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Talib Kweli Interview with DJ Matt Werner on Fresh Air: The Alternative Phone interview recorded on March 3, 2009, show aired on March 10, 2009.
Keep an eye on the website for the audio of this interview, which will be posted up soon
DJ MATT WERNER: This is DJ Matt Werner on Fresh Air: The Alternative. Weâ€™re coming at you from Edinburgh, Scotland, and we have Talib Kweli with us on a phone interview. And so Talib, youâ€™ve been very active this last year, and Iâ€™ve read most of the interviews youâ€™ve conducted this last year online: on everything from your song about Lauren Hill, J Dilla, MCEO, and other projects, so I donâ€™t want to repeat questions thatâ€™ve already been asked in these other interviews. But my listeners here in Scotland have had two main questions for you. One is onâ€¦
TALIB KWELI: Black Star?
DJ MATT WERNER: Yeah, Black Star.
TALIB KWELI: [laughs]
DJ MATT WERNER: Theyâ€™re wondering about a reunion album, or theyâ€™re wondering if any more collaborations are coming up between you and Mos Def.
TALIB KWELI: Well, Mos Def has the album coming out on Downtown Records. I donâ€™t know when, but it should be out shortly. We have a great song on it called History. I donâ€™t know when the next Black Star album will happen, but weâ€™ve certainly stayed active, stayed prolific on each otherâ€™s records, since the Black Star albumâ€™s come out.
DJ MATT WERNER: And segueing off that, your fans here in Scotland were wondering, When is the second Reflection Eternal album coming out?
TALIB KWELI: Thatâ€™ll be out this summer. Thereâ€™s a singleâ€”well not a singleâ€”me and Hi-Tek did a song with Bootsie Collins just for fun that we put up, we blasted out on our Twitter pages, and we put up on my website http://yearoftheblacksmith.com for download.
Just to let the fans know that we will be coming soon. Right now Iâ€™m soliciting, Iâ€™m reading video treatments as we speak for the next Reflection Eternal single, and thatâ€™s a project thatâ€™s almost finished.
DJ MATT WERNER: And how about Liberation 2? Youâ€™ve been dropinâ€™ some really dope mixtapes in the last couple of years, and fans were wondering about, will there be a Liberation 2 coming out?
TALIB KWELI: Liberation 2â€”Iâ€™ve been working on it with Madlib. Madlib is real elusive, so itâ€™s hard to work with him sometimes. But I mean, you know, it doesnâ€™t matter how hard it is work with Madlib, his tracks are that dope that itâ€™s always worth it in the end.
DJ MATT WERNER: And now because Iâ€™m a literature Masterâ€™s student here at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Iâ€™ve been very interested in your lyrics, ever since I first listened to your track Fortified Live back in â€™97. And Iâ€™m curious as to what your writing process is and how you come up with your similes.
TALIB KWELI: Fortified Live, I mean, itâ€™s changed since then. When I wrote that song, I had a book of rhymes, and I had a bunch of rhymes that I wanted set to beats. And itâ€™s particularly in that song, you know, I try to stay relevant. A lot of rappers were talking about their South American drug connections and stuff like that, like a lot of street rap was on that when I first came out, and thatâ€™s why I make references to Assata Shakur and to Cuba, because I wanted to show that the revolutionary aspect could be a lot more â€œgangsterâ€ than the street aspect of it.
Now I just try to stay relevant to what people are thinking about, what people are talking about and try to write to the track. The production, the music to me is king and should be respected as such. And the lyrics, as much as people like yourself appreciate great lyricismâ€”in entertainment and music thatâ€™s done onstage and in nightclubs where they got speakers and drinks are flowinâ€™, itâ€™s hard for people to concentrate on lyrics, so you have to figure out what youâ€™re doinâ€™ to bring them into what youâ€™re sayinâ€™, and thatâ€™s makinâ€™ sure that it matches the music.
DJ MATT WERNER: Iâ€™m curious as to how you define yourself as an artist. On your track Beautiful Struggle, you say, â€œThey call me the political rapper,â€ but you try to distance yourself from that title. But at the same time, youâ€™ve come out and publicly supported Barack Obama, and youâ€™ve dropped tracks like The Proud, and more recently, Take it Back, where you rap about Iraq, suicide bombers, and you also critique politicians. So Iâ€™m curious, How do you define yourself as an artist? Like as a political rapper, conscious rapper? Where do you see yourself fit in?
