Talib Kweli doesn’t understand the word “complacency.” Over the past 16 years, the Brooklyn lyricist has compiled a nine-album catalog littered with visceral wordplay and seminal offerings while never relinquishing his uncompromising message. He’s worked with just about every artist and producer this side of Outkast, tangoed with the major labels and forged his own record company, Blacksmith Records (along with his manager, Corey Smyth), seizing control of his career. And all the while, he keeps making music, never tossing out proclamations of retirement. He keeps it moving forward, never flinching in the face of complacency.
Approaching the release of his tenth project, Gutter Rainbows, HipHopDX conducted two telephone interviews with Talib Kweli, discussing his career legacy, his “big homie” status and recording Black Star tracks at MC Hammer’s house.
HipHopDX: You’re a veteran. You’re one of the cats that newer rappers aspire to be. It’s always been that way from a talent standpoint, from a skills standpoint. But from a legacy standpoint now, there aren’t many artists that have the resume that you have, that have been able to last and transition as well as you have while Hip Hop was changing, while technology was changing, while the culture was changing. After 16 years and nine albums, what still surprises you about Hip Hop?
Talib Kweli: The unification of [Hip Hop]. The idea that Hip Hop was the first truly multicultural thing I’ve ever seen. The word multicultural sounds corny because our parent’s generation tried to implement it through the school system and it was done in a way where — even though they had some of the best intentions — in a way that seemed forced. And Hip Hop is multicultural by it’s nature. Fred The Godson, he has a song called “Up To Us” where he names a bunch of artists from Wale to Jay Electronica to Trae Tha Truth to Asher Roth. And back when I came out, you would go to the Village and meet emcees from Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, wherever and there would be different styles in the city. But the idea that this new young emcee could name check emcee’s from all over the world is a great thing, and emcees from different backgrounds, different styles is a great thing. The boom in the music industry where everybody was making millions of dollars is gone but that spirit of Hip Hop is still there.
DX: One of the things I appreciate most about you and your career is that you’ve collaborated with just about every other great artist and great producer over the course of your career and you continue to create music. You’re always tinkering with new sounds and have never tossed out proclamations of retirement. After going through the Interscope/Geffen/MCA major label situation, was there ever a moment that you felt like hanging up the mic? Was there a moment that you felt like retiring? You kind of allude to it on “My Life.” Those were thoughts that I’ve never heard you express on wax like that.
Talib Kweli: As far as wanting to stop creating, no. It makes me want to create more. Gutter Rainbows sort of comes out of that — wanting to create more. But what I do want to do is take control of our music out there so I don’t have to worry about stuff like that. I feel like I’ve made incredible strides this year with releasing Gutter Rainbows through Javotti Media, which is my company and releasing Prisoner of Consciousness, my next album on Blacksmith/EMI. I’m more in control of a bunch of aspects in my life.
DX: Your fans appreciate your rhyme skills, but they also appreciate your message — your sociopolitical angles, your focus on education, speaking on things that relate to everyday people. Given the recent attack on [Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords] in Arizona, has our political discourse reached a boiling point? And if so what is Hip Hop’s role, if it has a role in it at all?
Talib Kweli: Hip Hop has a potential to have a role because Hip Hop is a great way to spread information. The Obama campaign used Hip Hop very effectively. That’s the first time in politics that’s seen. Cats like Corey Booker — and Kevin Powell — now are starting to really figure out how to utilize Hip Hop and the Hip Hop mentality going into politics. And I think doing that makes them come across as genuine. Look what happened to [Kwame Kilpatrick, who] called himself the “Hip Hop Mayor.” If you wear it on your sleeve it’s not genuine. These guys call themselves coming up in the Hip Hop generation, so they relate to us a little bit more. And quite possibly, I’m feeling like that because I’m older. Maybe because I don’t relate to the younger cats who are coming up under me. I feel like the responsibility is there when you have Rosa Clemente running for Vice President [for the Green Party]. You can only remain apathetic for so long or you’re quitting.
DX: It’s interesting that you say you don’t relate to the younger cats coming up because you play that elder statesman role frequently. Whether it’s having Papoose [on “The Beast”] on Right About Now, or taking Kanye West on tour, or having J. Cole and Jay Electronica [on “Just Begun”] on Revolutions Per Minute — you always provide a platform for younger artists. You’ve played that big homie role consistently.
Talib Kweli: That’s fucked up that people are calling me “big homie” and “uncle” and shit like that! [Laughs] I don’t be liking that shit. Kick that “uncle” shit over there! [Laughs] I haven’t actually been called “uncle” yet. But I’ve been called “big homie” though, a couple times.
DX: You’ve worked with Bun B on your last two projects, too.
Talib Kweli: See, that’s my “big homie.”
