When future generations looks back on the story of hip-hop music, there will be a handful of albums which they will looks to as the benchmarks for the level of craft, consciousness and influence the genre has had on the world. They’ll look at Illmatic, of course. Ready To Die. The Chronic and Straight Outta Compton. Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Enter the Wu-Tang. It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. My Dark Twisted Fantasy. To Pimp A Butterfly, to name a few. And they will look at Black Star.
When Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli’s Black Star dropped back in 1998, it changed a lot of things for a lot of people. In part a reaction to, perhaps even a rebuttal, of the gangster rap era and the glorification of that lifestyle, Black Star was a thinking man’s hip-hop album, with socially conscious themes from two of the genres deepest thinkers and most skilled mic-men.
Black Star is the only album Bey and Kweli have released under that name, but both have gone on to highly celebrated solo careers. And Black Star shows do pop up every now and again as part of festivals or in locals around southern California.
But while Black Star may well be a one and done deal, as far as their recorded output is concerned, Talib Kweli has remained extremely prolific ever since Black Star dropped nineteen years ago.
On Radio Silence, Kweli’s eighth solo album and (fifteenth, I think?) album overall, you will find the same deep thinker, the same jazz-influenced, and a socially conscious rapper that you did in 1998. There are few rappers around today with the lyrical depth and technical rapping ability that Talib possesses. And if you are into hip-hop and haven’t heard of this man, this is the eternal conundrum that is Talib Kweli’s musical career: how does commercial success continually seem to evade one of the best artists in the game?
You can look to the title of this article, or you can read the interview below.
Dave Chapelle speaks some serious truth at the end of the ‘Traveling Light’ video. What does it mean to you to ‘happen in real life’?
Talib Kweli: That’s what the video is. A lot of people’s interactions in the digital age is solely on social media. We’re doing Christmas shopping on Amazon, we’re traveling around in Uber. We don’t take the time to truly interact with each other. The weekend that that video was filmed over was a special weekend. A lot of the people who I respect and have been around in this business and a lot of people who are newer in the business, like Anderson Paak, as well as old friends of mine, like Q-Tip, Mos Def, and Dave Chapelle, were all in New York that weekend. A lot of people want to be around Dave Chapelle because he’s such a lightning rod of energy and positivity. And that was right at the end of his Radio City run. So a lot of that video was all of us hanging around. It was also the same day as Spike Lee doing his annual block party.
And I grew up on Spike Lee, but I had never met him. When you saw me in the video with Spike, that was the first time I had ever met him, even though he was one of my biggest influences. And now when you look at (the new Netflix show) She’s Gotta Have It, I’m mentioned in that. So it’s a cycle.
Spike Lee did a block party right on the heels of Prince’s passing as well, didn’t he?
Talib: Spike Lee does block parties every year. When I was 14, 15 years old, I was going to Spike Lee’s block parties. But he did do one dedicated to Prince. And DJ Spinna, who’s famous for his Prince vs. Stevie Wonder parties and Michael Jackson parties, he’s integral part of Spike Lee’s block parties all day. But he did do one dedicated to Prince after his passing, yeah.
That’s interesting because I’ve always seen you as a bridge between those two things. Someone who connects the old hip-hop guard, so to speak, with the wave of new talent.
Talib: Yeah, and to take that even further, I’ve referred to myself as the connector in several interviews. But before I could be seen as the connector between the past and the present, I was the connector between what was considered commercial and underground. You know, on my records I have had Nora Jones and Justin Timberlake, Peter Rock and KRS-One on them. And not too many artists are able to pull that off.
Well this album, Radio Silence, is full of the stuff that made me fall in love with hip-hop in the first place. Lush, jazzy instrumentation, expansive bass, thought-provoking lyrical content, dope features. And with all due respect to rappers who employ this, but it’s refreshing to hear an album without auto tuned vocals all over it.
Talib: There is auto tune on it. Auto tune is a studio tool that is used all the time. It’s just you have younger, new hip-hop artists who have taken it to a new level. And they lean on the autotune and they use it as an actual instrument. Anytime you hear an R&B song, a pop song, you’re hearing autotune, but it’s just not employed in a way where you can recognize it. Now people are doing the whole autotune style of rap, which is something that can be great and sound good. Like Roger Troutman, those old funk Roger Troutman records were filled with auto tune. You know, Kanye really revolutionized it with 808’s & Heartbreaks. And T-Pain is somebody who’s used it to great effect. Future. There’s a lot of copycats as well, who take it and it sounds like a copy of Roger Troutman or T-Pain. And that’s why it’s called ‘mumble rap’, because to the untrained ear, it makes it so people can’t even understand what you’re saying, if you’re not in the culture that way. But I get your main point about what you like in hip-hop, and that’s what I like too, which is why I made this album.