TALIB KWELI: Well, you know, I mean as an artist, you grow and change, and you shift and you bend. And as an artist who makes music, I would really like to define myself as just a musician. When I made the song The Proud, you know, I was specifically sayinâ€™ in The Proud that I donâ€™t really deal with the politics and that I donâ€™tâ€¦You know, you wouldnâ€™t really find me criticizing politicians in that era of my career. You know, Iâ€™ve talked about social situations. In the song Take it Back, Iâ€™m talking about human life way more than Iâ€™m talkinâ€™ about politics.
Now as far as my support of President Obama, heâ€™s the first politician that Iâ€™ve come out and support, and I felt like he deserved my support. And it was a big deal for me to come out and support him because Iâ€™ve been very careful throughout my career to not only not support politicians but to not talk about, not be critical of politics. When you listen to my record, you might hear me mention the name Giulliani, but Giulliani is a social/cultural figure in the city Iâ€™m from. I wasnâ€™t talkinâ€™ about his skills as a mayor. In the realm of politics, you could argue that Giulliani cleaned up New York City. But in the realm of reality, which is bigger than politics, thatâ€™s not necessarily a true argument. Because, yeah, he made New York City more â€˜Disneyified.â€™ But the amount of people that he arrested, and he wrongly arrested in that time period, the amount of freedoms that were stripped away from people in that city in order for that to happen, for it to look like the city is better, is really a lot that needs to be thought about and considered as well.
DJ MATT WERNER: One track Iâ€™m playing on my half-hour feature of yours is my favorite track of yours, which is your tribute to Nina Simoneâ€™s Four Women. Itâ€™s the Expansion Outro off your first Reflection Eternal album. And Iâ€™m curious as to how you came to write it because itâ€™s a bit different than many of your other tracks.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, I mean Nina Simone is probably one of my, if not my favorite artist. And that song Four Women, is just a perfect piece of song writing. And my introduction to it was a live concert of Nina Simone performing at Berkeley. So the first few years I listened to that song, I didnâ€™t realize that is was like a 3 or 4 minute simple song. Because the version that I heard, she was really explaining how she wrote the song, explaining where these characters came from. And I thought thatâ€™s just how the song went. So when I wrote my song, I really went into depth with the characters because I thought that thatâ€™s where Nina Simone went. As I grew older and became more knowledgeable about music, I found out that you know what, I was basing my version off of a long extended live version. But you know I think that it made my version something different. I donâ€™t know if I wouldâ€™ve been able to recreate that song without knowing the history of those characters, for a hip hop song, you know.
DJ MATT WERNER: And Iâ€™m curious as to how you balance your role as MC and CEO. You have some dynamic artists under you like Jean Grae and you got the crew Strong Arm Steady. And youâ€™re also part of Idle Warship and I hear thereâ€™s this Party Robot album coming out. Iâ€™m curious as to how you balance this work life while being creative and also having to run a business and oversee other artists.
TALIB KWELI: Well, I mean itâ€™s tough. I wouldnâ€™t lie and say that itâ€™s easyâ€”itâ€™s very tough. And I owe these artists a lot. These artists are artists thatâ€¦Strong Arm Steady, Jean Graeâ€”these artists are artists that have inspired me to do and become the artist that I am, and these are people I look towards for my inspiration. So if their music ainâ€™t popinâ€™ out there, and their situation ainâ€™t great, then my situation ainâ€™t great, thatâ€™s the way I look at it. But I always maintain that I come out of a musical community or a musical family.â€¦So as tough as it is to try to oversee all of this and keep pushinâ€™ all of this stuff, even when people, sometimes they donâ€™t get it, it would be even harder to do it by myself.
DJ MATT WERNER: And part of you marketing is very creative. You got this great website called http://yearoftheblacksmith.com, where you have some videos of Blacksmith TV, where they follow you around with your different tours and different shows, and itâ€™s really quite funny. I was recently watching Episode 4, where it has you on a bike and itâ€™s raining, and youâ€™re saying, â€œI was trying to be environmentally conscious, and now Iâ€™m just wet.â€ I thought it shows the lighter side, the behind-the-scenes of the hip hop game.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, I mean, thatâ€™s the key about that show. Definitely.
DJ MATT WERNER: And Iâ€™m curious if itâ€™s going to be made into anything on TV. I know youâ€™ve been on MTV a bit, but whenâ€™s your next role on TV coming up?
