Talib Kweli was starving.
He glanced at his parents, seated next to him at a chic Greenwich Village Italian café, during a chilly autumn evening back in the early 90’s. They gently twisted their forks, spooling the utensils with aflredo. Kweli—who looked even more baby-faced then than he does today— felt tempted to gobble up a few mouthfuls of his own pasta, in a far less elegant fashion, and give his loved ones a contented grin, all without saying a word. But before he could satisfy that craving, he knew he had to address another sensation, one that had been gnawing at the pit of his gut for years.
“I said to them ‘I have an announcement to make,” the Brooklyn, New York born and bred MC says in a recent phone interview about that fateful dinner with his folks. “Then I finally told them: ‘I’m gonna be a rapper for a living.’”
His mother, an English professor named Brenda Greene (who worked at New York’s Medgar Evers College) was visibly upset. But in a measured tone she replied that young Talib’s life was his to live, and that she couldn’t advise him otherwise. His father (an administrator at Adelphi University), concurred with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. The academically inclined couple, who had apparently raised their boy with enough class to treat them to elegant dinner, often cringed at the very thought of hip-hop. After all, it was a genre rife with the ghetto stereotypes they’d spent a lifetime distancing themselves from. But they trusted their son, especially when he told them that he had found an apartment and a part time job to sustain himself while working on his music. By the time dessert arrived, Kweli’s mother was looking on the bright side.
“She said ‘I’m glad you told me that. I thought you were going to say you got a girl pregnant— at least it’s not that,” Kweli says with a laugh at the memory, before ruefully adding: “That arrangement lasted for two months. Rent was too much, and I moved back home. Then I got fired, and didn’t have a job for a year. Then I got my girlfriend pregnant.”
His son, Amani Fela Greene, was born on July 4 1996. As Kweli reached his own 21 birthday that fall, his dreams of rap stardom couldn’t have seemed more distant—especially seeing as he no longer had a day job to support his young family. But he hadn’t botched that gig. In fact, young Kweli had fulfilled its duties with zeal.
“To say I enjoyed that job would be an understatement. Working there was my life,” Kweli says of his early stint at Nkiru bookstore, the owner of which regretfully laid him off because of sagging profits. Despite the dismissal, Kweli looks back on his time there fondly:
“I met every single author that was black and published. I’m talking Walter Mosley, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni—I chatted with them all during their book signings at that store,” Kweli says. Even after receiving a pink slip from his superiors, Kweli continued to offer his services there by putting on less star studded, but all the more crucial, events of his own. “When the book store started to lose money, my friend Mos Def and I started organizing open mic and poetry readings there to raise funds. That cemented my name in the hip-hop community.”
But even before those performances, Kweli’s earlier and more menial duties at the bookstore laid the foundation of his later rap career. In the downtime between assisting customers and working the cash, he would leaf through pages upon pages of classic prose, contemporary poetry, and gritty non-fiction.
Music critics may not have known the details about his voracious reading, but they immediately pointed out its impact. In reviews of his early performances and singles they praised his verbose, intricately layered rhymes. Those accolades continued through each chapter of Kweli’s ever evolving career— the neo-soul of Train of Thought (an album for which he teamed with beatsmith Hi-Tek under the moniker Reflection Eternal in 2000); the jazzy uplift of his premiere solo single “Get By,” in 2002; the pop-friendly whimsy of songs like “Never Been In Love,” on his 2004 sophomore album The Beautiful Struggle. That work even drew kudos from rap titan, and fellow Brooklyn hip-hop vet, Jay-Z. His blockbuster retirement disc The Black Album featured the following dedication to the then young upstart rapper:
“If skills sold/Truth be told/I’d probably be/ lyrically Talib Kweli.”
All that praise was prefaced by his landmark 1998 major label debut. For that premiere disc, Kweli teamed with Mos Def, his aforementioned partner during the Nkiru bookstore fundraising performances. The duo called themselves Black Star, and they stood in stark contrast to their hip-hop contemporaries. Those peers had been gorging the genre with beefs, aggression, and retaliation. Rap’s gangsta era had just reached its late 90’s peak, as conflicts between east and west coast factions claimed the lives of then superstars Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG. After those traumatic turns, Black Star shocked hip-hop followers even further— not with more bloodshed, but instead socially conscious, smoothly accessible rhymes.
