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Talib Kweli has been writing and performing for almost 20 years now — as a solo act and as half of well-received duos that reached a broad audience — and for much of that time he's been pinned with a label that's a relic of a 1990s understanding of hip-hop: "conscious rap."
The albums he released with Mos Def as Black Star and with Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal fall under that umbrella, but over the years the term has become a pejorative, used to describe music with a message but not a beat (or a market). The variety of sounds and collaborators Kweli works with demonstrate a desire to live on the charts and in the dorm room, and his flexibility negates the idea that pop isn't conscious and conscious isn't any fun.
In March he spoke with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish about the roles he's played in the shifting terrain of hip-hop, his relationship to the mainstream, and honoring old-school rap. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
NPR: I want to start with the title of the album, Prisoner of Conscious, because a few years ago you told NPR that you try and stay away from using the word "conscious" in titles.
Talib Kweli: Yes, I think I remember that.
NPR: You said, "Just like gangster rappers should stay away from the title of 'gangster.' " What were you thinking back then, and how has your thinking changed about this?
Kweli: I might have misspoke slightly. It's not about not — it was about me being called that and accepting that as a title as if that's all I am.
NPR: And what did that mean at the time? I mean, when people were called "conscious rapper," what did that mean?
Kweli: The history of conscious hip-hop is interesting. The best MCs in the world have always — when I first came in the business — always needed to have something conscious, something dealing with the community, something uplifting, something positive. Even if the majority of the content was negative, you had to have that. And that changed over time.
You had Tupac and Biggie came out, and then you had Jay-Z. And the best rapper became about who was the tough guy, you know? Who's busting they gun off or something like that. And now you have Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, J. Cole. They're talking a lot about partying; you know, sex, having fun. And those are the guys who are considered the best. People consider conscious rap now, in hip-hop circles, to feel condescending or feel like not a part of the mainstream. So the challenge for me is, "How do I be as good or better than these rappers out here?" and "How do I stay relevant with my music still being considered conscious?"
NPR: What's a song where you really felt like you were stretching your wings in terms of style or sound?
Kweli: On this album there's a song called "Upper Echelon." And this is a record that is — sounds like a newer record because it's a newer, younger producer: New York-based producer Harry Fraud. He does work with rappers like Action Bronson, French Montana, the Coke Boys, people like that. People [who] get radio play a lot more than I do, but his style is rooted in old-school, pure hip-hop. New York-style hip-hop. The song I did is the same drums that Masta Ace used for a song he had called "Born To Roll" back in the day. And so the lyrics are sort of a tribute to what Masta Ace did on his original recording.
NPR: I can hear in the production, it's a little more sparse in a way that I think I hear in a lot of music today.
Kweli: This song has been out for a little bit. I filmed a video to it. A lot of my fans took exception to this record because, like you just said, the production is more sparse, and it feels more like what is going on now, which is why I released it as a single. You always want your single to be reflective of what's going on in the culture at the time.
But to me, when you look at the history of hip-hop, it sounds more like what hip-hop sounded like when it first came out. It feels like old-school hip-hop, much more than what's going on today. And I made a number of references to the Masta Ace record, which is a hip-hop classic that cannot be disputed or fronted on.
So I think if someone is saying that — is critical of that in a way where they don't like it — it's because they might be tired of what's going on in commercial hip-hop, and they just don't wanna hear anything that might resemble it. But I stand by my musical decision with the song because I'm looking at the culture as a whole, for all time — not just what's going on now.
NPR: Another song where you take on a feature artist, a guest artist, is the song "Come Here," featuring Miguel.
Kweli: Miguel is someone who — his initial records before he had big, huge radio records were features with underground hip-hop artists; a real lyrical hip-hop artist. He did records with Wale and J.Cole before they became more popular artists, and I [felt] like he would understand my style.
NPR: He brings a little bit of Marvin Gaye to this, and I didn't know if you were seeking more musicality, even though people may focus on your lyrics.
