Nowadays the split is defined. There's an obvious division between emcees who are "conscious" and their more shrill counterparts, everybody from Clipse and the Dipset crew to David Banner and Lil Jon. But back in 1998, when Talib Kweli and Mos Def appeared as Black Star, those lines of demarcation weren't as clear. That's part of the reason why Black Star is so important not only did it launch the careers of two of the most lyrical emcees working today, it also made it seem possible for artists who weren't necessarily about vice or stark hood imagery to have a mainstream voice. Kweli and Mos weren't saints. But their tracks moved on more than one surface and made art from struggle.
All of this makes Kweli a great addition to the 2006 version of Kool's New Jazz Philosophy Tour, where he joins the Roots and the Pharcyde on a trek that previously included Common, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, singer John Legend, and hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari. Conscious, organic, lyrical call these artists whatever you want. Kweli has a simpler definition. "I don't really look at it as the Kool tour," he says. "I look at it as me rocking with the Roots."
The emcee has been busy lately. Besides putting the final touches on his upcoming album and handling the reins of Blacksmith Music Corporation (his new imprint with manager Corey Smith), Kweli is finding time for his kids. "I get to spend much more time with them in the summer, but not as much as I want to," he says from New Jersey, where he's heading to Six Flags Great Adventure with daughter Diani and son Amani. He's also coming off a gig the night before in New York City, where he performed with knife's-edge underground emcee Jean Grae. (Grae recently signed with Blacksmith, where she joins Strong Arm Steady, a Cali quartet led by Xzibit.) The kid-friendly downtime is nice. But Kweli knows his work is never done.
"Regardless of whether I'm on Geffen or Blacksmith or whatever, I'm going to be working," he says. "I'm going to be working on my projects, making my mixtapes, doing shows. ... I'm going to be a prolific artist."
This despite a less-than-successful stint at Geffen, which released 2004's critically acclaimed Beautiful Struggle but did little to promote it. "The only thing that Geffen did was distribute the record," he says. Kweli paid to press the vinyl edition himself, as well as for the "Never Been in Love" video.
But the run of hard luck and how he rose above it represents Kweli well. After more than a decade in the rap game, Kweli knows he'll never be hip hop's flavor of the week.
The son of a sociologist and an English professor, Kweli says he could've taken any route he wanted as a child. He played baseball, wrote plays and did anything else he could to apply his active spirit. But in hip hop, he says, he found "instant gratification."
He believes that despite the demands of the music industry, one must be allowed to experiment. It nourishes the talent. "I've proven that through what I've been able to do in this business," he says. "I don't have major support from major media, but my art is consistent, my fan base is consistent, and it's consistently growing."
Kweli digs being out with the Roots, longtime friends with whom he's worked on a number of tracks. He also says that in every show he pays homage to Detroit producer James "J Dilla" Yancey, who died earlier this year. Kweli says Dilla was the craftsman who gave underground hip hop its sound, the character in production and feel that came to be associated with the likes of the Roots, Common and Slum Village, as well as Mos Def and Kweli himself.
"Dilla epitomized our sound," he says. "It's just such a great loss, but we have to celebrate his life instead of being mournful for the fact that he passed."
After his Detroit date, the work continues. Kweli has the rest of the tour to think about Blacksmith and his next solo album. But that defines who Talib Kweli is artistry and work ethic, and maybe a little time left over to take his kids to the park.
Thursday, Aug. 3, at the State Theatre, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5450. With the Roots and the Pharcyde.
Markeysha Davis is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org