Black Star’s unique edge was immediately apparent. Kweli’s literary lyrics housed twice the syllables of an average MC’s, along with homages to poets like Langston Hughes. His voice was slightly high pitched and lacked cartoonish gangsta grit. Instead, it sounded wispy, as if he were rapping while sneering—the shrill shriek of inner city consciousness, long compressed and simmering, finally coming to a boil.
It was a distinctive style that drew raves. But before long, Kweli began to second-guess those initial triumphs. Mainstream success seemed attainable, and was certainly tempting—especially for a man who was fired from his minimum wage job, and struggling to feed his family, just two short years before (two years after his son’s birth, his daughter Diani Eshe Greene was also born, swelling his heart but straining his income all the more). Kweli, who’d always been self-conscious about his verboseness, grew even more skittish. Fans had empathized ever since hearing him convey those insecurities on the Black Star song “Brown Skin Lady”: “(I) used to have a complex about getting too complex.”
“I’ve grown past that, because I’ve learned how to measure the complexity in my bars,” Kweli says of how he quelled those early anxieties, adding: “I’ve learned how to write to the beat more, and write more
musically. So when I do write something complex it doesn’t matter, because it’s still musically entertaining.”
Kweli attributes that turning point to the streamlined rhymes of his first partner—Mos Def.
“He can break down high concept things into very simple phrases, and he’s very melodic,” Kweli says of his early symbiotic relationship with Def. “Those are things that I strive for, that I’m not natural at. I’m natural at being loquacious and wordy, and having a lot of content in my flow and lyrics, which is what I think he strives for. That’s what made Black Star work.”
The pair have since collaborated sporadically (a standout example being the fittingly titled 2009 single “History,” on which the two MCs trade dissertation worthy rhymes). But while history may be famous for repeating itself, Kweli feels too many redundancies can turn an MC’s legacy into a footnote. He and Def have toured together time and again, but despite endless queries from reporters and pressure from fans, a Black Star reunion has yet to happen on wax. Kweli seeks equal renewal with other collaborators. When he reconvened with Hi-Tek in 2010 for a Reflection Eternal sequel, for instance, it sounded modern, sleek, and nothing like its percolating neo-soul predecessor.
These days, Kweli has delved into even deeper eclecticism with his cohorts. His latest solo album, Prisoner of Conscious, was released this past spring. Its lukewarm reception—mixed reviews and paltry sales that barely helped it crack the Billboard Top 50— overshadowed one of his most adventurous pairings yet.
That bold new partnership started in Sao Paul, Brazil. Kweli arrived there on a simmering afternoon last year, hours before the gig he was slated to play. For one surreal moment—as he gazed at the sizzling dishes and glistening trinkets that the street vendors were hawking— Kweli could hardly believe he was standing in such a dynamic, exotic locale. It was certainly different from the first impressions he received from one of his favorite films, the gritty gangland drama City of God, which was set in Brazil’s grisliest slums. But he was still a fan of the movie, and wondered for a moment what it would be like to gain further local insight from one of its stars—actor and musician Seu Jorge. So he offhandedly Tweeted that it would be a thrill to work with the beloved Brazilian troubadour. And Kweli was pleasantly surprised to see that Jorge had replied moments later.
“He’s a huge star in Brazil, and he drove from Rio to Sao Paulo to hit up the studio with me,” Kweli says, adding that isn’t the story’s most surprising twist. “I offered to buy him a flight, I said ‘Don’t drive all that way, I’ll fly you here. C’mon, you’re Seu Jorge!’ But he wanted to drive and see the countryside.”
After six hours on the road, Jorge arrived in Sao Paul, exchanged pleasantries and was soon joining Kweli in the studio to work on a funky tune called “Favela Love.” Ten hours later Kweli had finished laying his verses and overseeing the production, so he decided to venture out into Sao Paul’s club scene. He’d heard about a DJ who had been spinning his turntable for four days straight, in the hopes of breaking a world record. Kweli was eager to witness such a feat. After paying his respects and offering the DJ some water, he returned to his own studio, only to find Jorge still there, meticulously polishing their song’s mix.
“I admire the fact that he makes feel good music, it’s a really organic process with him,” Kweli adds about Jorge. “It’s not based on having a hit single out— it’s just him, a guitar, and a voice.”