DX: Exactly, and Bun B’s that cat. He is that “big homie.” He does the same thing. He reaches out to younger generations all the time. I think he makes it a point to do that.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, and I don’t do it because, “Oh, I’ve gotta stay relevant and get with what’s hot.” I do it because I’ve recognized things in myself. Like, somebody that I recognize a lot of myself in is Blu. So for him, I’m just like man, fuck. People on OkayPlayer, especially that whole OkayPlayer community have been bigging up that Blu & Exile album [Below The Heavens] for so long. That community is so insular that I don’t always trust everything that they say is hot. So [when I first heard about Blu], I was kind of like this could be just some Hip Hop purist shit that’s not appealing to me. But when I sat down and listened to it, I was like “Whoa, not only is this incredible, this sounds like the album I would’ve put out if I was coming out. Me and Hi-Tek.” Hearing that in him made me want to reach out to him. [It was the] same thing with J. Cole [and] Jay Electronica. Jay Electronica I met on tour when he was touring with Nas. You know how Jay Electronica doesn’t like to rap over beats at his shows. He’ll stop the beat three bars in and be like “Nah, y’all gotta hear what I’m saying.” That he was able to do that and no one knew who he was, that was impressive to me. And you know, J. Cole, I got on J. Cole late. He had a couple mixtapes out before I had ever heard him rap but people [were] talking about him so much that it made me check for a couple songs and I thought his flow was crazy. When I put J. Cole on “Just Begun”, he had just dropped [The Warm Up] so I wasn’t really really really that familiar with J. Cole. I just felt like he was the dude who fit the song. I got to know more about his music after we actually worked together.
DX: His verse stands out on that track and it’s ironic because he’s really just talking about women on there, right? He’s really just talking about smashing for the most part.
Talib Kweli: Yes. That’s it. That’s what I like about J. Cole. Blu is like that too. Except Blu is a little bit more introverted. Blu came over to my crib and you know what bugged me out about the conversation I had with Blu? He was asking me shit that’s like — from the school I come from — you’re not emceeing unless you know all this shit, you know what I’m saying. But it made me like “Oh, but that’s my generation.” We just knew culturally. Everybody’s shit was a little bit more Rap. [Now,] it’s more about their feelings and it’s more about just being a regular human being. It’s not as cultured [in Hip Hop] and I’m not saying that as a bad thing.
DX: You mentioned in a previous interviews that you hurried the release of Beautiful Struggle because you didn’t trust your label situation.
Talib Kweli: That I hurried it?
DX: You mentioned in a 2006 interview with XXL that you wanted to push Beautiful Struggle out because you were afraid Interscope was going to keep Geffen from releasing it partly because it was a confusing hierarchy over there.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, I mean Beautiful Struggle came out way later than I wanted it to. There was a bad leak of the whole album. That was slated for a September  release and there was a leak in February of that year. That leak taught me a lot about my situation there because [they were like], “Okay, whatever, Kweli’s album leaked. Whatever.” Jimmy Iovine was like “Let’s take Mary [J. Blige] off and put Maya on [“I Try”]. Mary’s not crackin‘ anymore.” This is before she sold like 700,000 copies [of The Breakthrough] in that first week and he had decided she wasn’t crackin‘ anymore. So I didn’t rush it out. I would’ve liked to have rushed it out but I ended up having to push it back initially.
DX: With Eardrum, you mentioned in a 2008 interview with LAist.com that “you got a little overzealous with trying to do too much too soon the Internet.” And that, [you] didn’t think Warner was moving fast enough so I was trying to do a lot of it on my own. I think for the next album I’m going to stay patient.”
Talib Kweli: You know with Eardrum, [Warner Brothers] put out “Listen.” Tom Whalley, he was a nice guy but didn’t have an idea for how to do Hip Hop albums. And a big part of the problem was they refused to work on anything until everything was turned in and all the T’s were crossed and all the I’s were dotted. That’s a Rock & Roll mentality because with a Rock band, it’s one band. The guys get in the garage and make they’re music. They all get in the studio, it’s all musicians playing, then they turn it in. With Hip Hop you’re dealing with [different people]. You’re dealing with someone on the hook. If you’re not the producer then you’re dealing with someone who made the beat. You’ve gotta clear samples. That stuff takes time. So if you’re not working on promotion for the album until everything is handed in, you’re not really promoting the album. So, that’s what happened with Eardrum. They put out “Listen,” then refused to work with it until everything was finished. I still had a little bit of a romantic idea about what it’s like [with major labels]. I mean, you signed me, you must want to support me, right?
DX: It seems like sometimes labels sign artists just to keep them off the market.
Talib Kweli: Right.
DX: At the Gutter Rainbows listening party, you mentioned that the label dropped the ball marketing the project as Reflection Eternal instead of Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek.
