He’s a rapper, a label head, a man with a hard-line manifesto. He’s also a father with a hungry young daughter named Diani. While interviewing Talib Kweli, the BK MC was juggling the promotion of his sixth studio album, Ear Drum, with the very real job of being on parental duty. But the rustling of an Applebee’s menu (as long as you’re taking orders, I’ll have the Santa Fe Chicken salad!) and children causing a ruckus in the background didn’t prevent the artist from making known his stance on his defection from Geffen Records, touting his newly created label Blacksmith Music under Warner Bros. (Ear Drum is poised to be the jump-off of an entire movement), and hyping recently signed artists Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady. Kweli’s new album strives to give a voice to legions searching for conscious hip-hop and maintains a platform for an “old-school” artist who’s determined to be heard. But will it save hip-hop? Well, Talib, we’re all ears.
Tell me about the concept behind Ear Drum.
Well, it really wasn’t too high-concept. My goal was to make an album that people could respond to and enjoy.
There’s certainly a lot to enjoy, like songs with KRS-One and UGK, but your collaborations with Justin Timberlake and Norah Jones seemed like a bit of a departure.
Justin is a friend of mine whom I met a few years back with Cameron Diaz when I did a reality show—MTV’s Trippin in East Africa. I have great respect for him as a musician and we work out of the same studio. He gave me “The Nature” to work on for my album. As for Norah Jones, that collaboration was definitely my manager’s idea. “Soon the New Day” was a song that I had previously recorded with Madlib that I was thinking about putting on Liberation. I wasn’t warm to the idea of working with Norah at first because I didn’t think that she would want to do it. In the end, Questlove gave me her email and she responded immediately. It ended up being a perfect fit.
So this wasn’t a political push by the label or a conscious attempt to cast a wider net and reach a broader audience?
It may ultimately but that wasn’t the focus.
I caught a glimpse of the “Hot Thing” video featuring will.i.am, which was kinda, well, hot!
Was it deliberate to make the treatment for the video appear like the HP commercials with Pharrell, Vera Wang, and Petra Nemcova?
Yes, that was the exact idea. I liked the look and emulated it.
“More or Less” is a call-to-action in which you tackle poverty, politics, and religion. It’s also peppered with digs at your former label [“More blacksmithing, def jerks, less Geffen”] and the rap game [“More rap that stress purpose, less misogyny, less curses, let’s put more depth in our verses”].
“More or Less” is a personal thing. I was trying to speak for what a lot of people feel but don’t have the platform to say. As an artist who has maintained a certain level of integrity and cracked the mainstream a little bit, I sort of have this platform to speak for regular working-class people who love hip-hop. They needed to hear that song to let them know that there are artists out there who are trying to create a balance in the business. As for Geffen, it’s a very frustrating process to be an artist like myself. They just needed to be checked on the way that they’re doing artists over there.
Speaking of mainstream, you saw some mainstream exposure in 2002 with Quality’s “Get By.” Do you define that as the moment you “made it”?
Well, no. “Get By” is definitely my most popular record but it’s just one milestone of many. Me and Mos Def doing the Black Star album, that was another. Also, my associations with talented people like Dave Chappelle, Kanye, Jay mentioning me in his lyrics; they’ve spotlighted me in the mainstream to fans that may not otherwise know my music but suddenly they’re aware of my name. They know that I hang out with some of these famous people. It’s that whole celebrity thing, which is strange because you realize that in this business you’re not really selling music.
There’s the atypical sound of a guest female rapper on Right About Now’s “Where You Gonna Run” and then on Ear Drum’s “Say Something.” Tell me a little bit about Jean Grae.
Jean Grae is one of the artists signed to my label Blacksmith. I’ve known her since I was 14 years old and I think that her album is going to be a problem for a lot of people when it comes out.
Is there any truth to the rumor that Rakim was going to sign on the dotted line?
That was just a rumor.
You mentioned your album Liberation earlier. Over the years, Prince has come up with brilliant marketing schemes like offering free CDs with concert tickets and, more recently, bundling millions of copies of his album Planet Earth with a UK newspaper. Was there a similar nontraditional distribution idea behind offering the Internet-only album for free?
When I first stepped into the business, timing was everything. If you had a great project like a song or video, you’d hoard it because you were concerned with competition from other artists. But now, it’s more about the content than about timing. Like, Lil Wayne is considered the best rapper alive because he has 5 albums out right now, not because he has classic albums. He’s constantly recording and making music available. The people who do that are the people who at this stage of the business are winning. That’s what the focus of Liberation was; I was trying to keep my name out there. I’m in the position that I’m in not because all my albums have gone platinum, but because I put out Right About Now, Blacksmith: The Movement, Liberation, and Kweli Confidential mixtapes to keep my name relevant in between albums. I read a lot of articles online where I’m described as an O.G., a veteran in the game. I’m only 31 years old. Sometimes the amount of time you’ve spent in the game makes other artists disrespectful of you and almost discount you. But albums like Liberation are a way of staying front of mind. Even if they call you old school, at least they’re talking about you.
Is hip-hop your only economic gravy train? Do you still own a bookstore in Brooklyn?
No. I used to but it wasn’t what most would consider a profitable business. I’ve done commercials and voiced video games too.
Is this your way of diversifying in order to survive in this industry?
Basically, I don’t make money off of music. I make money off of appearances. You show up and they pay you to be there!
Must be nice. Ha!
You grew up in a highly educated household with professor parents. Is rapping your form of educating others?
It can be viewed that way. I think what my parents do has had a huge influence on my lyrical content. My mother is a professor of English and my father is a professor of sociology. You combine those things and add an urban landscape and you get hip-hop.
Throughout the history of hip-hop, a common theme is the “Best Rapper” self-crowning. You’ve got Lil Wayne’s “Best Rapper Alive” single, Nelly’s “Number One,” and LL Cool J’s G.O.A.T. album. Do you think that they’re deserving of those monikers?
Well, I think there’s a different case to be made for every artist you mentioned. On the Nelly record, I don’t think that he thinks that he’s the best MC. When that record was out though, he was number one on the charts…he was the number one artist in the country. So, on that level, he was number one. KRS-One made a record battling Nelly’s called “I’m Still Number One!” I thought it was a lopsided challenge, because if you’re talking about lyrics, it’s KRS-One. On the other hand, if you’re talking sales, it’s Nelly. With Wayne, it’s all about the grind. He probably looked around and didn’t see any others grinding the way he was. But as someone who’s paid attention, Wayne’s lyrical prowess and his concepts have consistently increased. It’s a tricky thing because he may be the freshest right now, but he doesn’t have the albums to back it up. With LL, when G.O.A.T. came out, he wasn’t hot on the streets. But he certainly has had the career and albums to back up his claim.
Does it bother bona fide lyricists like you?
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for someone like LL Cool J. I love the competition. That’s what the fire behind the rap game is. I think I’m the best rapper alive. That’s what every rapper should think. If you don’t think you’re the best, you need to step down.
In addition to Mos Def, you’ve worked with artists from Jay-Z to Anthony Hamilton to Danger Mouse, not to mention producers like Kanye West to Hi-Tek to the Neptunes. Who would you love to work with but haven’t had the opportunity?
I would love to work with Björk and DJ Premier.
Who’s making you feel happy about the game right now?
Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady.
Spoken like a true label head.