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Talib Kweli - Get Familiar With Talib

Author: Cyclone
Friday, 28 September 2007
There is much fanfare for Common, but Talib Kweli, too, has consistently circulated eloquent, heartfelt and soulful albums. 3D’s Cyclone talks to the Brooklynite lauded as a ‘conscious’ MC.

Eardrum, Talib’s third solo foray, is a revelation as hip hop faces its own ‘beautiful struggle’ for freedom. Yet Talib Kweli Greene, no ordinary revolutionary, has some surprises in store. Who would ever imagine Norah Jones on a hip hop LP-
“I wanted the people to focus on what I can do as a musician,” Talib says of his evolution. “People always talk about my lyrics, which is great, but I don’t think the music choices that I make get enough credit. I called the album Eardrum to lead the focus in that direction.”
Kweli emerged as part of Black Star with Mos Def, whom he met in school, in the late ’90s. The pair rejuvenated alt-hip hop with their sole Rawkus album, then, perhaps inevitably, immersed themselves in their individual exploits. But, first, Talib teamed with DJ Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal for Train Of Thought.
In 2002 the edutainer debuted formally with Quality, encompassing the popular single Get By, which Kanye West helmed.
Talib consolidated a growing overground rep with The Beautiful Struggle - the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Mary J Blige, elevated I Try. Nevertheless, massive sales eluded him. No wonder an XXL reviewer has dubbed Kweli “the perennial underdog”. Luckily, Eardrum not only has all the components of a minor masterpiece, but also a big push behind it.
Talib dazzles on NY Weather Report. Kanye offers In The Mood, featuring Roy Ayers - worthy of Graduation. And Norah brings sensuality to Soon The New Day. The jazz chanteuse has previously recorded with OutKast. Still, she isn’t conventionally identified with hip hop. At any rate, Ms Jones took the collab in her stride. “She didn’t seem surprised,” Talib says. “I learned after that Norah has a rock band [El Madmo] that she plays guitar in, so it’s a natural fit for her. It may not be a natural fit for her fans to understand, or my fans to understand, but, for who she is, it was perfect.”
Talib graciously gives the South some shine on Country Cousins, rapping alongside UGK. But, most unexpected of all, pop superstar Justin Timberlake materialises on The Nature. Needless to say, arch hip hop purists were perplexed - and cynical. “I’ve become friendly with Justin from going on a trip to Africa with him for this MTV thing that we did a couple of years ago,” Talib explains. “He was working in the same studio across the hall from me on his album.
“I think Justin is a genius, man. I am a fan of his music. I love the way that he’s transitioned in the business.
“Kanye did an interview in XXL where he talked about how he feels like the people he’s competing with are your Timberlakes and your Timbalands of the world, and he talked about Justin being a complete artist, and how Justin is No. 1 because his music is good.
“I have a lot of respect for what Kanye says. It made me feel like I was correct in my assessment of Justin as an artist as well.”
In the past Kweli has suggested that he’s boxed in as a ‘conscious’ (read: one-dimensional) MC. Does he hope Eardrum will change perceptions- “I don’t know about that. This album is an album that, while I won’t say it was easy to make, employs a sound that I’m good at. As an artist you wanna challenge yourself and do things that maybe you’re not so good at - that’s the nature of a true artist. But I have found a comfort zone with this album.” And that comfort zone is the LP’s musical bed. Eardrum revisits the sounds of Golden Age beatmakers like Pete Rock, who, coincidentally, is among those credited.
Talib might be counted on to voice strong opinions on the creative void in urban music that Nas exposed on Hip Hop Is Dead. However, he’s diplomatic. “Hip hop has lost its ability to police itself, because it’s become so corporate, but it still is the language of the youth - and it still is the language of that youth culture. I live hip hop completely. I see positive things, I see negative things all the time - regardless of what the media sees.
“I always think that hip hop is exactly where the people are and, wherever the people’s heads are at, is where the music is gonna be. Right now the people’s heads are about celebrating and about being entrepreneurs and stacking money - having your individual lifestyle be fresh and fly and everything. So the hip hop songs that the youth are making are about that - about becoming your own boss and about going to the club and getting drunk and having fun.”
Talib, liberated from Geffen, is releasing Eardrum through his fledgling Blacksmith Music, with Warner’s support. The enterprise will be more than an outlet for his music. He’s already signed Jean Grae as well as Xzibit’s posse, Strong Arm Steady, who’ve generated a vibe on the West Coast. The canny Talib envisages Blacksmith as serving hip hop heads who are otherwise disillusioned.
In recent years Talib has apparently gone his separate way from Mos Def. Mos, an actor, is landing credible roles in Hollywood films like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, although his recording career unravelled with True Magic. Auspiciously, Black Star reunited for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Kweli isn’t ruling out a comeback. “Black Star is a friendship experience and a live experience. I do shows with Mos Def all the time, we see each other all the time, hang out all the time - so it’s not an issue with either of us. But we’re pressed to get an album done. The fans may not wanna hear that, but that’s just what it is. It’s a situation where we don’t need to be pressed to do it. If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Kweli, the product of an academic family, enrolled in drama at college. The MC admits he didn’t value education back then, but is contemplating mature age study. “I’m just now, into my third decade, thinking about how I wanna go back to school and learn some other things.”
Talib is returning to Australia for the first time since 2006’s Good Vibrations with the late James Brown. He loves Oz, but regrets that, while the punters know their hip hop, “the culture is not celebrated in the mainstream the way it should be.”
This tour Kweli will share the bill with the Kiwi MC Scribe. As it happens, Talib guests on Scribe’s latest album, Rhyme Book. He’s effusive in his praise of the New Zealander. “I have heard Scribe and, to be honest wit’ you, he thoroughly blew me away!
“I hear hip hop music all the time, I’m always hearing new artists, I’m always hearing people who can rap - everybody can rap!
“When he came to New York, and when I met him, he was so humble and such a fan of hip hop that I almost mistook him for just a fan. The way he came across was so humble, it was so non-threatening, and so nice that when I actually heard his music, the aggressiveness and the passion of it surprised me.”
Talib believes Scribe could potentially win over ethnocentric Americans. “When I heard Scribe’s music, I’m like, This is somebody from overseas who has a shot to make it in America, because it’s real hip hop. His shit is dope.
“I don’t think he knows how dope it is. I don’t think he really knows!
“When he gets his swagger up, and when he knows that his shit is dope, he’s gonna be even doper - ’cause I don’t know if that’s how he means to come across, but he comes across like he really don’t know how dope he is!”

WHO: Talib Kweli
WHAT: Eardrum through Warner / Plays the Enmore
WHEN: Out now / Friday 12 October