Catching Up With: Talib Kweli

Music Features Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli can be called many things—hip-hop artist, activist, public speaker, historian, and a really fun guy to interview. The Black Star member has been on fire lately with a recently released B-sides collection that was quickly followed by a surprise album, Fuck The Money, and a headline-grabbing performance on The Tonight Show. We got to talk with Kweli during a tour stop through Louisville to discuss hip-hop history, new music and fun with politics.

Paste: Welcome to Kentucky: Home of Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell.
Talib Kweli: Rand Paul is like a dentist, right? I need to go see him about my teeth.

Paste: Just don’t go see him about your politics.
Kweli: Hey, he’s into legalizing pot, man.

Paste: Yeah, but…
Kweli: It’s a political tactic. He’s trying to get the pot vote.

Paste: Aside from your music, politics is what you’re known for. Do you get to the point where you wish people would concentrate more on the music or is it about using your voice to push ideas out?
Kweli: What I do is make music for a living. I’m an entertainer. So I’m always impressed when I do an interview and someone wants to talk about the music. But I’m not a “shut up and sing” type of artist. Hip hop in particular is informed by the struggle. A lot of people don’t know that about hip hop because they only listen to commercial hip-hop and only have a very fleeting relationship with hip hop. But if you understand where hip hop comes from and the rudiments of it, you understand that as much as we like to turn up in the clubs, hip hop comes from social struggle and and it comes from speaking out. Afrika Bambaataa, when they started hip hop back in the days, they were talking about peace, love, unity and having fun. And you can’t leave out the having fun, but you can’t leave out the peace love and unity either. And those guys was gangsters man, but they understood that being gangsters wasn’t good for the community. So they used hip hop to replace the gangsterism.

Paste: Wasn’t that like how the Ghetto Brothers started? It was all about the activism and putting that into the music to get it out there.
Kweli: Yeah, I mean hip hop comes from Negro spirituals, songs in the Bible, but it also more recently comes from Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, and putting a message into music and using your oratory skills. Hip hop is very loquacious. You can fit a lot of words into a hip-hop song. So if you can fit a lot of words, you don’t want to be talking a lot of nonsense.

Paste: It’s also a good time for socially conscious rap. With huge names like Kendrick Lamar doing big things, it feels like there’s really the opportunity to take that stuff and get the word out. And people don’t even realize they’re getting it.
Kweli: It’s interesting where the music business is right now, where people are turned off by mass marketing. They appreciate things that are marketed in a niche way and things that are marketed directly. People are more interested in discovering things on their own than they are by some big marketing campaign. So when they discover things on their own, they discover things that are more genuine and sincere and things they relate to more. So when you have an artist like Kendrick or J. Cole, these are the biggest rappers in the business. Say what you will about the artists turning up in the club right now, ain’t none of them outselling J. Cole. J. Cole and Taylor Swift were the only platinum artists in the whole industry last year. And it’s because of the sincerity and how genuine they’re coming as artists. And that’s what the people are relating to. So even though J. Cole and sometimes Kendrick can have big radio records, it’s not the big radio records that are blowing them up. It’s the more concordance records, and the more introspective that people are relating to.

Paste: Do you think it’s a generational thing or is it the time and music that are helping it?
Kweli: I think it’s the generational thing, technology, where the music business is at, where the fans are, where the consumers are, where the musicians are. The connection between the fans and the musicians is shifting and bending at all times. The savvy consumer and the savvy musician is driving the industry right now.

Paste: And you’re figuring your own ways to get it out there. When you started, it was very much the old-school way of music and to what you’ve been able to do, whether experimenting or with the new b-sides record. Surprise, here’s a record.
Kweli: It’s crazy. You have outlets that, I know these people, people at Fader and Complex and Pitchfork and places that are now looked at as the hallowed ground of music critique, you know I’ve put out incredible records, Prisoner of Conscious, Gravitas, that I personally think are very good, and there was a lot of marketing and lead up to those records, a lot of dollars spent to get you to pay attention. A lot of videos and all that. None of those blogs covered any of those records. But I drop them out of the blue and I say it’s featuring Kanye West and all of a sudden it’s like woah! It’s click bait. “Yeah, I’m totally down with Kweli. We love this.” But I see through that, and shout out to all the blogs that are looking for click bait so they can get hits on their blog, because we’re all in it together in this symbiotic relationship.

Paste: We should say, it’s not because of Kanye…
Kweli: It definitely is! You’re not interviewing me because of Kanye, but Pitchfork picked up my album because of Kanye without a doubt. They did an article talking about Lauryn Hill owes us nothing. I’m like, I wrote that article a year ago. Y’all late. Stop biting Pitchfork.

Paste: You’re the click bait for them.
Kweli: But they don’t want to review none of my albums because they’re soft.

Paste: It’s going to be a weird number score that doesn’t mean anything…
Kweli: That means that someone’s pretentious and someone wears diapers and they should have no business reviewing music because they’ve lived no life experience. Your opinion has no value.