Kweli: What you just said is exactly, exactly the point of this album. First of all, the track was produced by Sean C and LV, who were responsible for a lot of Jay-Z's album, American Gangster. And that production was sort of soaked in soulful '70s sounds and feels. I reached out to them because I really liked the production on that album. They gave me a track that felt like Motown, felt like Marvin Gaye. But it's still got 808s in it. It's still upbeat. So it still works for today. Miguel picked that track out of all the tracks I was working with, and he definitely came on and sounded like Marvin Gaye, which I think is a great thing because it's great to pay tribute to those who came before us.
Prisoner of Conscious — the album is called that because people wouldn't appreciate my lyrics if they didn't like my musical choices. And I feel like my musical choices have been overshadowed by the content of the lyrics. People feel like nowadays hip-hop is so empty — the hip-hop they hear on the radio — that when they hear someone have a little bit of substance or content, they're drawn to it. And even though I've worked with Madlib, J. Dilla, Kanye West, Hi-Tek — some of the best producers in the business — people still don't understand that musical choices have a lot to do with where I go musically. So this album, there's a lot of tracks that I may not have picked before because they were maybe too musical.
NPR: It's surprising to hear you say that there were musical choices you made that you really wouldn't have made in the past. What were sounds that you did shy away from in the past because you didn't think that they fit you or your style?
Kweli: I wouldn't say it's musical choices I wouldn't have made in the past, but I think I just added more to it. All these tracks were produced by classic, wonderful hip-hop producers: my man E. Jones, RZA, Oh No, Terrace Martin. But I think we put more in it. Like, we had a string section come in and be on most of the tracks, whereas before I would have had a string section maybe on one or two songs because I would have wanted to be more boom-bap hip-hop feeling.
A lot of my favorite albums — from a lot of that Marvin Gaye stuff to even when The Beatles started experimenting more — when artists come out and they have access to more resources, they can add more things. Sometimes that becomes overbearing — things become overproduced. So my challenge was to add a string section and add a horn solo on the song "High Life," and go to Brazil and do a song with Seu Jorge. To be able to do those things without it feeling like, "OK, now he's just overproducing. Now he's just bloated and not really the essence of what he was before." Hopefully I achieved that.
NPR: Let's talk a little bit about your background because I read that your parents were both professors in English and sociology. I cannot think of two disciplines that would better breed a rapper.
Kweli: That's what hip-hop is. It's sociology and English put to a beat.
NPR: What music did they listen to, and how did it influence you?
Kweli: My musical influence is really from my father — he was a DJ in college. My parents met at New York University. My father was a kid from New Rochelle who came to New York City, and he was exposed to many different cultures. So he listened to Motown, and he listened to Bob Dylan. He listened to the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones, but he also listened to reggae music. He listened to everything, and he collected vinyl. So I grew up in a house that had vinyl, stacks of vinyl lined against the walls in the living room and the dining room. And when I got to the age where music became really important to me, maybe around 9, 10, 11, I spent a lot of time listening to those records over and over again.
NPR: Were any of them hip-hop albums? And at what point did that become something you knew you wanted to do?
Kweli: Nah, my parents were not hip-hop fans. They were fans of urban music. So whenever hip-hop crept into the mainstream culture, like, there would be certain records — Shannon, "Let the Music Play" is essentially a hip-hop record; or Blondie, "Rapture" or "Rapper's Delight"; Sugarhill Gang. I remember the first rap record that was on the radio that was real, real boom-bap hip-hop that I remember was Run-DMC "You Be Illin'." By that time they were a big group; they had "Walk This Way." But my parents weren't into that.
We used to listen to WBLS and Kiss FM, and so whatever they played, if they played a record, then they heard it. I didn't get into hip-hop on my own until junior high school, and I wanted to impress my peers, and all my peers were listening to hip-hop. But up until that time, I had only listened to what my father listened to.
NPR: And so you got the mainstream introduction to hip-hop.
Kweli: I did, and most people these days get a mainstream introduction to hip-hop. Most kids who listen to hip-hop were not aware of a time when hip-hop wasn't everywhere, when you had to search it out and seek it out to find it. So for me, it was like that. I knew about hip-hop, growing up in New York City. Anyone who grew up in New York City, who was born in the '70s, you're hip-hop, whether you listen to hip-hop or not. That's how much — how prevalent hip-hop is to the culture of this city, to the fabric of this city. So it was in me, but I didn't express it until junior high school.
