“Above the Underground” — An Interview With Talib Kweli

In a era when a new artist pops up one year and disappears the next, one person who has been consistent throughout is Brooklyn emcee Talib Kweli. With over 15 years of experience in the music industry, Kweli has built a die-hard fanbase that today, if he (god forbid) stopped recording, he could tour off his music for years. Eric Merriweather of respect-mag.com had the chance to speak with Kweli about everything from artistic integrity to his upcoming solo album, the potential Black Star reunion with Mos Def and much more.

First off I would like to say I applaud you for one, still being relevant in the ever changing hip-hop culture as well as staying true to your musical craft in an era when so many artists sound so similar to the next. In order to stay relevant, how important do you think artistic integrity is in today’s music?

Thank you that’s appreciated. I think artistic integrity is all that matters at this point. The plane has crashed into the building when it comes to the music industry. The fluff is gone. The people only care about those who passionately doing it, no matter what style of music they listening to.

In 2010, you and Hi-Tek finally re-united as Reflection Eternal to release the follow up to your classic debut Train Of Thought with Revolutions Per Minute. Now over a year later, how satisfied are you with the reception and world renown appreciation for the LP?

I feel like not enough people heard it. The label we were on really did a poor job. I received far more attention for Gutter Rainbows when I did that on my own a year later. With that said, I’m proud of it. The fans wanted it, we gave it to them. Hi Tek is still the best in my opinion, and he is helping me to ep my new album, Prisoner Of Conscious.

Early this year you went independent and teamed up with  Duck Down Records to release your latest solo LP Gutter Rainbows. You spoke on how great it felt to release an album whenever you were ready to, similar to the Liberation EP with Madlib in 2006.  What are some of the key differences working with independent labels vs. major mainstream labels?

Gutter Rainbows was put out through my company, Javotti Media. I started it to do projects that deserve attention but don’t get any. I partnered with Dru, Noah and Buckshot who are known for Duck Down Records, but actually have a distribution company called 3D. Gutter Rainbows was a partnership between Javotti Media and 3D. I had to be involved in every minute detail of this album from the rooter to the tooter. But the laser focus actually made a project that I didn’t spend as much marketing do better critically and financially than projects that way more money was invested into.

Throughout your career you’ve always had to deal with the “underground emcee” title but I’ve never understood that. If your an artist that’s been around 12+ years, signed to a major recording label and is still relevant and going strong how can that be deemed “underground?” Is someone like Ice Cube considered “underground” now because he’s on his own independent label?

People often confuse what they mean when they refer to underground. Was DMX underground? How about Red and Meth when they were going platinum? Is it a sound? A feeling? Our is there some sort of industrial numerical value? Is it about record sales? Labels and media outlets have to put things in neat little boxes to sell them, they have to package it somehow. If they can’t explain it, they can’t sell it. There is much about my success as an artist that these folks can’t explain. To you and me it’s plain as day, but to them it’s perplexing. An artist can be many things, whatever he chooses to be. So ‘Cube can be a capitalist and make Coors commercials, he can be a filmmaker and make Family Fare or he can be an underground gangsta rapper selling music independently. All at once.

Let’s jump to another issue you can’t seem to duck, Black Star. You and the mighty Mos Def will be performing your entire debut album together at this years Rock The Bells and you know I must ask the million dollar question: Will you and Mos Def ever record the follow to Black Star?

Who knows. Maybe. I like Timberlake’s answer when people ask about albums. He said you can’t do them just because people want to hear them. Well I’m paraphrasing, but he was basically saying that the album experience is something that demands to be created on it’s own terms. But, we will be on tour so we shall see.

I know your currently working on several projects right now. Jean Grae’s album, your next solo album Prisoner of Conscious and a concept album with Res titled Idle Warship. Which project will be coming up first?

Jean Grae’s project is on Blacksmith and will be out in October. It’s called Cake Or Death and it sounds fantastic. Please download her free mixtape with DJ Drama, Cookies Or Comas if you haven’t yet. you will be blown away. Idle Warship has an album called Habits of the Heart, out in October as well. It is not a hip-hop album at all and it shouldn’t be received as such, but it is very exciting to me. If you want to hear something truly alternative to what I do, check it out. Res and I worked hard on it. If you only wanna hear hip-hop, it ain’t for you. POC will be out November. It features Mos Def, Kendrick Lamar, Curren$y, Seu Jorge, Melanie Fiona, Nelly, it’s a vast, beautiful album. I think people will enjoy it.

I saw a recent interview with you and you spoke of the current state of hip-hop and how certain newer artists (J. Cole, Odd Future, Lil B, Big Sean) are creating their own lanes and not doing what the status quo or what a typical emcee would do. What do you think about the change?

Right now hip-hop is in a great place creatively. These artists are exciting to me, and keep me focused on trying new things. I am never really that disappointed with the state of hip-hop. There’s always someone who is new and dope for me to get put on to. I think all those complaints about hip-hop say way more about the complainer than the current state of the music.

It’s died down a lot as of late but I wanna mention illuminati. For the past few years people have been running crazy naming who they think are apart of some elitists group and the focal point was Jay-Z. Why do you think something like this exists in hip-hop and do you truly think their is a “elitists” group of entertainers dictating everything?

Really, that’s the last question? OK, heres my answer for the ADD generation. Does the illuminati exist? Yes. It was started by masons in europe to battle a corrupt church and state. For reasons that are too long to go into, its original intent was twisted. Does it still exist? Sure. There are people who believe it is their job to continue it. Is it an all powerful secret organization that boasts heads of state, controls the country and does blood sacrifices while playing Kanye’s album? No that’s ridiculous. The elite class that runs the IMF and World Bank is scary enough without us making them out to be the boogieman. Rich people are going to do what rich people do forever, which is fuck the poor and stay rich. These artists, especially hip-hop, celebrate the values of the elite because they grew up in America, and as artists they are speaking to our core. We are all materialistic to some degree. It is their job to be provocative, and they do it well, because people spend hours making you tube collages about them. Wondering which rapper is in the illuminati really distracts people from real issues, like how we have a water crisis. If people focused on compassion, they’d be better off. That illuminati talk is entertainment.