Paste: Critiquing is weird anyway, and I’m on that side of things.
Kweli: I critique music. Music lovers should critique music and hold musicians accountable and all that. It’s great. I mean I love reading, but I come from a generation where music critics were involved in the culture. You had to participate in the culture. Too often these bloggers don’t participate in the culture. It’s too easy to think your opinion means something without participating in the culture.

Paste: I have a Post-it on my computer that asks that question, should artists be accountable for their art.
Kweli: I think humans being should be held accountable for things. We’re humans and we’re mothers and fathers, community people and teachers before we are artists. Artists’ only job is to be honest. That’s it.

Paste: As a fan though, I shouldn’t have a say in what you do. You do it and I can say whether I personally like it or not. But on the other side, I’m a fan and of course I’m going to complain even if I do like it.
Kweli: And as a fan, you should complain. You have the right to complain. But a lot of times as fans, we don’t understand the relationship and the exchange. We as fans in this internet age, we feel entitled. We feel like music should be free and everybody owes us something. Back in the day, if you were a fan of MC5, you couldn’t just say you were a fan of MC5. Someone would call your bluff. You would have to have a bootleg or had been to a show. Now someone could listen to your Pandora station for a couple of minutes or had seen a video on YouTube for free and come up to you saying they’re a fan. And they’ll treat you like you owe them something. No, you haven’t invested anything. You heard my song on Spotify and you’re my biggest fan. No you’re not. I know my biggest fan. He’s on Kweli club. I can email him and call him right now. You’re not my biggest fan. You don’t deserve to say that. ‘Cause you heard of me? Because Kanye said my name? You don’t deserve to say that. Again, the responsibility is not on the fan. It’s on me to make that fan care. But I love exposing fake fans.

Paste: I’ve seen you do it on Twitter.
Kweli: I love it. I love it! I love being able to challenge fans to hold them accountable. You know why? Because they’re going to hold me accountable. They’re going to come to me and challenge me and hold me accountable, and I’m going to flip it on them.

Paste: Alright, let’s talk about the music and Train of Thoughts: Lost Lyrics, Rare Releases & Beautiful B-Sides Vol. 1. I always saw b-sides as lost dogs. These are the ones that didn’t get a home.
Kweli: Sort of. B-side in hip hop is a little different. The hip-hop b-side has traditionally been the better record. The b-side of “Big Poppa” was “Warning” by Biggie. The b-side of “One More Chance” was “Who Shot You.” That might not be quite accurate, but you get my point. In hip hop, it’s the b-side that people always check for. I’ve got a lot of records, I’ve put out a lot of mixtapes, I’ve always been ahead of the curb, ahead of my time. They’re a lot of records, records with Killer Mike, Fabulous, Kanye, Mos Def, Common, and records that when I put them out, they were ahead of their time. People didn’t really get what I was trying to do. Now these artists have blown up way more and I’m sitting on these records and I’m like, “Yo, my kids deserve to eat off these records.” So I put them out.

Paste: Is that frustrating? Putting out these records, finding something, building it, and it blows up and here you are…
Kweli: No, it’s not frustrating at all. It’s a beautiful thing. I just need to learn how to be smarter about it. I did records with a lot of artists that blew up later. I did a record on Prisoner Conscious with Kendrick Lamar in 2011, 2012, and was like, “This dude, they’re not ready for him yet. They will be in a couple years.” So I held that record until after his first single.

Paste: Is there more beyond Vol 1?
Kweli: At least two or three volumes. I’ve got a new, free mixtape called Fuck the Money featuring Miguel and Styles P, Neko Es, Casper Nyovest. But this record is very exciting, this Fuck the Money record. It’s really more new-sounding. Newer sounds in hip hop, which is why I put out the b-sides/rarities first because I wanted to get that out of my system. Here’s what you’re used to hearing from me, and now I have a new sound.

Paste: With your songs, if it’s a topical song of the time, do you tend to try to stay away from that? Does it become so ingrained in that moment that it doesn’t make sense for you now?
Kweli: That’s the challenge of doing topical music that speaks directly to the music. Luckily for hip hop, hip hop has always spoken directly in the language of the people in the streets. Watching the Nina Simone documentary on Netflix, she talks specifically about this question. She talks about doing protest music and how she couldn’t perform those songs anymore because they didn’t feel timely. But I think that was more her speaking to her disdain for the industry. I think she felt hurt by the fact that the industry blackballed her and she wasn’t supported by doing that music. Not so much that those records or the same no longer resonate, because they do. Nina Simone, we think that’s a great documentary specifically because those themes and those protest songs still resonate. But she couldn’t see that at a time when the world wasn’t appreciating her. She’s gone. She’s not going to get to see this documentary. Sometimes we celebrate our heroes after they’re gone.

Paste: The most unfortunate thing about protest songs from the ‘60s is that they still make sense.
Kweli: They do.

Paste: I would think that if you’re the artist that wrote the protest song, you’re hoping that this isn’t going to make sense in five years.
Kweli: You’re hoping that it changes and something does better. But hip hop is great because that’s my challenge. How do I talk about Tamir Rice and Eric Garner? How do I talk about these things? But it’s about understanding history and understanding that everything has a context. Understanding that what Malcolm X was talking about. Assata Shakur is very very relevant.

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