You could find a hip-hop song dealing with any subject matter, but the stuff that's being promoted and marketed and the corporations are spending major money on is the decadent stuff, which is mostly about drug use and sex. That's why people get a skewed perspective of hip-hop.
NPR: And at that point, who was the rapper that grabbed your attention, that inspired you to write your first rap?
Kweli: I think Doug E. Fresh was the rapper who inspired me to write my first rhyme, but I really gravitated towards it when I heard De La Soul and Public Enemy in '87 and '88. Like De La Soul, Public Enemy, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim — those were the people who made me wanna try to create songs.
NPR: Which is interesting because that was the precursor to the kind of conscious rap that you became known for later in the '90s with Black Star.
Kweli: Yeah, certainly. My parents were professors, so there was a lot of academic influence in my household. When hip-hop became more conscious, which was considered the golden era of hip-hop from like '87 to '91, '92 maybe, that was when I was in junior high school and the most impressionable. So the movement of hip-hop, which are Poor Righteous Teachers and your X-Clans, was coinciding with what I was learning in my house. Spike Lee — I went to Brooklyn Tech High School. Spike Lee had Spike's Joint across the street. He was making a Malcolm X movie. You'd go into Spike's Joint, it'd be all Malcolm X gear and stuff, so all that was coming together for me.
NPR: The song "Ready, Set, Go," is such a good example of your rapping style. There's a reference to an obscure Bill Murray movie, Quick Change, there's a car-racing metaphor.
Kweli: There's a lot of movie references in my lyrics. And that's a great movie! That's a classic that people missed.
NPR: Tell me about how you developed your lyrical style. I mean, what went into this?
Kweli: The song "Ready, Set, Go," is a metaphor for car racing. That's how my life feels often: like I'm in a NASCAR race, and I'm just going around and around. But I'm a pop culture junkie, I'm an information junkie, I'm a student of history. I understand that human beings were placed here to seek information. The moment we stop gaining and processing information, that's when your brain stops working and you die. And I think it comes across in my lyrics. There's a lot of literary references, a lot of movie references, a lot of pop culture references. But it all ties into a general point I'm making about society, about compassion, about trying to be honest with myself and my craft and things of that nature.
NPR: Were your first raps so complicated? Do you remember the first rap you wrote?
Kweli: To be honest with you, I think my first raps were probably more complicated than they are now. I think they were probably more obscure and more abstract. I think over the years I've learned, to my benefit, to be more accessible. I've learned how to flow better, I've learned how to create references in people's minds that work for them. And what rappers do, what MCs do, is we find ways to say things that are in people's heads but they can't express themselves. I think all songwriters do that. You put it to a melody, you put it to a beat, and people appreciate you for it for years.
NPR: These days it doesn't seem as though rappers, or even their critics, are as preoccupied with violence the way people talked about it in the '90s. And if rap, as Chuck D once said, is CNN for black people, what is it saying these days?
Kweli: It's saying that hip-hop is settling down and there's less anger. Earlier, I made the point about the criteria for the best MC changing up. Kendrick Lamar was considered the hottest rapper on MTV's list recently. But when you listen to his singles that he's put out the hooks: "Pour up, drink / Headshot, drink." The first single he put out was "Swimming Pools," about alcoholism. The second single, "Poetic Justice," was about love and relationships and featured Drake, who makes a lot of records about love and relationships. This is what these kids are listening to. This is what works.
The verses that Kendrick says are very descriptive and intricate, and the hooks are very simple. And I think that's a Trojan horse approach to hip-hop records, whereas when Chuck D first came out, when he called [hip-hop] the black CNN, it was a lot more informative about what's going on in the streets, what's going on in the culture. Kendrick Lamar is actually an artist who does that. He created a hip-hop opera with his album, telling a first-person narrative in a musical way about, you know, growing up on the streets of Compton. He's the rare example, but I think hip-hop is going back to that, which is why people are gravitating to an artist like him.
NPR: Let me rephrase then, because I want to know what you think are the preoccupations of hip-hop these days? What are the things that you think the music is speaking to?
