The year was 1998. Joe Dumars was still a combo-guard and gas was 89 cents a gallon. Hip hop had already been hijacked, Puffy and Mase were on top, the Beastie Boys went grunge, and true-school heads were starved for a dose of reality. Biggie and Pac had both been clapped, and the void they left was humongous. Big enough for two headstrong rappers from Brooklyn to sneak up on the world and drop the Black Star album, a record so important to hip hop’s evolution that it changed the game, and the way many looked at music.
What Talib Kweli and Mos Def did with Black Star during hip hop’s turbulent “sell-out” years made them cats that you had to hear. And though Kweli’s rhymes didn’t register with mainstream audiences until his 2003 hit “Get By,” his strong vocal cadence, didactic wordplay and expressive mantras exposed scores of knuckleheaded American kids to what social consciousness (via hip hop) really sounded like on wax.
The 29-year-old father of two is currently on tour with the Beastie Boys, and his sophomore solo album, The Beautiful Struggle, is out now on Geffen. The album features Jus Blaze, Hi-Tek, Kanye West production and guest appearances by everyone from Mary J. Blige to Jean Grae. Metro Times recently spoke with Kweli about life, female emcees, dropping out of college and his rather audacious ride through hip hop.
Metro Times: Do you ever get tired of being typecast as the “conscious” emcee who’s always political with his lyrics?
Talib Kweli: Well, I mean I wear it because I am conscious, but that’s not all of what I am. I just try to speak truth to matters. So, yeah, that’s a part of me, but it’s limiting to say that’s all I am.
MT: Was there a particular message that you tried to maintain throughout Beautiful Struggle?
Kweli: Yeah, the message was, try to be honest in what each track is asking you to do. A song like “Joy” came out ’cause I was like, I gotta have a song about my kids. “Waiting for the DJ,” that song I was like, I want to have a dedication to the DJs. I didn’t start off with any type of song I wanted to make. It just came.
MT: On the Quality album, you have a line that says, “Kurt Loder asked me what I say to a dead cop’s wife/cops kill my people everyday that’s life.” Did you ever catch any flak for that line?
Kweli: Um, no, I didn’t really catch any flak, you know, anymore than I probably have already. But there wasn’t any specific flak with no police department or anything like that. I would like to think that it’s because what I said is true. When you look at a group like Dead Prez, their style is a little bit more in-your-face, more inflamed. Especially the way they present themselves in their shows. My agenda, on the other hand, is to entertain you. But to say that music doesn’t need to have a message would be ludicrous.
MT: So what’s it been like touring with the Beastie Boys?
Kweli: It’s been great. It’s a new crowd for me, so I think I’m gaining new fans.
MT: I read somewhere that you traveled and performed in South Africa. What was that like?
Kweli: It was dope. We performed in Durban and Soweto. It was amazing because we were there in solidarity with the people. We saw how they really lived out in the townships and all of that.
MT: How did that trip come about?
Kweli: I went with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. I had been to Cuba with them before. They do a project called Black August where we raise money for political prisoners and we take trips to, you know, be a part of hip-hop culture in other places. That particular trip was Black Thought, Jeru the Damaja, Dead Prez and myself.
MT: Of all the places where you’ve performed outside of the United States, where have you felt your music to be most appreciated?
Kweli: I’d definitely have to say South Africa. They’re hungry for hip hop over there. Cuba was the same way. It makes you realize that we’re still all a part of one struggle.
MT: Both your parents were college professors. That must have been interesting.
Kweli: Yeah, my pops teaches at NYU and my moms teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.
MT: Was there a lot of pressure for you to go to college when you got out of high school?
Kweli: Umm, yeah. My parents definitely wanted me to go to college. It wasn’t so much pressure as it was them just giving me the real on what a college education can do for you.
MT: Were they disappointed when you dropped out?
Kweli: Yeah, they were definitely disappointed when I left college, but they understood that I had to be a man and learn for myself. I mean, I went to NYU for two years and then I went to Medgar Evers College for like six months before I just started pursuing hip hop. But my next move after dropping out of school was Rawkus so my parents understood.
MT: And now your mom runs a bookstore?
Kweli: We had a bookstore, but we don’t have it anymore. I used to work at a bookstore called Nkiru Books, and when me and Mos Def put out the Black Star album, we bought it. We tried to run it as a business for a while, but we turned it into a nonprofit, more like an educational organization. And my mom was running it along with Mos Def’s mom, but, you know, it just ran its course, so we dismantled it and moved on.
MT: Do you view hip hop differently now than you did back when you and Mos Def put out the Black Star album?
Kweli: Slightly differently. My morals and my values are the same. But what hip hop’s power is and what I can use it for is probably different than when I first came out.
MT: What’s been the most eye-opening realization you’ve had so far in hip hop?
Kweli: The power that it allows young black people to have. A young black man barely 21 can still be the man of his house and feed his whole family off of hip hop. That’s pretty powerful.
MT: What ventures do you see yourself pursuing in the future?
Kweli: Um, being involved in schools and education. And maybe theater, I’d like to see more theater in public schools. Kids are so creative. If anything I’ll be involved in schools.
MT: Top five female emcees of all time?
Kweli: Shit, that’s hard.
1) MC Lyte — Just ’cause of her sheer impacts on my lyrics. She’s like the female Rakim to me.
2) Rah Digga — I think she’s fly as far as struggle in the game and her cleverness with punch lines and lyrics.
3) Jean Grae — You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who raps better than her as far as females.
4) Lauryn Hill — Even though she hasn’t put out anything in a while hip-hop related. The tip she was on with the Fugees definitely makes her one of the best, period.
And No. 5 … Shit, I don’t know. That’s a hard one.
MT: Remember this is Detroit.
Kweli: What you want me to say Invincible or something? (laughs)
MT: Naw, I can’t put words in your mouth.
Kweli: Word, Invincible is one of the most talented emcees I’ve ever heard. But Invincible is one who participates in a lot more activism than she puts out records. While she’s one of the most talented emcees I’ve ever heard black or white, male or female, she’s killing a lot of cats putting out records right now. To me she hasn’t put in the time or energy to be considered one of the best. She could be; it just seems to be other things that are more important to her right now than putting out records.
5) Foxy — It’s a toss-up between her and Lil’ Kim, but Foxy’s got a lot of enduring qualities that I like.
Kweli performs at Cobo Arena (301 Civic Center Dr., Detroit; 313-983-6616) on Friday, Nov. 5, with the Beastie Boys. Jonathan Cunningham is an editorial intern at Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org