hop is made. I immediately became a fan. And later, when Kweli collaborated with the equally brilliant Mos Def, on the Black Star project in 1998, I knew hip-hop, herself, had been blessed.
The highest caliber, make it a night to remember like Shalamar,
Then escape to Havana with Assata, do what I gotta.
Planes get shot down in Cuban air space over the water,
I got insight, it's a clear case of reading your aura.
Man, what you got for us as my Black men stand in line like a chorus,
Makin' these MC's our sons like Horus,
I'm always taking shots like a Japanese tourist,
Get the picture?
Flyer than Keyser Soze and no exposure.

-"Fortified Live," 2000 Seasons/Fortified Live
A native of Brooklyn, and the son of college professors, "Who taught [him] to pay attention to [his] environment," Kweli majored in theater at NYU. He roomed with John Forte (who received nominal fame on his own as part of the Fugees clique) and began turning his love for poetry into skill as an emcee. He later abandoned his collegial pursuits and set out to forge a career as a full-time artist, as a means of providing for his, then unborn, child (his son is now four, and he also has a two-years-old daughter). Fame, however, didn't come immediately and while he battled emcees in Washington Square Park, he also worked for five years at the country's oldest black bookstore, Nkiru in Brooklyn, which he later purchased in 1998 with Mos Def.

Last Fall, Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek released an album as Reflection Eternal called "Train of Thought." On this album Kweli returned to us mature, focused, and with even sharper lyrics. With his quick-witted wordplay and Hi-Tek's remarkable, ever-wondrous beats, Kweli picked up where he left us on Black Star and rhymed on issues of love, mental emancipation, political freedom, and had the brazenness, thankfully, to tackle a Nina Simone song (Check track 20 "For Women" to hear one of 2000’s most amazing hip hop songs).

Since then, Kweli has been busy, with guest appearances on projects like "Hip Hop for Respect," "Oz" (soundtrack), "Lyricist Lounge Vol. 2." He also has plans for a solo album in the works (Mos Def released Black on Both Sides in 1999, and Hi Tek released Hi-Teknology in May). It’s safe to assume that he will continue to rock our world. I caught up with him recently, while he was on tour with Erykah Badu and asked him a few questions about politics, art, and family.
"Politics is not a catalyst for change, it's a reaction. I put my efforts into real people and real change. Issues don't get talked about or dealt with."

MKH: Do you feel your sound has changed since the Blackstar album?
TKG: I'm a little more comfortable in my voice and what I'm saying. My focus is to be a nice emcee. I'm still a work in progress. I'm happy to be in the company of musicians that I can grow and learn from.

MKH: Who are your influences?
TKG: Good music. I would feel like I'm cheating and I would leave someone out ... if I were to make a list.
Call us Liberty like the Bell of Philadelphia scenery,
Me and Bahama-D, style free like Mumia need to be.
Seein’ me, feelin’ me, we right here on the level,
Turnin hardrocks to pebbles, exposin’ the devil.
Lyrical Olympian like John Carlos winnin’ gold medal,
Take that bass out your voice you talk to me in treble.
I'm "Serious" as Steady B so you know I ain't playin’,
I'm stimulatin’, makin’ crowds MOVE like organizations in Philly.
Keep it positive, my prerogative is exercise,
See through the chaos with my third eye.
Word I exhibit the exquisiteness, since a child I was vivid,
Throw your hands in the air if you with it, dig it

-"Chaos," Soundbombing 2
MKH: Where do you see yourself in the history of hip-hop?
TKG: I'm a baby in hip-hop. I'm taking baby steps. I'm trying to build a career so I can make the music I want to. I wanna make shit that moves me.

MKH: How do you feel representing our generation on panels? [Kweli spoke in Tavis Smiley's "State of Black America" panel as well as a few writer's conferences]:
TKG: I'm in a good place. I'm humbled by it. I've been given the opportunity ... I try to represent as best as I can.

