Talib Kweli Gets By On Quality

Yeah. Music is beautiful. It is always going to be beautiful regardless of what the record industry is doing.


Talib Kweli is a genius with the mic. When the Black Star record dropped in 1998, Kweli and Mos Def, his partner on the mic, were deemed leaders of a new brand of socially conscious hip-hop. On 2000’s Reflections Eternal collaboration with Cincinatti’s DJ Hit-Tek, Kweli blended his native Brooklyn with the Midwest underground sound.

Kweli’s first solo effort, Quality, released in November, mixes heady lyrics with club-banging beats. This spring’s hit single, “Get By,” brought Kweli some much-deserved radio attention. Its chorus struck a chord: “This morning I woke up/ Feeling brand new, and I jumped up/Feeling my highs and my lows/In my soul and my goals/Just to stop smokin’ and stop drinkin’/And I’ve been thinkin’, I’ve got my reasons/Just to get by.”

I sat down with Kweli after his appearance at SLU’s Springfest. Sand-wiched between Ton Loc, Fabolous, and carnival rides, Kweli gave the crowd a dose of real hip-hop, proving once again that few things turn a parking lot into a party like a rap show. Here’s what he had to say about “adult responsiblity” and life on the road as an MC:

Since Quality was a solo project, did that put more pressure on you or give you more freedom?
The pressure always comes from me. I can’t let the label put pressure on me. I put pressure on myself, and that’s an issue sometimes. But it’s becoming less and less pressure as far as recording goes.

What is it about “Get By” that people identify with?
I put my heart into that song, and I recorded it like I was making a whole album. The same energy I put into making a whole album I put into that record, and I think the time is just right for it.

Your work on the latest Roots album is unreal. What’s it like working with them?
The Roots have shown me so much love. My career wouldn’t be where it’s at if it wasn’t for them. You know they are the quintessential hip-hop group. It’s amazing to work with them.

What about their live act?
There’s no better live show than the Roots, I think.

You’re headed out on the Vans Warped Tour this summer. What do you hope to get out of it?
Money. Record sales.

How do you find that balance between the commercial and the art?
Well, it sort of finds you. Once you put something out, it’s commercially available for sale. You start out doing it for the love, but as you grow older and you get adult responsibilities, you can’t do it just for the love.

So, will we ever see “Kweli-Wear?”
I mean, I will do anything that I can.

Conflict in hip-hop. It’s been there since the beginning and now, with the stuff between Shady/Aftermath and Murder, Inc. between Nas and Jay-Z. Where do you come down on the issue?
Well, it’s a double-edged sword, because the competition and the conflict drive the music to be better. It’s like improvisation in jazz—it makes it more exciting. But when it spills out into street-level shit, it’s more a testament to our communities rather than hip-hop music. It’s misleading to say, “Well, this is a hip-hop problem.” It’s a problem in the black community. It’s a problem in poor oppressed communities. Regardless of what music people listen to, people are going to have beefs and find non-peaceful ways to settle them. That’s unfortunate regardless of what music it is.

Do you think the conflict is fueled more by the media, the egos, the fans…
I can’t speak for every particular conflict in hip-hop, but I would say that 99 percent of them…I mean, they’re rappers. They do what I do for a living. They travel around and don’t have time to be fighting with anybody really. I can’t speak for all of it, but I think most of it is just some rap shit.

Nina Simone…I know she’s been a big influence on you. Would you say a little bit about what she meant to you?
Yeah. Nina Simone spoke from her own true voice, and it wasn’t a trained voice. She spoke to things that were going on in the world. You know the success of her career suffered because of the ground that she stood on.

Do you see other folks coming up in the same mold as her?
Yeah. Music is beautiful. It is always going to be beautiful regardless of what the record industry is doing.

What about her social consciousness?
I don’t think music can be responsible to be socially conscious. People have to be socially conscious. People have to hold other people accountable. If you put that on music, you’re destroying the creativity and the funkiness and the freshness. If you can do it, fine. Do it. If you know something to be the truth, then you are responsible to represent that truth. But I think it’s too much responsibility to put that on music. I understand that it’s because music affects people and reaches people in such a dynamic way. If something were true and it was put into music, it would affect more people. But we have to hold the whole community down for that. Music never leads. Music follows. Music follows where the people are at.

Who are you following?
My personal influences are my parents. My musical influences are too vast to start naming. If I name one, I’m forgetting twenty.

A quick word association game. I'll name an artist and you say the first word that comes to your head.
Mos Def. Brilliant.
Black Thought. Libra.
Jay-Z. Brooklyn.
50 Cent. Gangsta.
KRSOne. Teacher.
Ja Rule. Pain.
Dr. Dre. Sound.
Nelly. St. Louis.
The Roots. Philly.
Nas. Illmatic.
Talib Kweli. (Laughs) Me.

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