TALIB KWELI: I donâ€™t know. TV is a beast, you know? Part of the reason of doing Blacksmith TV is to develop content that I can control. So hopefully I do get picked up for some sort of situation. I just did a voice over for a web-based show called Blockheads, which is like an animated hip hop thing. And itâ€™s meâ€¦ Lauren London, and a bunch of people. That was really fun. But hopefully I can do more TV and more stuff like that, you know, Iâ€™m into that stuff.
DJ MATT WERNER: Yeah, and part of this cross-over marketing, you talk about in Internet Connection, your first track from your new collaboration with Hi-Tek. And in this, you touch upon how technology and Web 2.0 has sorta changed hip hop. And I was curious if you could elaborate more on how the hip hop game has changed since the late 1990s when you were starting up, and today, when you have YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, I mean all those sites are really just digitally building a community. Whereas before, you had to get up and get on a train or get on your bike, or take the bus to the park and meet up with other people and actually go to a show. Now, you can stream whatever. Now you can iChat, or talk on Twitter or whatever. And it makes you more self-absorbed. Because you have to spend more time talking about yourself than you ever did in your whole career, but at the same time, it enables you to connect on a global level, if you figure out how to master it. If you figure out how to freak it and use it to your advantage. If youâ€™re just on the social networks being social, then youâ€™re not really using it to your full advantage.
DJ MATT WERNER: In Internet Connection, when youâ€™re referencing avatars, which I assume was a reference to Second Life, it reminded me of Jean Baudrillard who has this notion of â€œhyperreality,â€ where people live their lives mediated by different elements of the media, without actually being there in person. And I thought it was fascinating because youâ€™re known as one of the most provocative live emcees and performers, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on that.
TALIB KWELI: As soon as they made Second Life, I was one of the first performers on Second Life taking advantage of it. I havenâ€™t really been on it since then, since the start-up of it. But itâ€™s a scary concept, you know? All this stuff is scary. Twitter is scary to me. Iâ€™m on Twitter all the time, and itâ€™s scary to me. But I realize if Iâ€™m not on it, itâ€™s just another lane that somebody elseâ€™s taking advantage of that Iâ€™m not taking advantage of. But man, yeahâ€”[Jean Baudrillardâ€™s notion of â€œhyperrealityâ€]â€” thatâ€™s something thatâ€™s completely and totally foreseeable for our future. They havenâ€™t figured it out yet, but theyâ€™re tryinâ€™ damn hard with these websites and these robots and things theyâ€™re making, theyâ€™re trying damn hard to get us there.
DJ MATT WERNER: I have another question that goes back to the notion of being the MCEO. I read on an internet forum about Blacksmithâ€™s relationship with Warner Brothers. And I was curious as to how youâ€™re reacting to the news [I read in online forums] that Warner Brothers isnâ€™t going to be distributing the future Blacksmith titles. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
TALIB KWELI: Well, actually, thatâ€™s not complete true, and I had a problem with Warner [Brothers] over that because I felt that they shouldâ€™ve did a better job at cleaning that up. But my album with Reflection Eternal with DJ Hi-Tek is furnished by Blacksmith Music, and itâ€™s still coming out through Warner Brothers, and itâ€™s on track and itâ€™s on schedule, and we ready to put it out.
I also deal with Warner Brothers as a solo artist. Keep in mind, I only put out one album with them as a solo artist. That deal was a three album deal. And that was a successful album. The deal as far as Reflection Eternal and Blacksmith is not going anywhere. It is what it is. Now as far as Jean Grae, Jean Grae was upstreamed by Warner Brothers, but right now, what weâ€™re weâ€™re just tryinâ€™ to do is figure out which situation through Warner, which arm of Warner, whether itâ€™s the one that Iâ€™m on, or the Asylum situation â€˜coz of Todd Moscowitz is now the head of Urban at Warner Brothers and if itâ€™s coming out through there. Weâ€™re just tryinâ€™ to figure out what makes sense for Jean Graeâ€™s album.
Strong Arm Steadyâ€™s album will be coming out through ADA [the Alternative Distribution Alliance], which is another chapter of Warner, which we put out the Jean Grae Jenius album last year through. And also look out for our participation in the Blu situation. Blacksmith as of marketing, with the online stuff, youâ€™re goinâ€™ to be hearing more about Blu from LA, who just signed with Warner Brothers. And youâ€™re gonna be hearinâ€™ more about John Forte.
DJ MATT WERNER: And also Iâ€™ve seen that thereâ€™s been a number of mixtapes. There was a Coast 2 Coast Mixtape that was just recently released on your site. I was wondering if you could talk a little about this March Mixtape Madness that youâ€™re hosting.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, thatâ€™s my man Fillet Harrison [Donald Harrison], heâ€™s a DJ up in Portland. With him and his homeboys, they have this Coast 2 Coast Mixtape, where every month, they have a different artist host a mixtape, and this month, it just happens to be me.
