“They’re gonna play a record about hoes and coke quicker than they’ll play Kendrick Lamar” – in conversation with Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli is one of the greatest hip-hop artists – certainly one of the best lyricists – of all time. Criminally underrated yet revered by fans, his music is dense, powerful and influential. A lot of his music focuses on African American history, culture and society, but his discography is as diverse as it is dense. An activist well beyond his music, Kweli has been a loud voice in commentary of many events, most recently the racially-charged incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore.

In 1998, Kweli, together with Yasiin Bey or Mos Def, released Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, a passionate and powerful record about hip-hop culture and African American culture. The record was so contextually specific, often referencing current events – most memorably the then-recent deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace or The Notorious B.I.G. Despite mediocre sales, it went to become one of the most important underground albums ever.

This October, Sydney and Melbourne will see the second annual Soulfest. Kweli will be performing a solo set, and will also join together with Mos Def as Black Star. Other headliners include Lauryn Hill, De La Soul and Mary J Blige (full details here).

I was honoured to chat with the one and only Talib Kweli. We discussed social media, how he makes two types of music, the state of hip-hop today and more.

Black Star is an album so ingrained in a specific time and place. Compared to 1998, what’s it like to perform the album in 2015?

Black Star, fortunately, has only gotten bigger. That mix of what Black Star is and what Black Star actually represents to me is bigger. Black Star is not a gold or platinum selling album, but even though both myself and Mos Def have several solo albums that have outsold Black Star, Black Star resonates with the fans more than our solo output.

Speaking of fans, you’re really active on social media. How has that click-of-a-button interaction affected you as an artist? 

For me, it’s good because the fans can get it directly from the horse’s mouth, there’s no marketing barrier between me and the fans. I’m able to weed out the actual fans from the people that just say they’re fans because your name is famous. But the flip side of it is that as consumers we’re spoilt. We think we’re entitled, we have uninhibited, undisputed access to our artists – if they choose to engage. And I count myself in that group, I’m a fan and consumer of other artists as well.

So is it easier to exist as an artist now with social media and accessibility?

Yeah, without a doubt. Starting with MySpace all the way to Twitter, these services and platforms have without a doubt helped me, as an artist who doesn’t have a lot of marketing muscles and dollars behind me, to get the word out. If it wasn’t for MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, many of my fans wouldn’t know that I still make music. I’m definitely glad that I do that and the more I participate in it, the more I’m able to stoke the fire of what I do. I’ve got a million people following me on Facebook, and a million people following me on Twitter, but I don’t have millions of record sales. There’s people caught up in the celebrity of it, the cool factor. So that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gonna buy your music. It’s on me to come up with new ways to take that million Twitter followers and million Facebook followers, and use it to enhance my career, whether it means people are gonna buy the music or not.

In this age of the internet and social media, information is so much easier to access about everything, like social issues and cultural history. With that in mind, is the need for rap to have a message as important as it once was?

Are you a hip-hop fan?

Of course.

Do you consider yourself prevalent and aware of the trends going on in hip-hop today or do you consider yourself more of an old school fan?

A bit of both.

So you like old school, but do you still turn up in the club?

[laughs] Not really, to be honest.

Are there any new rappers or records that you’re checking out?

I’d say To Pimp A Butterfly is my favourite rap album this year.

Have you heard A$AP’s new album?


Do you like Run The Jewels?

Yeah, absolutely.

Run The Jewels [II] was the most critically acclaimed hip-hop album of last year by far. A$AP Rocky’s album is a media darling right now, and he’s got a lot of real hip-hop on there – Mos Def’s on there, he has a great song with Kanye. A$AP Rocky has moved to trill, to ‘I make hip-hop music,’ in my opinion. And you said you liked Kendrick – his album is an experimentation in hip-hop, it’s funk and jazz, and he’s talking about the black experience as a kid from Compton. Kendrick is the number one most popular rapper right now, with the exception of maybe Drake. So to me, that signals a really healthy market for real music. The artists you’ve mentioned are far more interesting than the artists that people turn up to in the club. People know the names of the artists that play club music, but people have nothing invested in these artists. People have something invested in Kendrick, and Run The Jewels, and J Cole and A$AP Rocky.

A couple years ago you were quoted saying that hip-hop’s not based on talent anymore. Considering what we’ve just discussed, was that an accurate quote and if so, do you think that’s changed?

