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An interview with Talib Kweli

Underwriting support from:
Talib Kweli and Douglas Dooley before Kweli's May 18 show at The Intersection.

Talib Kweli and Douglas Dooley before Kweli's May 18 show at The Intersection. /Douglas Dooley

On April 24, internationally renowned hiphop star Talib Kweli, came to the Intersection for his third show in a little more than five years. Opening acts featured local hip hop stalwarts Rick Chyme and La Famiglia, while Kweli featured his long-time producer, Hi-Tek, on the boards. For those not all that familiar with broader-scale hiphop, Kweli has been going since his 1998 debut with Mos Def as part of their Black Star collaboration, but it was the 2000 release of "Reflection Eternal" that brought the fans out to see the re-union with Hi-Tek. Coming out May 18 is their second album as an exclusive team, "Revolutions per Minute." After contacting Intersection management, Kweli's P.R. rep, and the tour manager, I was able to schedule a 20 minute interview with him that was scheduled to go at 8:45 p.m. as La Famiglia finished warming up the crowd. By 9:10 p.m., and with another interview crew in front of us, I was beginning to wonder if the much anticipated meeting with Kweli would fit in the tight schedule. Luckily, the tour manager, Steven, grabbed me and my camera crew to head out back to the tour bus, where Hi-Tek was sitting in the front on his laptop, decked out in vintage Cincinnati Reds cap and star-shaped sunglasses.  We made our way to the tight quarters of the back of the bus, where the MC headliner sat on his cell phone, texting and tweeting away.


He relayed to us that one of his friends, a Los Angeles-based DJ, had just passed away, and he was furiously contacting others to get more information and relay the bad news. Kweli was visibly shaken by the news, and we sat in near silence as he collected himself and finalized his contacts with others close to him who knew the DJ. Myself and the camera crew, though being a little starstruck, were starting to wonder if this interview would happen or was even appropriate to do. But it did, and Kweli handled himself like the professional that he has become. More famous rappers like 50 Cent and Jay-Z have labeled Kweli one of their favorite MCs, and though he has earned his keep in the industry with four solo albums, several mixtapes and his own label, he remains somewhat underground, if you consider a sold-out Intersection to be underground. We took video, audio, several photos, and the written text of the interview below. All in all, the show had extremely high energy and the crowd was pushed to the front and full in the back, as Kweli and Hi-Tek mixed classics from their first album, new material from their forthcoming album, and hits off of both of the artists' solo albums in to a 90+ minute multimedia show. Kweli said that they were going to show Grand Rapids the best hip hop show in the city's history, and it's somewhat tough to argue with the results, as the crowd chanted his name for an encore.


For all the people who may not be familiar with you, give a little background on how far you've come in the game:
I've been rapping for awhile, I got in the game hanging out with people rapping in the park, around contemporaries and peers. It's been a long journey and I've been professional for about 15 years, first with Hi-Tek. Well, actually, first doing Black Star, but it was the first one with just me rapping on it, and I am happy to be back with Hi-Tek.

What is Blacksmith, the label, the web-site, and the movement?
It's officially my management company, it was my manager's label, and we became closer as business partners and extended the record label and set up a web site, and its just a way to get people interested in what im interested in, and a way to get people more involved, and sell the brand.

What does it mean to you and what you've been doing since Reflection Eternal came out in 2000, to be working with Hi-Tek again?
Working with Hi-Tek. It's great. He's my brother. We are coming all the way back. It's a good feeling.

What sets Hi-Tek apart? What makes his contributions so unique?
He is a producer from start to finish. Hi-Tek does the whole album. He has a great appreciation for music, a great swing and great appreciation for musical history. He has love for hip hop.
What are we going to get with "Revolutions Per Minute?" What are you two trying to accomplish with this release?

We want to add on to the legacy with Hi-Tek, there are fans of "Train of Thought" (their first "Reflection Eternal" album from 2000), and it's their favorite album, so hopefully "Revolutions per Minute" (their new, forthcoming album) can become their favorite album.
How do you look for new talent? Are you on the lookout for up-and-coming artists to become part of Blacksmith, in a formal way?
Blacksmith is all about Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady, and once we get those projects up and running, I'm always looking for new talent, but right now just looking as a fan of the music.