MKH: How do you feel our generation can heal gender/racial/economy issues?
TKG: Which ones? ... People need to pay more attention to each other. We have to respect each other's differences. We have to build on where we share things. I think we have the right to survive and have esteem and feel good and provide for our kids ... food/clothes/shelter, whatever people have to do to get that, they're gonna do. I'm not into any -isms. I'm practical and I know that people are gonna do what they have to do. At some point you have to live your life. That's what's beautiful about this generation ... we realize that we have to be empowered economically ... [but] we can't become selfish.
They say money's the root of all evil but I can't tell
You know what I mean: pesos, francs, yens, cowrie shells, dollar bills
Or is it the mindstate that's ill?
Creating crime rates to fill —- the new prisons they build.
Over money and religion there's more blood to spill,
The wounds of slaves in cotton fields that never heal,
What's the deal?
A lot of cats who buy records are straight broke,
But my language universal they be recitin’ my quotes.

-"Thieves in the Night," Blackstar
MKH: Last year, you said that there was no need [for people of color] to vote in the United States. How do you feel about those statements now, especially in light of this year's election debacle?
TKG: I really feel bad that everything that I said proved itself more than I wanted it to. My whole thing is that we have set up a system where you have to be so neutral to win. So that if you represented even a fifth of what you believe ... the system is set up so that you couldn't run for president.

Politics is not a catalyst for change, it's a reaction. I put my efforts into real people and real change. Issues don't get talked about or dealt with. If there was a candidate who ran who I could relate to, maybe I'd think voting was necessary, but that don't happen. I think it's sad that they have people participating in this process ... It's a shame that so many people died for the opportunity for us to vote ... they thought that was the solution. [Now] we have the right, we have black people in Congress, but maybe that wasn't the solution ... you can't shun the political situation. We have to attack it from all levels. [Voting] is not my focus. I'm focusing on myself and my family and my direct community and my music.

MKH: What are your goals in terms of raising your kids?
TKG: I wanna raise my kids with respect. I don't want to lie to them. I just want to treat them like human beings. I can't give them the whole world without a filter yet. I definitely want to give them the necessary tools and weapons for this society.

MKH: "For Women" [from Reflection Eternal's Train of Thought (Rawkus, 2000) was beautiful. What made you think and/or want to tackle Nina Simone's "Four Women" about black women's struggle?
TKG: It was one of my favorite songs. I thought it was a narrative that was good for hip-hop. I have beautiful women in my life. I just wanted to represent that balance, cause I don’t think it's represented.
Her skin was black like it was packed with melanin,
Back in the days of slaves she packin' like Harriet Tubman.
Her arms are long and she moves like a song,
Feet with corns, hand with callouses,
But her heart is warm and her hair is wooly,
And it attract a lot of energy even negative.
She gotta dead that the head wrap is her remedy.
Her back is strong and she far from a vagabond.
This is the back of the masters' whip used to crack upon,
Strong enough to take all the pain, that's been
Inflicted again and again and again and again
And flipped It to the love for her children
Nothing else matters
What do they call her? They call her aunt Sara.

-"For Women," Train of Thought
MKH: What it's like touring with Erykah Badu?
TKG: It's beautiful. It's a comfortable road for me. The audience is a little older. I'm working with singers -- Just being able to reach out to another audience and be able to grow. I thank Erykah for giving me the experience. I have to represent the hip-hop on the tour, but its good for me, cause I get to expand.

MKH: Do you consider your work "conscious?"
TKG: Yeah my work is conscious and could be considered unconscious as well. I definitely focus on making sure that I have conscious elements to my music.

MKH: What do you see as the purpose of popular music? Should you be a role model?
TKG: An artist's responsibility is to themselves ... if they're not doing it for themselves then it's not really true art. That's really what people want. It gets confused when you get out there. If it becomes popular that's great ... People really want your honest, truest self. I would never criticize those artists [who make records just to sell], because if I have a problem with it, I either don't listen to it or I make music that I want to make.


"Hip Hop" -- Phat Lip 4.2





Read more about Reflection Eternal and Talib Kweli on OkayPlayer

Maori Karmael Holmes contributed an article about the Souls of Mischief to Wiretap last Winter. She is a freelance writer and a regular participant in our Tap In message board community. Go there to let her know you liked the piece. Word.
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