Talib Kweli: Right. I said “dropped the ball” because I sent them countless emails week after week saying “Hey, make sure it says Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek” and they were like “Yeah, of course.” And it never happened no matter how many emails I sent.
DX: So now approaching the release of Gutter Rainbows, how do you feel about the creative and marketing process so far?
Talib Kweli: My distribution company has been extremely helpful. This is a smaller release than even [Revolutions Per Minute]. However, the amount of stuff that I’ve been doing marketing wise — the amount of interviews, the amount of promotion, everything — literally, is 20 times more than Warner Brothers. I’m doing 20 times more to market and promote this album than I did for Reflection Eternal and that just showed me a lot about people’s mentality to release music and what they’re priorities are. There’s a lot of people who work in these buildings that are good at their jobs and love music and want to work with the artists but these people are stifled by working in these corporations, I’m seeing.
DX: Is that different though? Has that changed from the 1990s? I know Rawkus was a different situation. It was a microcosm of people that you just described that really care about Hip Hop, know about Hip Hop and care about the music. But overall, is that still a consistency between the industry in the 1990s versus what you’re seeing now?
Talib Kweli: The difference in the ’90s was that you could afford to lose money. You could spend money on an idea. Now, there’s no chances anymore. That’s why they’re offering 360 deals. Ain’t nobody taking any chances.
DX: Would you ever sign a 360 deal?
Talib Kweli: Hell no. I have no desire or need or want and it’s not in my best interest to ever do anything like that.
DX: Is it tough being the boss?
Talib Kweli: Yeah, it is. But it’s worth it. It’s rewarding.
DX: You experimented heavily with singing and arrangements that are outside of what’s considered Hip Hop on your Idle Warship project. When it comes to your solo projects, what still challenges you artistically?
Talib Kweli: I think the challenge is probably two fold. One is real ego/emcee-based. The reason Idle Warship even exists is just my desire to emcee. It’s sort of like how Jay-Z — at the end of his book [Decoded], when he says that he has all this money and he’s world famous and emceeing has taken him all these places and at the end of the day — it’s just his love for writing rhymes. That’s where he’s gotten all of that. And I felt that. I felt that in my heart when I read that because that’s how I feel. At the end of the day, writing rhymes has taken me all over the world. I’ve met heads of state and I’ve been to the poorest places in the world and that’s something that I’ll never, ever stop doing. Even if the format changes. Even if people stop listening to that music and albums, I’ll still be writing rhymes and making songs as Talib Kweli, or if it’s with Hi-Tek or Mos Def or Idle Warship. And then the other thing is that — the more business answer is that — the Talib Kweli brand enables all of this to keep going. Blacksmith the label, we haven’t really dropped anything besides Talib Kweli records and the Jeanius record. So it’s like, until Blacksmith cracks; until Idle Warship pops off; until my family is set for life it’s me making a Talib Kweli record that pays the bills and brings the money and does all of this.
DX: That’s a fortunate situation to be in especially considering how fickle Hip Hop and these measures for success and buying trends have been over the past few years. To be in a position where you can still carry a label, a crew and continue to drop dope shit is an outlier situation. It’s not the normal and you’ve proven that over your entire career.
Talib Kweli: It’s tough. It’s hard to do but it’s worth it. It’s rewarding and every album and every new project affords a new opportunity to be like “Okay, maybe this is the one album that will make it a little easier.” Whether or not it makes it a little easier, dropping more music into the cannon of black music of what we’re doing, ultimately — even if it’s a slow burn — it helps everything that I do and that we do as a label and as a crew.
DX: It was just announced that Black Star will headline Paid Dues. Then in a recent video interview with XXL, you mentioned that you and Mos record kind of on a regular basis, but you recorded three tracks at MC Hammer’s house. How did you end up at MC Hammer’s house?
Talib Kweli: In the summer we did a show with Dave Chappelle, a Black Star/Dave Chappelle show at a comedy club. Twitter is just a great medium. [I met my favorite author] on Twitter. Deepak Chopra, I [also] met him on Twitter. Hammer is somebody who I didn’t know. When Hammer came out, I was like, “What is this?” I wasn’t rolling with what Hammer was doing [in the early 1990s]. But it took me to grow and be a man and appreciate music more holistically to appreciate what Hammer the person and Hammer the artist has done for the culture. As I grew into a man, I grew to respect him and I think I let him know that through a couple of tweets and retweeting a couple of things that he said. He was just real warm and gracious and we developed a kinship, a soulship. But I had never met him though. It was a digital situation. The moment that I supported something that he said, he was very supportive of everything that I did. You know, he has a million followers so his support meant a lot. When I was in Oakland, he heard we were in Oakland and he hit me up on the DM and was like “Yo, I got a studio. Do you wanna get some shit done? Come through.” And I said, “Yeah.” And I wasn’t even planning on doing any Black Star shit because I didn’t know what Mos’ plans were. And Hammer said, “I’m gonna come pick you up.” And I ran into Mos later and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to go hang out with Hammer.” Mos always makes fun of me. He’s always saying how I can hang out with any rapper no matter what they rap like. It’s like a running joke. So told him, “Yeah, I’m about to go hang out with Hammer.” And he was like, “Yo, I would love to hang out with MC Hammer.” So it wasn’t any plans to do any music per se. We were just going to go kick it and we ended up recording some stuff.