This is my third time seeing you here at this venue since 2004. What do you see when you come to Grand Rapids, as far as it being a draw for your tours?
There is a huge misconception that performers pick and choose the places we play. We perform where we are invited. Venues show us a lot of love. Grand Rapids shows us a lot of love and the venues show us love by keep inviting us back, I'll play. Anyplace that invites us, we'll go.

What kind of advice do you give to un-signed hiphop artists, who are trying to get established?
At this point it's easier and harder; harder to make an impact, but easier to become famous, with the reach based on technology, but harder to get traction because there is so much out there and to make an impact on culture. Right now, there is no excuse for not having a website, anyone can do it with a computer or making a CD in your house. The floodgates have opened and in order to rise to the top, you got to be the best at what you do.

What recommendations can you give to the community here on how to build the listener base larger for hiphop?
You've got to support your own. Support local artists by calling in to radio. But you've got to support local artists because when someone blows up it's going to bring a lot of interest to the area.  Make sure you support your own local events and really support the local artists.

What can we expect from Blacksmith in the coming year? Is there new material from Jean Grae or Strong Arm Steady that will come out?
Right now we are working on Jean Grae's album, "Cake or Death," coming out on Blacksmith/Asylum and Strong Arm Steady's "Arms and Hammers," coming out through Blacksmith and Element9, a company we partnered with. There is a mixtape on Year of the Blacksmith, with DJ Chaps, called "Early Morning Signs," some music with Refection Eternal, Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady.

I have a potentially difficult question, one of my favorite tracks is "Never Been in Love" off of "Beautiful Struggle." What does that song mean to you today?
It's a great love song. It's hard to do without being sappy, I love love songs and I love hip hop, but its a niche that I'm good at. Just Blaze is one of the best producers ever to work with in the business. The video is a mixture of the Ed Sullivan scene from "The Doors" and the talent show scene from "Far Far Beats." These are two of my favorite movies. Put those two scenes together and you have that video.
What would be a collaboration that you have not done to date that would interest you in the future?
Bjork. Not many artists are so good at what they do that they develop their own genre. You can't really classify Bjork; is it pop, is it electronic, is it folk? It's just Bjork music. That's what i like about it.

What's your relationship with Lauryn Hill following the release of "Ms. Hill?"

I haven't had a conversation with Lauryn since that song came out. Lauryn is a friend of mine, even before the whole Fugees run. She's very reclusive. She's been doing new music the whole time. I know people who have worked with her. It's up to her when and how she releases it.

What's next in your career move? Are you going to de-compress or is there a Black Star album on the horizon?

I would love to decompress, but I love being active, too. I don't know when the next Black Star album is going to come out. I'll just be making music whether its my solo stuff or Idle Warship, Reflection Eternal, Blacksmith. Whatever it is I'll be constantly making music. 



Coming into this interview, I wanted to know what his label, Blacksmith, had planned as far as expanding, and wanted to give some of the hiphop artists in this area a sense of how to get established, as Kweli didn't start off big, he worked and grinded hard to get where he is at, and where he is going to become the possible heavyweight of the worldwide hiphop community.  Secondly, I wanted to know about the background on some of his more subject-sensitive tracks from years past. The love song we talked about; I believe was written for his ex-wife, and it is a beautiful song, so now that he is re-married, recently, I was curious as to what he felt about it today. He played that love song in his encore, and spoke to the crowd about love, and its importance, so he is comfortable with the way life changes. The Lauryn Hill song is a plea to her to come back to the community and release new music, which she has not done since 2002. Clearly, a Lauryn release would be big for him, and for most lovers of the genre, and music in general, considering her enormous success with the Fugees and as a solo artist. We shall see if it ever comes about, but Kweli sounded optimistic.
I wanted to get a sense of what Grand Rapids could do to make room for all the hiphop talent floating around the city, and how to get the support base even larger. As Rick Chyme says, as an artist you are looking for 1,000 die-hard fans that will always support you and then grow the base from there. Kweli started small and has grown in to an internationally recognized name, and someone who draws thousands wherever he goes.

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