Kweli: As far as mainstream hip-hop? Molly. Sex, drugs. We're in our rock 'n' roll phase, you know? Sex, drugs and party, party, party. That's where it's at in the mainstream. But you'd be fooled if you only got your hip-hop from the mainstream. One of the biggest hip-hop artists in the country right now is Macklemore, who doesn't do anything like that. Macklemore seems like he's coming from a sort of white, or suburban perspective, whereas I was coming from more of an inner-city perspective.
But the things that move people are not just found in the mainstream culture. So when we talk about hip-hop in general, hip-hop is preoccupied with life. You could find a hip-hop song dealing with any subject matter, but the stuff that's being promoted and marketed and the corporations are spending major money on is the decadent stuff, which is mostly about drug use and sex. That's why people get a skewed perspective of hip-hop. Hip-hop fans themselves aren't even listening to that stuff. Most hip-hop fans aren't listening to mainstream hip-hop. It's people from other walks of life and genres who don't have anything invested in hip-hop, who are pop listeners or who listen to whatever's trendy, that are driving that. But when that stuff is not trendy anymore, you'll start to see clearer what the subject matters of hip-hop are and how diverse they are.
NPR: It's been something like 15, 20 years since your early breakthrough albums, and there have been a number of hip-hop artists like you. You can say The Roots or Nas, who have really proven to have longevity. And are you feeling surprised or feeling good that you've reached this age in this genre?
Kweli: I never doubted that I would be doing this for the rest of my life. I've been far more successful than I've even dreamed I could be. I was working at a bookstore when I was 19, 20, and I was rapping. I was locally known, and I was doing open mics around the city, and I was ecstatic. I remember thinking then, "Man, if I could just work at this bookstore forever" — that was back in the days when that was a viable option to, like, work at a bookstore — "If I could just work at this bookstore and rap." I had kids very young, so I was, like, if I could raise my kids doing what I love — that to me is the definition of success.
I just came from SXSW where I brought Bushwick Bill and Diamond D on stage with me. I went to the Prince concert. Tribe Called Quest opened — I went as a guest of theirs. When I leave from this interview, I'm going to meet DJ Premier to do a video for a Gang Starr record that I got. I'm going to do 106 and Park with Mack Maine. I got a song with him and Lil Wayne. And then I'm going to perform in my sold-out Brooklyn Bowl show later. I couldn't even have dreamed of being this successful. I have no complaints. I'm not done — by far I'm not done. But, yeah, I didn't imagine it would be anything like this.
NPR: So you've got kids, and I'm wondering, do they engage your music? Have you changed your style over the years as you've been a parent?
Kweli: My kids are the best, the most inspiring thing that pushes me at this point. It used to be because they were born and I had to take care of them. Now it's because my son raps and he's better than me. So now I gotta keep up with him, you know what I'm saying?
He's 17. And my daughter sings. I performed at the Prince tribute a little while ago at Carnegie Hall. But the day before, I went to see her sing with her student group at Carnegie Hall, so that was a good feeling as well.
NPR: I feel like there are many more parents in hip-hop now. Do think that's changed the music?
Kweli: Yeah, hip-hop is older. Now you have parents who listen to one type of hip-hop and their kids listen to a completely different type of hip-hop. My son has put me on to rappers. There's a rapper named Joey Badass out of Brooklyn who's making a lot of noise right now, and my son is the one that put me on to him because he's the same age.
NPR: It's totally different from your experience, hearing someone on the radio. Or having objections to it, the way your parents did.
Kweli: Me and my son, liking the same music, it makes us almost part of the same generation. My son was introduced to hip-hop through me, so his first hip-hop was KRS-One. Those were his favorite rappers. KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane were his favorite. And he didn't like Drake or Lil' Wayne until he went to high school. Then he was like, "Oh, these guys are not that bad." But he had to get around his peer group and discover his own hip-hop. He was just liking what he heard from me. Not to say that I didn't like those guys but, you know, I played the music from my generation a lot more.
NPR: In the end, did your parents come around to the music that you came to love?
Kweli: Oh yeah, they came around in the beginning. My parents were very understanding and very accepting and pushed me to do what I wanted to do. They didn't quite get hip-hop at first, but they were supportive of me participating in hip-hop, definitely, once they saw I participated in it and they saw how I did it. And then they got to know about The Roots and Nas and Mos Def, and they started to see other examples. Now they use hip-hop in their classes, both of them.