DX: That’s funny because that’s what people said about your Gucci Mane collaboration [on “Poltergeist”].
Talib Kweli: Yeah, when Mos heard about that one he was like, “Man, you just be kicking it with any rapper!” [Laughs]
DX: It’s difficult to picture people still hanging out with and working with MC Hammer because the popular perception is that he was somehow ostracized from Hip Hop.
Talib Kweli: You know, to a certain degree, Hammer — just to keep it all the way funky — my experience with Hammer was when he came out with the first record, [Feel My Power], the one before [Let’s Get It Started], it was okay and Ralph McDaniels supported it. If Ralph McDaniels supported it, I supported it, basically. That’s how I looked at things. But then he came with “Turn This Mutha Out” on [Let’s Get It Started], and in my view he was dissing Run DMC and they were from New York so I was like “Oh, hell no.” I think growing up, I realized it was more about New York not letting anybody in and Hammer, coming from Oakland, was really trying to get in. That’s why in the “Turn This Mutha Out” video they’re like “Hammer, you ain’t hitting if you ain’t from New York.” I was in junior high school in New York and we were like, “Man, get out of here with that.” But then Hammer became a global international phenomenon. When Hammer got on a level where he was doing shows, doing these big extravagant shows and he was considered on a level with James Brown and Michael Jackson with his dancing — when he got to that level, you had to respect. When he’s really James Brown on stage, you’ve got to respect that. It’s like, “This young black man, Stanley Burrell from Oakland, he did it. He’s doing it.” That was a revelation.
The next revelation was when Puff [Daddy] — I’m not one of these Puff haters. I’ve got a lot of respect for Puff and it’s mutual. We kick it back and forth and talk about music and business and he’s given me some sound advice in the past. But he did an interview a few years back where he mentioned that growing up, coming in the game, Hammer was an inspiration for him. It was like, “You know what, I can see that,” and I didn’t really make the connection until I saw him say that in an interview. So my respect for Hammer developed as I became a man and became less juvenile about how I saw music.
DX: I was at your Highline Ballroom show in January 2010 where you performed with Jean Grae, Strong Arm Steady. Joell Ortiz was there. It was a dope dope show and you debuted tracks from Revolutions Per Minute. And the reoccurring theme that night was “this is the year of the Blacksmith.” You were promoting Revolutions Per Minute, Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae’s album coming out in the same year. Jean Grae’s album didn’t happen, but last year was promoted as the “year of the Blacksmith.” Given your Paid Dues headlining, is 2011 potentially the year of the Black Star?
Talib Kweli: You know, even if it’s the year of the Black Star, it’s still the year of the Blacksmith because me even being relevant enough for people to even care about Black Star is based on the work I do on my own and with Blacksmith Music, or else people would be like, “Oh, that’s the dude that used to rap with Mos Def.” I’m excited. Me and Mos talk often, every year about putting out a Black Star album. What’s interesting about it is Mos is very much over the music business — if you can’t tell from his releases and how he releases music. He sort of just puts a project out with his name on it. He doesn’t really go above and beyond in any form or fashion to promote his records because he’s really of the mind state that, “I don’t buy this shit.” He’s not trying to do the song and dance at all. I think he’s in a unique position because he’s so talented. He has other talents that are able to carry him forth to where he can take that position. But I think me being more independent in the long run is what’s going to allow the Black Star album to come out. We could’ve put out the album with different record deals and stuff like that and I think Mos has been over the record deal for a long time.
DX: You know, the collaboration you did with Consequence on Liberation, “Engine Running”, is one of my favorite tracks that you’ve ever done.
Talib Kweli: Thank you. Consequence set me up. He passed me the rock on that one and set me up real good because I’m not sort of proficient at coming with the ill story concepts. I was able to do it with “Tater Tot” on Gutter Rainbows, but really that was all Consequence’s idea when I sent him that track.
DX: That one came out so dope. Honestly, everyone is always asking when we’re getting that next Black Star album but I feel the same way about another Madlib collaboration. I thought Liberation came out perfect.
Talib Kweli: I think Liberation was really a lightning in a bottle moment. There was some resistance to Liberation on all fronts when I came out with it. But now the same people that resisted it are looking at it like, “Yeah, we need to do that again.” [Laughs]