Exclusive: Talib Kweli on the Subtleties of Selling Out

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Even within the complex, persona-driven world of hip-hop, Talib Kweli is something of an enigma. He came up with progressive hip-hop act Black Star, shunning the bling mentality of other MCs for message-driven music extolling the social and intellectual ascendancy of African Americans. But, since striking out on his own, he’s engaged in a constant battle to lose the “conscious” label he once courted. It makes you wonder: who is Talib Kweli? What does he really want?

Backstage at a special event in New York’s Museum of Natural History, four distinct personas emerge. As I wait for my interview, I see him mug and strut for an MTV camera, raising his arms in herky-jerky motions, as he spits staccato sentences rife with stock rapper slang. When he sits with me, the deep-throated boasts wash away, replaced with personable, intelligent assertions. The man that petulantly harasses his assistant to find the “driver” and “the glasses he drove off with” is another thing entirely, distinct from the fourth Talib, a giddy, hyper-literate nerd that waxes enthusiastically about his extensive study of experimental theater.

It all leads us to my one-question interview: has progressive rap sold out, and is Talib Kweli part of the problem? After the jump, I ask.

Flavorpill: I really only have one question, one thing I want to discuss. Has progressive rap sold out, and are you part of the problem?

Talib Kweli: I think you have to be clear on what you job is… I provide a public service. I provide music for people. What is people’s relationship to music? Throughout our history, people use music for spiritual upliftment and to take their mind off things, not to be beat in the head with a bunch of facts and what’s wrong with the world. If they want to hear that, I go speak at colleges all the time. We can build and have a session and talk about the world’s problems. I consider it an honor and a blessing that I can take a message and put it into something entertaining. But, I realize that it’s my job is to be entertaining.

FP: Has your perspective on this changed? The reason you got that brand in the first place, is because that’s how you came up. TK: I will say that as you grow you mature and you realize that you have to control the imagery. At 32 — I started when I was 22 — I am much more in control of what images are put out there, whereas before I just allowed people to think whatever they want to. I think that, you know, you’re right: my music early on made specific statements. But the reasons why people crowded to it wasn’t because of the statements; it was because of how I made it. There’s lots of MCs who have maybe even deeper thoughts than I have, but they weren’t able to have the style or the swagger, or the words or whatever it was that made people gravitate to my music. So that’s really what the key is. Even the most conscious Talib Kweli fan is my fan because they like my music. They’re not really a fan because of the message.

FP: It sounds to me like you’re saying it’s not really possible. Do you think it’s possible to not be co-opted if you’re trying to just do a straight message?

TK: I think that you have to think about the realities of what you’re trying to do. There are artists out there that put their message before the music. Some of them are good. Some of them is whack. Know what I’m saying? Dead Prez is a good example of a group that put politics and activism before the music, but they just so supremely talented at the music that you still get into it. But you can’t look at a crew like Dead Prez and be like “They just here to entertain me.” Entertainment is secondary. Entertainment is the vehicle… We all roll in the same circles but our job description is slightly different.

FP: It’s interesting to hear that you see it as a job description….

TK: Everyone has different roles; everyone has different position to play. M-1 and Stic: their life and career has led them to become Dead Prez.

FP: But they’ve blown up…

TK: I’d dispute that….

FP: Well, they have become…

TK: The average hip-hop fan who’s into progressive music, Dead Prez is one of those premiere groups.

FP: That’s what I mean; they’ve certainly blown it up on a higher plane.

TK: What their music represents to us has a huge importance.

FP: Is there external pressure to even that out? The reason so many progressive groups were grabbed up in the last few years is because they represent cred… they want our cred, but they don’t want what we have to say…

TK: As artists, the era of record companies stifling your creative control doesn’t really make sense anymore. They don’t even have to go about the business of stifling someone’s creative control once they sign them. Once they sign them, it’s really about the profitability. If they make money with Dead Prez, they’ll sign them regardless. They haven’t figure out how to make money with them yet. Once they do, Dead Prez could be the biggest group in the world, regardless of their politics. They could be talking about burning down everything; if they’re making money it don’t matter.

FP: Do you feel like you’re creating a character on stage?

TK: Oh yeah, without a doubt. Every rapper does. We create characters, we create the script, we create whole movies started because our caricatures are the traits we want to show the world.

FP: Do you think that’s true of progressive rap too? Frankly, the audience is changing… I saw Dead Prez in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. The whole audience was white…. Is the “character” dangerous? Can it misrepresent who you are?

TK: As far as the audience being white, they’re selling hip-hop. They’ve perfected how to sell it. And in their market research and focus group says message music doesn’t translate well with young black women who are buying urban records. You play a Dead Prez record next to some bullshit on the radio, people are gonna like it, because they hear it. But if they never hear it, how are they gonna know? The black community in Brooklyn doesn’t know dead Prez exists.

[Photo By Joe Cereghino]