If there were a picture next to the word “lyricist” in the dictionary, it would probably be of Talib Kweli. The Brooklyn-raised emcee has long been known for his gift with the pen, one he’s harnessed to paint a portrait of his surroundings ever since bursting onto the scene in 1998 with the classic Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star. Over the years, he’s shone a light on everything from race and politics (“The Proud”), to women’s strength (“For Women”), to the everyday struggle (“Get By”), crafting some of hip-hop’s most memorable songs in the process. On his latest work, Gravitas, he turns his gaze inward, making for perhaps his most personal album yet. We caught up with Kweli to talk about Gravitas, the importance of honesty in music, our responsibility to the world, and much more. Read the full interview below.
TCUS: I like to begin by looking at seminal musical influences for different artists, things that really made an impact early on. With that in mind, what significance does John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme have to you?
Talib Kweli: It’s probably my favourite piece of music. It was something that was wafting through my house when I was growing up. My father was a fan of it, my grandfather (my mother’s father) was a huge fan of it, and it came back into my life when Spike Lee came out with Mo’ Better Blues – it was sort of the [score] for that film. That film was filmed in my neighbourhood; I was a huge Spike Lee fan at the time. I was getting into jazz music at the time it came out, so with A Love Supreme being the core piece for that movie, it ended up being an album that I grew up listening to. It became something that reminded me of self.
TCUS: As far as hip-hop goes, I understand this one’s a special one for you. Tell me about Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader.”
Talib Kweli: Yeah. I think “Follow the Leader” contains probably the best verse ever done in hip-hop. What Rakim did on that record inspired me to go beyond what I could do, and try to go beyond what the trend is to create something new poetically. When I first started listening to hip-hop, a prerequisite for being a great emcee was you had to have content. You [still] had to have style, you had to have street credibility, but you had to have content.
You know, Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, they were known for records that were party records, but the lyrics were Five Percent-influenced; it was a very cultural thing, and it was prevalent for a long time. This lasted all the way up until Tupac, really until Biggie. Biggie was the first emcee who didn’t have positive cultural content, besides his honest observation. It didn’t exist before Biggie like that; it was [all] artists like Rakim. Rakim was the standard-bearer for that type of thing. He was the best at it.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, shit, I thought that everybody talked this way/ Raised on Rakim and Run-D.M.C., so we thought that everybody (walked this way).” – Talib Kweli in “Country Cousins”
TCUS: I want to spin off that title of “Follow the Leader.” Who have been some of the key leaders and role models in your lifetime?
Talib Kweli: My parents, first and foremost. But beyond my parents, certainly musical heroes. There’s too many pieces of music to say these are my favourite songs or whatever – I’m inspired by so many different things – but there are artists like Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane who come back up as constant reference points for me, artistically.
TCUS: I know you grew up wanting to be a baseball player. What about in another direction, someone like Jackie Robinson?
Talib Kweli: Jackie Robinson was inspirational for me, not so much as a ballplayer, but as a cultural icon. I come from a different generation. When I got into baseball, it was fully integrated, so my heroes were [guys like] Dave Winfield. You know, I was a Yankee fan, so it was guys like Winfield and Willie Randolph, but also Don Mattingly. It wasn’t really a colour thing. [As for Jackie Robinson,] he becomes more of a historical figure than a sports hero.
TCUS: Let’s talk about your latest album, Gravitas. I want to start with a quote of Neil Gaiman’s, which really suits the way you’ve opted to release this album. He says, “the nature of distribution is changing, which is on the one hand intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. Nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules.” Tell me about your take on this.
Talib Kweli: I think Neil Gaiman was exactly on point, especially with the part about it being scary. It’s scary to go out on your own. It’s like being in the wild west, or being in outer space, you know? The final frontier. We’re exploring new ways to do this all, and that’s also the drive behind it. The unknown is part of what drives me. This sounds weird, but I’m excited about not knowing where the next album’s coming from, because I’m excited about discovering that possibility.
TCUS: But really, this is new territory for you, as far as releasing an album. Going the direct-to-fan route is something you’ve never done before.
