“Conscious” Hip Hop pops into the news every now and then when someone lights a fire under the “heads.” These are folks who believe in Hip Hop not only as a musical art form but as a distinctly singular cultural artifact. They’re extremely picky about what they’ll champion. They like the lyrical content, so the mythology goes, and they like boom-bap. Their favorite era is the late 80s to late 90s and anything that came out after the “Golden Era” is wack.
That’s where Talib Kweli comes in. His music has always packed education and entertainment into the same tight, rhythmic spaces. From Blackstar to Quality and his flurry of current work, his music makes him an easy target for people conjuring the “conscious” Hip Hop idea out of the void. Of course there are certain places for certain kinds of music, but to discount him on account of his personal style is too limiting for an emcee whose 20 year run has seen him work with the gamut of artists in the business. So this kerfuffle with Complex, then, really illustrates how important he is to the genre. He and Lupe’s cards are so easy to pull because of how great they are. The world is full of contradictions.
It’s 2015, though, and artists can clap back just as quickly as they are clapped on. Talib Kweli proves this is more than just a shadowbox, though, as he sets the record straight.
The Spat Heard Round The Web
HipHopDX: Why do you think “conscious” Hip Hop gets such a bad rap?
Talib Kweli: There’s a trend that I notice on Hip Hop blogs that are trying to get advertising dollars, and Hip Hop blogs that are trying to look like they’re cooler or hotter and more on the cusp than everybody else. To throw conscious Hip Hop artists and their fans under the bus to prove larger points that often conscious Hip Hop fans and their artists agree with. And, it’s a nasty trend. It seeks to separate Hip Hop from the culture that created it, and it seeks to elevate the right now and what’s trendy so far above anything that comes before it because [the thinking is] anything that comes before it is irrelevant. And I think it’s damaging to the culture. And, me, in particular, because I’ve excelled at doing conscious rap and because people look at me as an example of that, these blogs see me and Lupe and Mos Def and Nas and [other] names that I’ve seen thrown around irresponsibly as poster children for smart music. And so they recklessly say our names as if they have contributed anything to the culture anywhere near to what we’ve contributed.
DX: Do you think the piece was trying to be divisive in that way?
Talib Kweli: I think the kid that wrote it was ignorant as fuck. I think he’s a hype beast, so I don’t think he’s even smart enough to realize that he was trying to be divisive. So that’s where his defensiveness comes from. Complex, essentially, did the same thing to me two years ago. They wrote an article called 25 Things Everybody Thinks About Rap But Nobody Will Say and number seven was “Conscious Rap is Condescending, Simplistic and Corny.” And they had a picture of myself and Mos Def. And I mentioned something about it on Twitter. I didn’t say the writer’s a lame groupie like I did about [this guy]. I just copied and mentioned it. I was like, “Well, I don’t think that’s fair to use my picture as…” And one of the writers who helped put that piece together, his name is David Drake, he reached out to me on Twitter and he called me and we spoke on the phone and he apologized to me.
And he was like, “Listen, you’re right. The larger point I was trying to make is still valid, but it wasn’t fair for me to use your image to make that point.” And I had a lot of respect for that. We all make mistakes. As human beings, we make mistakes, but it’s what happens when we make a mistake. How do you own up to it? And then Complex had David Drake do an interview with me where we were able to go back and forth and make our points in a broader fashion. And if you go back and read that interview it’s pretty good. And he doesn’t simp. He doesn’t kowtow to me. He doesn’t acquiesce to my point just because I’m an artist. He makes his point, but he also apologizes for the way he could have better worded his point and I think that’s great journalism.