DJ MATT WERNER: I was wondering, is there any question, or an area that I havenâ€™t covered yet that youâ€™d like to address or bring up?
TALIB KWELI: No, besides Idle Warship, that the Party Robot album at this point is still independent. I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s gonna remain independent or if weâ€™re going to put it out through our label or whatnot, but Idle Warship is an extremely, extremely exciting experience for me at this point, doing these shows with this live band.
DJ MATT WERNER: And also, I was reading that you had participated in experimental theater at NYU. And I was wondering if this was accurate. Just â€˜coz other artists Iâ€™ve interviewed on my show who include Saul Williams, and other people whoâ€™ve been on the Def Poetry Jam with you like George Watsky, Ise Lyfe, Dahlak Brathwaite, and all of them have somewhat of a theater background. And Iâ€™ve seen that with more of the â€œconscious rappers,â€ or people who have amazing stage performances, they have this theater background, and I was curious if this background, you think has influenced how you perform onstage.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, I think without a doubt. The thing about theater, especially experimental theater is that you have to embody everything youâ€™re doinâ€™. Like you have toâ€¦You get a character, right? But you have to create everything about this character, like the backstory and the blocking, like the way the character is gonna speak and talk and everything like that. And itâ€™s like, thatâ€™s what you do when you come up with a rap name, like you create a character. But your character is based on some sort of fantasy version of yourself. You know what Iâ€™m sayinâ€™? So itâ€™s like, itâ€™s really the same skill-set. The only difference is you have to write rhymes that go along with the attitude of this character.
DJ MATT WERNER: The thing that I like is that you keep it real, where you just use your own name. And so itâ€™s not like you have this caricature of yourself. But you do come across a lot more fresh and a lot more real than the kind of emcess whoâ€™re frontinâ€™ and have this whole image of them set up.
TALIB KWELI: Iâ€™m glad Iâ€™m havinâ€™ that effect because even though I do use my real name, who you see onstage is definitely a caricature of who I am in real life. And you know, who I am in real life is somethinâ€™ that I strive to protect at times. Iâ€™m a lot funnier and Iâ€™m a lot angrier in real life. You know Iâ€™m sayinâ€™? Iâ€™m a lot more balanced as an artist. You try to present a perfect picture of yourself, even in exposing your history. Some artistsâ€¦I donâ€™t have no real bad, no real traumatic thing in my past to expose. But artists who expose that sometimes, they expose it sometimes with the intention that youâ€™ll feel it.
And with me, the stuff that I reveal, whether it be my social views, or how I feel about somethinâ€™, itâ€™s with the intention that people will be like â€œYeah, I feel you.â€ That is something that drives you on the ego side as an artist. And thatâ€™s somethinâ€™ thatâ€™s real, but as an artist, as your stage persona, you try to present the best version, I think.
DJ MATT WERNER: And going with this stage persona and presenting your image, one trend thatâ€™s been very popular in the last couple of years is the use of Auto-Tune, with people doctoring their vocals. And I was curiousâ€”have you pursued Auto-Tune, are you thinkinâ€™ about doinâ€™ that, or are you just gonna keep with your fresh voice?
TALIB KWELI: Auto-Tune: you know makinâ€™ music is not a paint-by-numbers thing, so itâ€™s not a thing where someone could be like â€œOkay, Iâ€™m gonna test Auto-Tune this year, or Iâ€™ma try….â€ If it works for the song, it works for the song. And there are certain songs where it certainly works for. The problem is not Auto-Tune. The problem is peopleâ€™s overuse of it. Same thing with conscious rap back in the day. Back in the days when PE [Public Enemy] was on top, and you hadâ€¦[indecipherable]â€¦ KRS One, you had a lot of people doinâ€™ conscious rap, positive rap. Not all of it was good, though, and a lot of it felt fake. And so it made the way for groups like NWA. And so they blew up, and then you had a lot of copycat gangstas, and so then that felt forced and fake. And thatâ€™s the just the way things go naturally, I think.
DJ MATT WERNER: Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy touring, CEO, emceeing scheduleâ€¦
TALIB KWELI: [laughs]
DJ MATT WERNER: â€¦to talk with us here on Fresh Air: The Alternative.
TALIB KWELI: Thank you.
DJ MATT WERNER: Thank you very much for taking time out.
TALIB KWELI: No problem.