Talib Kweli: No, it’s something I’ve never done before, but I do have a bit of a cushion. It’s not something a new artist could do. I have an active fan base that I can stoke and continue to cultivate, and I also have relationships where – it’s not going to be forever, but at least for the next couple of years – I can do deals with people. There are still record labels and companies that will get in business with me. This is not something I have to do; it’s something I’m choosing to do at this stage. But hopefully, I’ll get to the point where it becomes the clear option every time.
TCUS: As far as the model you’ve opted to go with – using KweliClub.com exclusively – do you have any idea of how successful it’s been so far?
Talib Kweli: It’s been a slow burn. It’s a good metaphor for my career. There’s a lot of people who don’t know about the album, and even amongst my fans who may have heard a new album, they’re so acclimated to just going on iTunes, that it becomes a whole different mentality you have to have, just to go buy my album. It’s not an easy thing for the average fan to do — that’s why you’ve really got to be a true fan to have this album by now. That’s why I really, truly appreciate every fan that’s got this album, and I have their emails, so I can email them and thank them. That’s really the biggest part of it.
TCUS: Recently, De La Soul — who you’ve mentioned as your favourite group before — did something a little different. On Valentine’s Day, they offered almost their entire catalogue for free. Where do you draw the line between giving people access to music and making sure you’re still earning a living?
Talib Kweli: Well, in De La’s case, you’ve gotta understand, they gave out seven albums for free… those albums are [ones] that weren’t selling on iTunes because of a bunch of legal issues, you know what I’m saying? For De La in that situation, it’s a win-win. They weren’t making money on those albums anyway; they might as well get the emails.
With me, it’s a little bit more precarious. It’s a situation where I’m sacrificing reaching a large number of my fans to be able to collect the emails of specific niche fans. At the end of the day, I think Gravitas is going to end up on iTunes at some point. But I want to collect as many emails as I can before I sell it through that platform.
You know, iTunes is killing the game. Upwards of 90% of [consumers] buy music from there, so it’s not something you can ignore, but that’s why this is an experiment. And so far, it’s a slow growth, but I think at the end of the day, when I have a certain amount of emails, it’s gonna be worth it. When I put out something else, and I can just email a few thousand people directly, that’s a few thousand automatic sales that I don’t have to spend money marketing to.
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TCUS: Let’s get back to the actual music of the album. One of the things I love about this album is it features production from two Canadians: LordQuest and Rich Kidd (LordQuest producing “Demonology” and “State of Grace,” and Rich Kidd producing “What’s Real”). Tell me about how you came across their music and connected with each of them.
Talib Kweli: Rich Kidd, I’ve known for years, just me being an artist that gets booked in Toronto. His name has been bubbling up, he’s somebody who I always get paired to do shows with, and he’s just a good guy – great producer, great emcee, great artist all around. LordQuest is somebody I didn’t know anything about. A friend of mine, Tunji Balogun from Los Angeles, is somebody that I trust musically. He gives me a lot of advice and puts me up on a lot of new artists, and he told me about LordQuest. I liked the sound and got in touch with him. He came over to the studio, and we chopped it up on a bunch of different things.
TCUS: You open the album with “Inner Monologue,” which samples part of a Neil Gaiman commencement speech. He says, “when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.” I connect that to a line on “Demonology,” where you say, “My wife says I got demons I’ve yet to deal with.” Do you think all art comes from a place of struggle?
Talib Kweli: No, I don’t think all art comes from a place of struggle, but I do think some of the best art, historically, has. I think somebody very privileged and entitled can also make great art.
TCUS: But as far as the Neil Gaiman quote goes, what sticks out about that to you?
Talib Kweli: I don’t think that contradicts the Neil Gaiman quote; I think the Neil Gaiman quote holds true. I think historically, that’s where your best and most honest art comes from. It comes from struggle; it comes from uncertainty; it comes from conflict.