As an emcee, I’m accountable for my words. I’m accountable for what I rap. As the kid said, there’s a thing in Hip Hop which says Kweli raps off beat. He wouldn’t have been able to write that if it wasn’t a thing. So I’m critiqued for my style. I’m held accountable for what I do. Well, then I’m going to hold these writers for the things that they say or do. Do I personally think I rap off beat? In my twenty year career, when I first started putting out records in 1997, I found pockets and grooves in the beats that were unorthodox. And to some people it might have sounded off beat. So I understand that criticism. I also was trying to cram a lot of words into smaller spaces than most emcees. So I understand where that criticism comes from. But, one, that criticism is 20 years old, and I would challenge that artistically on a musicality level. But before we even get into musicality, again, that’s 20 years ago. I’ve got 13 records. For you to make that argument [it] means a majority of the time I’d would’ve been rapping off beat. For you to just write in your piece Kweli raps off beat without citing an example? And then why are you critiquing my style in a piece that you’re writing about Future and Drake?
I mean, I’m a fan of both Future and Drake, but they both have flaws–as any artist does– that I can recognize. Flaws that these Hip Hop purists that you’re writing about recognize. Sometimes they recognize it out of hate, and sometimes they recognize it just because they’re music-lovers. But it was definitely divisive, and I don’t think he was smart enough to realize it was.
The Blackstar – Noah Callahan-Bever Meet Up, Millennials & Barbeques
DX: Noah Callahan-Bever followed up on the criticism with his own piece spurred by Lupe Fiasco. In it he spoke about a meeting that took place after his Blackstar review for Blaze Magazine. Could that type of meeting happen in 2015?
Talib Kweli: What David did was very similar to what Noah did. I very vividly remember. That was a learning experience for me. Mos Def and myself and everybody in Rawkus were very upset, unfairly upset because we looked at Noah as someone who was down with us. But 20 years later I don’t really give a shit. Back then, that was my debut album. And I wrote to Noah on Twitter, I said, “I didn’t like the review because you said, ‘People are waiting for the Blackstar album like the second coming of Jesus.’” I’m like, “How was anyone waiting for my debut album like it was the second coming of Jesus?” That just sets you up for an unfair review off the top. It’s my first time. I’m 21 years old!
And, you know, we got at Noah about that and as he said in his piece, he handled it professionally like a journalist would. When Lupe got at Noah on Twitter he handled it professionally like a journalist would. When I got Noah on Twitter after he wrote that defense of the writer, he handled it professionally like a journalist would.
I don’t agree with what Noah wrote in his editorial about Angel. I don’t agree at all. I don’t think he should be defending that writing. I don’t think he should be defending the hype beast shit. I don’t think he should be defending that hyperbole. I think that’s his man so he’s got his man’s back, but I think he’s dead wrong. And I think someone who’s going to write so recklessly about the culture and then change their hashtag to #AllRapMatters and clown #BlackLivesMatter is absolutely a culture vulture. I think if you defend that person then you’re complicit in that. But, even though I disagree with Noah, I have to respect the way Noah did it because he did it like a professional and not a fuckin 14-year-old on Facebook.
DX: Do you think it’s a matter of generation?
Talib Kweli: This has nothing to do with age because there are plenty of competent, proficient journalists, bloggers, whatever, that are between the ages of 15-25 that would be considered the youth who wouldn’t have written that bullshit that Angel wrote. It’s not a matter of age. It’s not a generational thing. It’s not old-heads… His first line was, “I’m tired of you old-head lyrical motherfuckers…” Like, how is that the first line in your piece? And how is that on Complex? That’s not complex at all. There’s nothing complex about that.
Look at my career. I told niggas you need to check for Kanye West. I put Kanye West on my album. I was on College Dropout. I took him on tour when everybody was saying Kanye couldn’t rap. I was like, “What are you talking about? That’s one of the best emcees I’ve ever heard.” I went to Drake shows when he first came out to see Drake as a fan at SOBs. I went to Atlanta to work with Future before he got with Ciara. I’m not on some hype beast shit. I recognize shit because it’s dope, not because some blogger is riding somebody’s nuts. And that’s what’s is crazy. That the kid who wrote that article, he’s not talking to me and my fans, he’s talking to himself. He needs to look in the mirror. Just because you have these inner battles with yourself between what’s dope and what’s real Hip Hop… Leave me and my fans out of it.