That was probably taken wildly out of context, I don’t know, it was probably my fault. Hip-hop has always been about talent. Think about the top artists of the game – Kendrick, J Cole, Kanye, Drake – these are all extremely talented, some of the most talented people hip-hop has ever seen. What I was trying to say was that the industry doesn’t respond to talent, they respond to marketing and promotion and being able to create a brand and a buzz. So even though an artist is very talented, they also have people around them that have helped to create a buzz. There are artists out there that are just as talented, but they have no buzz. Maybe they don’t have the right people, maybe they’re not in the right place, maybe they have no ambition – just talent. That’s what I’m trying to say – it’s never just talent.

When you’re writing music, particularly songs which deal with social and cultural issues, do you consider the audience? Do you consider the way that people of different cultures and backgrounds will perceive your music?

That’s a very very good question. I write in two different ways: the way that’s what you just described, that takes into consideration the whole audience. Not just the audience that support me, but the audience of consumers that buy hip-hop now. What do they like? What moves them? Are they influenced by the same things that I was influenced by, even though I started my career 20 years ago? Obviously not. So I take that into consideration when I make music, especially when I’m trying to compete in the marketplace. Then there’s another, possibly more honestly way to write, which is: fuck all that. I’m just writing what I feel, based on my own experiences and inspiration from within. Every song I write falls into those two categories, although I didn’t understand that until very recently in my career.

I’m actually recording a project right now that I’m gonna drop for free. It’s more experimental, and more in tune with things that are going on now. The reason why I want to drop it for free is because I don’t want to hassle fans to pay for that. The lesson I’ve learnt from my career is, fans have a certain experience with the music I put out for sale, and when they buy it, they buy it with the promise of getting that experience. So if I’m gonna try something different, I want to give it to them for free and let them decide whether or not they wanna support it, rather than try to market and promote a sound that they might not like. There’s young producers’ sounds that I like, that I wanna experiment with as an artist, but I can’t try to push that down my fans’ throats. When I’m promoting an album, I’m essentially trying to push it down your throat.

You said that you create music in two ways. Do you find that you’re more passionate or fulfilled by either one?

Yeah, that’s the problem. To me, it’s all just making music. I love it all the same. I love doing things that are more traditional, things that people would expect me to do, I love doing that, I’m good at it, I’m experienced at it. But at the same time, I love not being boxed in and trying different things. I don’t have to stop doing either, but I have to have the ability to recognise that, when I do it, how do I present that to the world. What platform do I use – do I put it out for free on SoundCloud, or do I distribute a video and put it out for sale on iTunes? Do I get on Twitter and talk about it every day, or do I just put it out and let people discover it on their own? Do I use it for someone else’s album, or on a mixtape? It’s not, ‘I can’t record different things’, it’s more, ‘how is it presented?’

Is it upsetting to you that a lot of people think that the hip-hop that you turn up to in the club, is all there is to hip-hop?

I wouldn’t say it’s upsetting, it is what it is. Hip-hop started as party music, and that’s a very important aspect to hip-hop. Afrika Bambaataa, as hip-hop purists like to quote, goes around saying peace, love, unity and having fun! Hip-hop was always meant for you to turn up at the club.

I think people have an issue that the message in hip-hop is very reflective of the pathology of society. It says that we have to use violence, that we disrespect women. The popular hip-hop in the club is the hip-hop that’s easier to sell – hip-hop that’s violent and degrades women, and people who sell drugs and stuff like that. Those things are real and artists should be allowed to make music like that, but those things are pushed to the mainstream a lot more than anything positive, or anything that has any type of consciousness.

The mainstream media always misconstrues hip-hop. For years, they tried to pretend that it didn’t even exist. They’re gonna play a record on the radio about hoes and selling coke quicker than they’re gonna play a Kendrick Lamar record. But at the end of the day, like you said – social media allows people to understand history, to understand what’s going on. The people might turn up to that in the club, but when they go home, when they think about hip-hop – and I’m just talking about hip-hop fans here – they understand what it is. And that’s all that I could really be worried about.

Talib Kweli will be appearing at Soulfest as Talib Kweli and with Mos Def as Black Star:

October 24: The Domain, Sydney
October 25: Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne
October 26: Western Springs Stadium, Auckland

Tickets and more information here