Yeah and regardless of how much auto tune is or isn’t there, your bars on this album are crisp and clear, as usual. You don’t seem to be influenced by what’s popular or what’s happening on the radio and instead focused on your own artistic statement.
Talib: Well I’ve always tried to say that I try to pay attention to the trends by not following them. I take your critique to heart because what I attempted to do with this album was take an album that was nostalgic for fans of Train of Thought, fans of Black Star fans of Quality, but that wasn’t mired in retreads of those themes. I was trying to be futurist with this album, while at the same time holding on to those fans who have been with me from the beginning. I’ve done other songs that my true fanbase, sonically, it’s not what they’re into, it’s not what they like to hear from me. It’s not what they enjoy. But it’s what I enjoy, and I try to challenge myself. But I didn’t challenge myself in that way on this album, with the exception of two records: ‘Chips’ and ‘Radio Silence’. Those are the two records I sort of veer away from what my fanbase has come to expect from me, but I had to trust that my fanbase would trust me on those records. And for the most part, the feedback that I’m getting is that they do.
‘Chips’ is a great song. Waka Flocka is amazing on it. I also think it’s perfectly placed. It comes just about half way through the record and follows some of that jazzy boom bap I mentioned before, and is followed by some more jazzy stuff later in the record. It really gives you a good wallop at just the right time.
Talib: Well thank you so much for saying that because that song had been taken off the album, then put back on the album, then taken off the album, because I didn’t feel like, thematically, it matched the rest of the album. But I did feel like the middle of the album needed a jolt, which is exactly what you described it as. I mean, I played that song for Q-Tip last year, and four or five seconds into that song, he was like, ‘no. Take that record off the album’ (laughs). I was like ‘don’t you even want to hear Waka Flocka?’ He was like ‘no’. And I mean, he’s my hero. And he’s made the best hip-hop albums of all time, arguably. So I took the song off the album. But then, a year later, I thought, no, this song has a purpose. It’s not a Tribe Called Quest album, it’s not Q-Tip’s album, so I have to do my own thing. But it’s interesting that, I went back and forth on it, precisely because of what you just said.
Yeah, and taken out of context, I can see why Q-Tip might have that reaction, but albums should be listened to as a whole, and as a whole, it’s a perfect fit.
Talib: Thank you. And God willing, I could do an album executive produced by Q-Tip, and he could make all the decisions.
Agreed. This album is full of deep, meaningful lyrical content, all your projects are, and one track that I found really touching was ‘Write At Home’. I thought that was a really special way to end the album. What’s the story behind that?
Talib: That was another song that was hard for me to place. That was produced by Glasper (Robert Glasper), who showed me the bare bones track when I was in Ferguson and he was inspired by some of the things I was doing there. The poem comes from a fan of mine. I have a website called kweliclub.com, and a fan of mine wrote that to me. He didn’t say it was a poem or describe what it is, and I read it. It was so moving and so beautiful. So I contacted him and said ‘what is this?’ And he was like ‘it was just on my spirit’. He’s from Ottawa, Datcha, so I got him in a studio in Ottawa and asked him to record it. I still haven’t met him to this day. So for a long time it was just that Glasper track with that Datcha poem. Bilal heard it, he added some vocals. And the only reason I have a short verse on there is that I wanted to put it on my album and then I could be a part of it somehow.
That’s incredible. It sounds like something written by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Talib: It’s interesting that you say that because I did Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show at one point. I don’t think he ever put it out, but we had an interesting discussion, because he asked if I wanted to ask him anything, and I wanted to ask him about God.
I know how he feels about God, but I wanted to have a discussion with the greatest scientific mind in the world about spirituality. And what I like about the Datcha poem is that it doesn’t ignore that there is something, a higher power that connects all of us as human beings, but it’s also very very very scientific.