DX: The whole barbeque thing…
Talib Kweli: Then the barbeque thing, that’s just so ridiculous. What barbeque? Who’s there? What are they making? Then Noah said, “I don’t listen to your music at barbeques…” Y’all must be going to some lame ass barbeques, now. If the barbeque that you go to only plays Future and Migos from the last three months then you’re at a lame, hype beast ass barbeque. Even if you’re at Hennypalooza you’re going to hear some throwbacks. Drake has plenty of songs that are not good for barbeques. So does Future. They’ve got songs that are great for BBQs and songs that you probably wouldn’t want to hear at a bbq. Same with Lupe. Same with me.
Hip Hop Purists Vs. Hip Hop Purity
DX: The Internet seems to have placed you and “conscious” rap in a box as overly intellectual. How do you respond to that?
Talib Kweli: I’ve actually been responding to that my whole career. When I first started, before there was the Internet, people used to say to me and Mos Def, “What’s up with Puffy? What’s up with Jay Z?” Because they were the most commercially successful artists. And they would try to bait us into dissing these artists. And I’m like, “I used to work for Jessica Rosenblum. I used to work for Diddy.” Like, that’s my man. Jay Z’s one of the best emcees of all-time. You think I’m going to be out here dissin’ Puffy and Jay Z? And Mos used to answer the questions as ridiculously as they were spoken to us. So someone would be like, “What do you think of Jay Z?” And he’d be like, “Oh, he was an awful roommate. He took the TV when he moved out. I want my TV back.” Because it was such a ridiculous question. It was like, what do you mean? We’re all young black men. We’re all God’s children. All doing the same thing, here. Y’all are making the divisions.
I’m not a purist. I am not a Hip Hop purist. I respect Hip Hop purity, I do, because Hip Hop purists are my fans. I respect it. Without people that are saying these are the rudiments of the culture, these are things that important to respect about the culture, the culture would die. But I don’t consider myself that because I feel like Hip Hop can be pure without only listening to certain types of artists. I keep my Hip Hop pure. I judge music by region, emotion, experience and age. Not by my own personal experiences. So if I’m listening to a Migos record… I’m born in 1975 in Brooklyn, why would I expect Migos to rap like me? How old are these kids? They were born in Atlanta, when?
Their influences, their whole world, their region, their emotion, their whole life experiences are going to be different. And I don’t want them to try and pretend they sound like somebody from New York, I want them to rap about their experiences. If your experiences are different and you still want to rap it doesn’t make you any less different. Now I think that’s the point that the dude was trying to make in that article, but he’s just a terrible ass writer. So he couldn’t make that point. He had to use overarching stereotypes like, ‘Well, conscious fans like Lupe and Talib Kweli so I’m going to be dismissive of what they do to win some sort of cool points with this other crowd.’
Because The Internet & The Best Year In Hip Hop History
DX: What do you think Hip Hop has to offer in 2015?
Talib Kweli: I think Hip Hop is in a wonderful place. The Internet has leveled the playing field where a young upstart can be put on the level as someone like me or others that have been in Hip Hop for 20 plus years immediately. So a Bobby Shmurda or even a Slim Jesus can be hype and get all the hype immediately, but so can a Niko Is or my son Imani Fela. I think anybody can do it. I think that’s a great thing. There’s less fluff. When I first started in the business, everyone and their entourage got a record deal. Your homeboy who sold you weed got a record deal. It’s people who weren’t invested in the music in the business because the business was so overflowing with money and opportunity that anyone could jump in. Then people started looking at it as a hustle. And then you see kids growing up in the hood not want to be rappers anymore, but CEOs of their own companies.
Then the industry shrunk and the industry didn’t prepare for the coming of the Internet, and all that fluff and those extra dollars that were coming in don’t exist anymore. So now the people who are in it really, really want it. And because you really, really want it the fans now get to decide who’s their favorite rapper. The fans have decided that Kendrick and J. Cole and Drake are their favorite rappers. And these are all guys who are great lyrical artists.
