Interview: Talib Kweli
Published on August 8th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
We were honoured to be granted a private telephone audience with hip-hop legend Talib Kweli, so we asked him about his irreproachable technique, his recent Prisoner of Conscious LP, what he’s working on next and his thoughts on various other modern greats of the game…
You’re a great example to hold up to someone who’d dismiss hip-hop as merely “talking over a beat”; your rhymes and flow are intricately plotted, syncopated and complex. However, many reviews seem to focus solely on your lyrics, rather than how they’re laid-out. Do you feel underappreciated in this respect?
Yeah. It’s great that people love the lyrics, but people wouldn’t care about the lyrics if I didn’t make the right musical choices and work with the right producers.
How much do you try to challenge yourself in this regard? Do you ever conceive of a flow that you struggle to put into practice?
All the time. When I’m in the studio, I challenge myself all the time. I recently did a tune that took two hours to…you know, it’s like, I hear a flow in my head but I can’t always execute it the first time.
Sometimes it takes me a minute to get it and sometimes I worry about, well, if it’s taking me so long to get it, how are people going to be able to sing along with it? Then I remind myself of something Bob Dylan said: “I don’t go to concerts to see musicians do stuff that I can do, I go to concerts to see musicians do stuff that I can’t do.”
Which other rappers do you admire in terms of these kinds of abilities?
Pharoahe Monch, Jean Grae, Eminem, Black Thought. And I like what Kendrick Lamar’s doing.
How involved did you get in the production side of Prisoner of Conscious? Did you leave the various producers more or less to their own devices, or did you send them ideas?
I constantly collect music ideas. At any given moment, I have a number of song ideas on my computer that I experiment with. For Prisoner of Conscious, I started really with the producer Symbolyc One; by the end of it I think he did two tracks on there, but I really started out with a lot more of his tracks.
Then I moved onto Oh No, who had the most tracks on the album. At one point I was going to do mostly Oh No’s but for Prisoner of Conscious I found myself really wanting to go with a bunch of different producers.
Why did you decide to record it in Puerto Rico? Is this something you think you might do again?
Yeah, I just got back from Puerto Rico; I was in San Manuel just having fun. I just like the vibe of Puerto Rico, and I don’t have to change money or use my passport to go there.
Have you given much thought to your next project?
Yeah, we’re working on an album with Q-Tip right now. It’s called Gravitas. I’m also working on Liberation II [with Madlib] at the same time. I’m not sure which one will drop first.
Has there been any progress in terms of the Aretha mixtape with Mos Def (or Yasiin Bey as he now goes by)?
No, none at all. I’m not sure that’s ever going to get off the ground.
Might you work on another project together?
Just a couple of shows, not any tracks.
What do you think of the recent albums by Kanye West and Jay-Z? And the Run the Jewels album by El-P and Killer Mike?
I haven’t heard Run the Jewels yet, but you just reminded me I need to go and buy that. I haven’t listened all the way through to Kanye’s album yet but I liked what I heard of it.
Jay-Z’s album sounds more like a collection of songs that he did quickly rather than a complete album. It’s more like a consumer product, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It sounds like he had a deal to put out some music. “Tom Ford”, “Picasso Baby”, stuff like that is very reflective of where he is in life right now, so it’s good to get that window.
What was this film you were going to play a drummer in?
That was years ago and I don’t remember the name of the film. It never got made, but I did take drum lessons for a little bit.
Is that something you might come back to at some point?
Yeah, if I have some free time. It was fun. I took drum lessons because I wanted to get that role but then when it wasn’t happening I went back to being myself. Maybe when I get some free time I’ll explore some other options.
For some reason, I’d love to know what you think of the Odd Future collective. Do you have any strong opinions either way on them?
I think the whole collective is very talented. Tyler, the Creator tweeted something; he did a Vine post where he mentioned my name. I don’t know if he was trying to diss me or not because he’s very outspoken, which is another thing that I like about him.
But I don’t know why he mentioned my name, whether it was positive or negative; he just went “Talib Kweli, oooohhh!”, which was kind of weird.
As a musician, I think what they’re doing is subversive, rebellious and everything that people should not fight.
Finally, is there any other new music from 2013 that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
My label is putting out a great album by an artist called Cory Mo. It’s called Take It or Leave It and it’s out October 22nd. He’s from Houston, Texas so he’s definitely influenced by where he’s from, and he’s a great musician. He’s a producer for UGK.
Talib Kweli, thank you.
Prisoner of Conscious is out now on Javotti Media/3D.