TCUS: Let’s talk about another song, “State of Grace.” Something that you say on there is “if you ain’t using all the talents God provided you with/ for the betterment of man, understand you ain’t nothing but a waste.” Tell me about this line.
Talib Kweli: I believe — well, more than believe — I know that we’re put here as human beings to seek knowledge. We spend our whole life trying to learn things and trying to process knowledge. I think that’s our job. And we’re given certain gifts. Everyone’s gifts are different. If you’re not using the gifts you’re given, then you’re not living up to your potential; you’re not fulfilling your purpose here on Earth, and I think it’s our job to find that gift.
“At exactly which point do you start to realize/ That life without knowledge is death in disguise?/ That’s why Knowledge Of Self is like life after death/ Apply it to your life, let destiny manifest.” – Talib Kweli in “K.O.S. (Determination)”
Me being someone that knows God – I’m not being atheist or anything like that – my opinion is, if you’re not using this gift, it’s kind of disrespectful to where you come from, to your creation. I’m not talking some guy in the sky with a beard judging us, but I’m talking about that thing that connects all of us as living organisms. Whatever you call that. Whatever that is, that’s what I believe that God is – and I believe you’re being disrespectful to that if you’re not fulfilling your true purpose.
TCUS: You know, that reminds me of something you brought up on the AMA you did on Reddit a couple months ago. There was one answer of yours that really stuck out to me. Someone had asked, “how does God and religion influence your art?” to which you answered, “religion, not at all. God, completely.” Can you dig into that?
Talib Kweli: Yeah. You know, religion can be very dangerous. It can be very inspirational and uplifting, but it can also be very dangerous. It’s proven to be both, through history, and I think recognizing the differences between when it’s inspirational and when it’s dangerous is integral to our survival as people.
TCUS: So there’s a clear difference, then, between religion on one hand and spirituality on the other.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. You know, it’s funny, I watched this movie today – are you familiar with T.D. Jakes?
TCUS: No, actually. I’m not.
Talib Kweli: T.D. Jakes is a well-known black pastor; he has a best-selling book called Woman, Thou Art Loosed. But what he’s been doing recently is making movies out of [his] books, and it’s an all-black cast, but he gets actors who are really known – like Blair Underwood – but Christian. But one of the characters in this movie was a religious zealot. The villain was a guy who was sacrificing little kids because he felt like the world was going to shit. I thought it was interesting that a religious guy [like Jakes] could have a character that would invite criticisms of religion in his movie.
It’s interesting that we’re at a place in society where we’re seeing that conversation happen in the mainstream; we’re seeing the conversation of atheism and agnosticism happening, and these ideas are being challenged in an intellectual way. You know, God versus science, I’m excited about the debates that are happening between science and spirituality, because I think they’re in search of the same things.
TCUS: Right. And this has been a really big topic recently with Bill Nye and others debating it.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, I just watched that.
TCUS: It’s interesting to think that you could be of the school of thought where both science and spirituality can coexist, and they don’t have to be polar opposites or mutually exclusive.
Talib Kweli: What did you think about that creationism versus evolution [debate]? [To me, it’s] such a limited subject matter, because creationism is just one small part of Christianity. You know, I’m not a Christian. I believe in God, but I don’t believe in creationism. I think Ken Ham, these religious folks, get caught up in thinking that people are saying that you can’t believe in God and trust science – that somehow, people are suggesting that that’s not acceptable. And there are people who would say that, but I don’t think that’s what Bill Nye would say.
TCUS: And yet it would be ridiculous to discard scientific research, and vice versa, it would be unfair to say that science discredits something that binds us all together. It seems to me that these things don’t have to contradict one another.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, they don’t. I think Deepak Chopra is probably the best representation [of that]. Deepak Chopra, Paulo Coelho… you know, these are spiritual guys who also understand science, and understand how to discuss spirituality without it being [centred around] myths or incredible, unbelievable stories.
TCUS: Have you read The Alchemist before?