Spirituality courses through the veins of all your work, Radio Silence is no different. One thing I noticed about it on this album though was that there doesn’t seem to be one single definition of what God is, or even what spirituality is. There seems to be this fluid spirituality based on the unpredictable nature of energy that transforms itself in different ways at different times in your lyrics. Are you able to attach your own personal beliefs to any single label or definition?
Talib: No, I’m not. That’s very limiting for me. There’s greatness that can be found in all religious beliefs, there are awful things that can be found in all religious beliefs, so I try to stay away from any labels. But I do participate in my own spirituality.
I wanted to talk about one particular lyric in ‘Write At Home’ that kind of blew me away. You say “rolling a blunt on a copy of Native Son”. Obviously, you’re talking about the Richard Wright novel. I read Native Son years ago and it hit me pretty hard and put a lot of things in perspective. Especially for someone who isn’t African American, who isn’t from America. But the novel to me seems to represent three major American f*ck ups. The first obviously being slavery, the second being the continued mass incarceration of African American men and women, and the third being the resulting identity crisis by some African Americans who are struggling to fit into a country in which they were initially brought to against their will. Is that a fair assessment?
Talib: I think that’s a very accurate, academic assessment of what that novel is. Richard Wright, he became world famous for it. As someone whose mother is an English professor, and I’ve owned and run a bookstore (Nkiru Centre for Education and Culture), literature has always been a part of my outlook in terms of my lyrics, from James Joyce to Richard Wright. And what I ‘m doing with that lyric is sort of dealing with the duality of my life. You know, people who smoke weed don’t even smokeblunts anymore, they smoke it like spliffs. And I come from the era of, we were smoking big, fat blunts. So while I was smoking blunts and drinking 40’s, skipping school, I was also reading The Autobiography of Malcom X, Nigger by Dick Gregory, and Native Son by Richard Wright. It’s the duality of gaining this knowledge, but also living this debaucherous lifestyle. So the idea that I’m rolling a blunt on the cover of Native Son, that’s a very visceral image that a lot of black people my age, who grew listening to hip hop, grew up in academic settings, will relate to.
It’s a powerful image, as is the cover of this album. It looks like a painting. It looks like Jimi Hendrix, actually, I don’t know if that’s who it’s supposed to be.
Talib: No, it’s a painting of a woman. I don’t know who this woman is, but it was painted by Jerome, who did the Reflections Eternal – Train of Thought album cover. It’s an oil painting, just like Reflections Eternal. And I discussed with him what I wanted for Radio Silence years ago. So he painted that after listening to some of the album.
The title of the album, I don’t know if I’m reading too deeply into this, but Radio Silence. Although you’ve always been one of my favorite hip-hop artists, I think you are, and I feel the same way about Black Thought from The Roots to a certain extent, but I think you are perpetually under appreciated. Not by hip-hop heads, to whom you are a true legend. But due to the fact that you don’t enjoy the same commercial success as many of your peers. And your albums don’t get the attention they deserve. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard one of your songs on the radio. Which is a crime. Which is what came to my mind when I heard that the album was to be called Radio Silence. Is that on point at all with your intention, or am I way off base here?
Talib: No, that’s pretty accurate. It’s the idea that the radio could be silent, but I’m still going to be here. That artists like myself, Black Thought, people like that, don’t need to depend on the fickleness of the radio crowd.
And I guess the thing that frustrates me about that is also comforting in a way. The idea that, it’s not up to the radio, or the mainstream or whatever you want to call it, to decide your fate as an artist.
Talib: That’s exactly right. If I had to live or die based on radio play, I’d have to get a day job by now. I survive on cultural currency.
No doubt. I wanted to focus on your new album in this interview, but I have to ask this before I let you go: Yasiin Bey mentioned last year that he was going to drop a couple albums and then retire. Unless there are some unreleased tapes sitting in a studio somewhere, does this mean that any hopes of a Black Star reunion is out of the question?
Talib: We did several Black Star shows this year. (Pauses) I don’t put too much stock into musicians who say they’re going to retire. Whether it’s Al Green, or Dr. Dre, or The Rolling Stones, or Yasiin Bey. If you’re a musician, it’s not a career choice, it’s not a job, it’s who you are. You can’t retire from being who you are. I think Yasiin is just trying to find new mediums, new ways to release his art the way he wants to do it. I think it’s more accurate to say he retires from the music business, but in all fairness, he kind of did that years ago.