To many representing the best in credible quality hip hop, Talib Kweli has worked with some of the most revered names in the game, from Mary J Blige and Madlib to long time collaborators Mos Def and Hi-Tek. Jay-Z once delivered the now infamous lyric, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be, lyrically- Talib Kweli”.
Anna Nathanson caught up with the Brooklyn MC this week to her his thoughts on the music industry, his superstar connects and what made him go from an unlikely rapper to one of the genre’s most respected figures.
I was listening to a radio interview you did just before getting on the phone to me and you spoke of Kanye West “putting stuff out into the universe and making it happen”. Is that your philosophy too?
That’s been my philosophy from day one and my life is proof of that. I mean, look at who I am, I’m not the perfect candidate for a rapper, I just wanted it bad enough. I think Kanye is someone who has done that even more so than I have. When I first met Kanye West and he was saying these things, they sounded impossible, but he truly believed it. Kanye told me when I first met him in 2002 or 2003 that he was going to be the biggest artist in the world. He wasn’t even thinking hip hop, he was saying the biggest artist in the world. He would say that often, it was almost like a mantra.
When you say you weren’t the perfect candidate for a rapper, what do you mean by that?
I didn’t grow up poor. I’m not a thug or a gangster, I don’t put on any airs. My name Talib Kweli is my birth name, I don’t think I’m a dancer or have a lot of rhythm. I don’t think I’m naturally musically inclined, I just have a great love for music and so I had to figure out how I was going to translate that into a career.
You grew up in a very academic household. What was your parents’ first reaction to you becoming a rapper, did they support it or did they want you to go down a more traditionally academic route?
My parents definitely supported me; they supported expression and creativity. There are artists who have done both, Lil Wayne did it but I think he took an online course, and Tajai from Souls of Mischief went to Stamford- I commend him.
To what extent do you agree with the Jay-Z lyric that skills don’t sell?
I think skills do sell. Some of the biggest rappers in the world, your Jay-Zs and your Eminems, are considered highly skilful. But it’s not just about skill. Jay-Z’s not the biggest rapper in the world because he’s the most skilled, I think that’s the point he was making. It’s about the branding, the marketing, the deals he made. From the beginning he approached it from a business point of view, whereas I didn’t get into rap for the money. The first time I get a cheque was in London actually when I did a show at the Jazz Café. It was for $11,00 and I’d never seen $11,00 in my life. I didn’t even expect any money, I just couldn’t believe that someone would fly me over and put me in a hotel to hear me rap. That was the way I approached the business when I first came in. Maybe if I’d approached it differently from the beginning perhaps my music would be different, maybe my career path would be different. I probably wouldn’t have made it as it wouldn’t have been genuine, it would probably have come across like I was imitating someone like Jay-Z.
I know you’ve done a remix with Jay-Z in the past, are you friends?
I wouldn’t say friends, I’d say he’s a peer who I have great respect for. I’m a huge fan and he’s a big inspiration to me, as a black man from Brooklyn and as an artist. I could definitely get on the phone to him if I needed to but it’s more of a peer situation.
How has the New York hip hop scene changed since you’ve been in it?
Even your battle MCs on the street are trying to make club records. When I first started out you would battle anyone in the park, on the train, but now people are more interested in getting their records placed on radio. An up and coming rapper these days will have a club record on the radio before they’ve established their name on the street.
People like Will.i.Am who you’ve worked with have changed their sound and become worldwide superstars in the process. What are your thoughts on this?
Will.i.Am has a very similar energy to Kanye. When I was working with Will.i.Am he was already an internationally known star. He was always in it to win it. He’s an incredible dancer, he makes incredible beats, but his lyrics leave a little to be desired sometimes. Great lyrics are not really his forte but he makes you want to put your hands in the air at a party and that’s about where he keeps it. In his career he decided, you know, I don’t want to be an undergound hip hop artist, because for me, I don’t really see a future in that. I see a future in making the world dance and that’s what I’m going to do. And I’m going to do everything I can to get that out there, whether that’s partnering up with a corporate sponsor and people saying I’m a sell out, I don’t care, I know what my mission is. Will’s plan works for Will. People who diss him don’t realise that he made some of mine and Nas’ best records. He’s exactly who he has always been.
What’s struck you the most about the music industry?
It’s definitely how you play it once you have that platform that really determines how successful you’ll be. You’ve got an artist like Kelis who’s a friend of mine and very popular in Europe. She’s got a few hit records that blew up but Kelis is way more famous for fashion than she is for her music in America. Music alone isn’t enough to make money in this industry, there’s so much more to it.
Talib Kweli’s new album Gutter Rainbows drops in November and you can catch him at The Roundhouse on October 16th.
By Anna Nathanson