DX: There’s a feeling that 2015 has been a great year for Hip Hop. Maybe even one of the best. Do you agree with that?
Talib Kweli: The time will tell. Look, Google Rap albums from 1988 and I’ll take the Pepsi challenge, not to sound like an old-head… But, look, it’s not even a question because in ‘88 the amount of classics that dropped… We’ve had other years where classics dropped like that. 2015 has been great. 1995 and ‘96 that era was great. But we were doomed. The people who were dropping albums in that era were building on what had already been done. In 1988, they were innovating that stuff. They were jumping classics out the blue and doing styles that had never been seen before. There was nothing before that. In 1988, they invented the style of rap that we are now listening to. You talk about Strictly Business, Follow The Leader, The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick, Lyte as a Rock, Straight Outta Compton, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and I’m not even half-way done with the list.
Movies With Dr. Dre & Being Better Than Ever
DX: Speaking of Straight Outta Compton, did you see the film?
Talib Kweli: I saw the film. Actually, one of the best memories that I’ll take to my grave is I worked with Dr. Dre about two weeks before he dropped the Compton album and he screened the film for me. After working with him all night he was like, “Hey, do you wanna see the movie?” I was like, “Yeah.” So, I watched the movie with Dr. Dre talking to me about the movie, which was a grand, grand experience for me.
DX: So you’re telling me we have Talib Kweli X Dr. Dre out there somewhere?
Talib Kweli: I don’t know about all that. That will have to be left for Dr. Dre to decide on that.
DX: As one of the most respected, most beloved artists in Hip Hop, what do you say to people who’ve fallen in the hole of separating “conscious” Hip Hop from the pack?
Talib Kweli: It just makes me feel blessed for me to have the experience that I have. I walk and talk and live and breathe Hip Hop. And I do realize that my view of Hip Hop is biased because I get to travel the world and live Hip Hop. I get to see wonderful new emcees. I get to have wonderful discussions. And some of these people are just locked into their routines. And they see nothing outside of their routines so it gives them a very narrow view of what’s going on with Hip Hop globally.
Look, I’m more famous, more known, more prolific at this point in my career than I’ve ever been. In the last three years, I’ve dropped Prisoner of Conscious (2013), Gravitas (2013), Prisoner of Conscious Live we dropped in 2014… Soon we’re dropping Prisoner of Conscious Live the movie. I dropped the Cathedral mixtape. We dropped the Niko [Is] album. We’re dropping the Jessica Care Moor’s album next month, November 2. I dropped Fuck The Money for free and we’re almost at two million downloads for that. I got Indie 500 with 9th Wonder coming out soon. That album’s got me, Brother Ali, Hi-Tek, Krysis, Problem, Rapsody, Planet Asia, Niko, Pharoahe Monch, Slug from Atmosphere. I’m really happy about the place I’m at creatively.
What’s great with where I’m at now is that for years I’ve been trying to develop Javotti as a movement. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get bloggers and writers and movers and shakers in the culture to cover what I do. You send these people emails saying, “Hey check this out…” But people are getting hit with that hundreds of time a day. So I can’t depend on that. I love the respect you gave me, but that respect don’t mean anything in a cutthroat world where people are trying to get hits every two seconds. It’s like they are trying to find the newest, hottest, latest. What I’ve found is that just by being an artist and just being prolific and not asking anybody for shit is when the blogs come around.
So the more I do that, the more I don’t ask anybody to post anything. The more I circle the wagons and promote my own crew and post my own the more coverage I get. And the more the haters come out. So the guy mentioned my name in the Complex article and he got so much backlash he had to write a list of barbeque songs. But he still tried to say his points were valid, but then had a list of barbeque songs up. Well, which one is it? Can you play me at a barbeque or can’t you? Then your editor had to come [say something] so that’s now three days in a row that you had to write about me because you’re trying to prove to the world how irrelevant I am.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.