Talib Kweli: It’s one of my favourite books ever. It’s like the real version of what The Celestine Prophecy was supposed to be. The Celestine Prophecy was a really popular book – they even made a movie about it – and the premise is, someone went and found an ancient Mayan manuscript that gives the keys to life. So it’s fiction, but it’s spiritual fiction in the same sense that The Alchemist is. It tells a story, but you’re learning so much from the story.
TCUS: I want to get back to another song off Gravitas, and this is something you reminded me of earlier, when you were talking about having the obligation to society to use the gifts you were born with. In your song “New Leaders,” you rap, “got enough followers, I’m looking for some new leaders.” Do you feel as though there’s an obligation, being a recording artist and having the potential to reach millions of people with what you say, to be a leader or role model?
Talib Kweli: No, I don’t. But I do feel like there’s an obligation as a man – as a human being, as a father, as a black man in my community – and I’ve arrived at that conclusion through my experience in life. That’s not something that I automatically know; you have to go through some things to learn that. My obligation as an artist is just to be honest with my craft. That’s it.
TCUS: I read a roundtable discussion recently. This is something that took place a number of years ago, but it was a roundtable with yourself, Dave Chappelle, Common, Kanye West, and Dead Prez as well. Part of what you said in “State of Grace” reminds me of part of the discussion. You were talking about making music a certain way, not because it’ll sound good or make money, but because you need to make that particular song with that message. For Kanye, that song was “Jesus Walks.” Can you elaborate on that thought a little bit?
Talib Kweli: Yeah. When Kanye felt like he had to make “Jesus Walks,” it’s because that was something he got from his upbringing, growing up with his mom. He didn’t make it because he was thinking “I need to make Jesus turn up in the clubs,” it was just, “yo, this is something that I have to do.” I have records like that, [too]. You don’t do that with every record, you know? I’ve had records like that, like “Lonely People,” “Get By,” and “Ballad of the Black Gold,” where I was like, there has to be a record about this. “Ms. Hill” is probably the best example of a record that I was like, this is a record that needs to be made.
TCUS: And why was that?
Talib Kweli: I was watching the BET Awards, and the Fugees had been gone for awhile, and everyone was excited about Lauryn Hill performing. She wanted to play guitar and read a poem or something. I remember being at the BET Awards and there was a lot of drama about people being upset because Lauryn didn’t want to perform the Fugees songs. It hit me that people can be very selfish and entitled.
“I know you hate Babylon, and wanna see it fall/ But they won’t let you read your poem at the BET Awards/ You give us hope, you give us faith, you the one/ They don’t like what you got to say/ But still they beg you to come, whoa/ Now that’s powerful sis, it’s black power.” – Talib Kweli in “Ms. Hill”
It’s like, here’s somebody who’s given us their blood, sweat and tears, and her life’s work, right? And all we’re talking about is “give us more, what else have you got for us?” Lauryn already have us The Score and Miseducation. If she wants to read a poem, let her read a f—king poem, you know? That’s where the motivation for that song came from. Let’s appreciate our artists. If they’ve already given us so much when we’re clamouring to see them, then let’s just appreciate where they are as opposed to where we think they should be.
TCUS: You spoke earlier about how you feel an artist’s only responsibility is being honest to themselves, and that’s something that relates in what you just brought up. Actually, this is something you talked about in the roundtable too. Why do you feel it’s the responsibility to be honest above all else?
Talib Kweli: Because that’s what the fans want. The fans will tell you, “we want you to do an album that sounds like this, we want you to work with this artist, we want you to do that,” but as soon as you listen to the fans and do what they want, they abandon you and go to something else. What they want from you is for you to be honest. That’s what they really want.
TCUS: Looking ahead, you’re writing a book right now, Vibrate Higher. Why was it important for you to do this?
Talib Kweli: I’m a writer, you know? I’ve been on the road for years, but my talent is writing. I might as well try to write something that I can capitalize on and not have to punish my body by always being on tour. It makes sense for me to use all of my talents.
TCUS: So how do you see this book taking shape then?
Talib Kweli: I’m still writing it, I don’t know.
TCUS: [Laughs] Fair enough. Final question for you, what do you still want to do that you haven’t done yet?