Prisoner of Conscious also features guest turns from fellow New York rap vets like Busta Rhymes, R&B crooners like Miguel and Marsha Ambrosius, and hip-hop up and comers like Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar. Kweli was especially pleased to work with the latter west coast rapper, who caused a gangsta rap implosion in 2012 with the release of his own breakthrough album good kid, m.A.A.d city.
“I’d worked with Kendrick early on, but I saved the track to give the world a chance to catch up with what he was doing,” Kweli says of the young, nasally toned wordsmith with the nimblest of rhymes of the current moment.
Kweli says he knew Lamar was special after seeing him perform a sold out gig in L.A. two years ago, a gig that followed the young MC’s signing with west coast legend Dr. Dre. He adds that the show’s defining moment came when Lamar’s affiliates joined him onstage, not to showcase their own talents but instead highlight their young protégé’s.
“Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, The Game, and Dre all went up and sang Kendrick’s praises. Game said ‘I’m from Compton. This is the only rapper I’ll say that is better than me.’ And then all of them hugged Kendrick together, and he broke down on his knees and started crying, while the crowd chanted his name. I remember turning to the people I was with and saying ‘You’re watching history right now. You’re watching the actual passing of the torch,’” Kweli says, before adding that those onstage proclamations gave him chills of déjà vu.
“All the accolades Kendrick’s been getting remind me of when Jay said my name on his song—at the time, it made me feel like I was doing all the right things,” Kweli says. He adds that Lamar’s elders should be taking notes from good kid, m.A.A.d city. “I see a lot of what I love about hip hop in what Kendrick does on there. I love the fact that his album is a hip-hop opera. He’s super inspiring.”
Part of Kweli’s awe for Lamar stems from empathy- he can easily recall what it was like to be a hotshot upstart, and all the pressure that comes with it. But earlier this year, nearly a decade after Jay-Z’s shout out and Kweli’s subsequent breakthrough, the famed Black Star member found himself easing into the role of rap elder statesman. This incident involved another white hot junior MC—Rick Ross, the infamous Teflon Don who has taken rap’s gangsta gluttony to caricaturist, undeniably entertaining heights. But when the Miami bred Mafioso MC spat some controversial lyrics on the song U.O.E.N.O. this past spring, Kweli countered with a bruising rebuttal.
“Rick Ross condoned rape in that song … and he should apologize,” Kweli said in an April 2013 interview with The Huffington Post, of Ross’ latest inflammatory lyrical allegory. Kweli added: “I don’t care if Rick Ross is 40 years old — he’s a misguided 40-year-old person.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/01/rick-ross-rape-lyrics-talib-kweli-controversial-song_n_2994215.html)
But Kweli insists that he wasn’t trying to demonize Ross. In fact, he wasn’t even angered by the misogynistic lyric.
“The reason I said that is I’m a DJ and I’m a fan. I listen to Rick Ross’ lyrics and I’ve played his records in night clubs. I want to continue playing his records,” Kweli says. “I’ve heard worse lyrics, to be honest. I just want the community to do better—Rick Ross, myself, Mos Def, everybody.”
In fact, Kweli says he had to make similar self improvements earlier on in his career, after coming from a similar, street corner, battle rap culture. That’s why he’s not judging Ross—if he did, he’d be a hypocrite.
“Forget when I was rapping on the street. I’m sure if you really scoured, you can probably find official recordings of me saying misogynistic things, or hyper violent things that I would never say now, as a grown ass man,” Kweli says. “As MC’s, we’re coming from a very aggressive battle rap culture where there ain’t no rules. All the political correctness goes out the window, and you’re saying whatever to survive.”
“Ross was coming from that world, and painting fictional scenarios that weren’t any different than something you’d see in a Tarantino movie,” Kweli adds about the Miami MC’s recent case. “Do you know how many rapes I’ve seen onscreen? In a TV show, a movie? The difference with hip-hop is rappers say we are who we’re portraying. That confuses people. That’s the murky part of art.”
The creative, and moral, ambiguity of those lyrics, clashes with Kweli’s perfectly clear recollection of a much younger, and less famous, Ross.
“The first time I met him was at a night club in Miami. He came up to me and kicked the fist few bars of my verse from ‘Respiration,’” Kweli says, adding that he’s well aware of the surrealism of Ross—with his thuggish persona and notoriously brutish, monosyllabic lyrics— reciting such intricate, socially conscious rhymes from Black Star’s debut. “Then he told me how Black Star was a huge influence on him. So I’m sure I’ll see him again, and I bet by the time I do this will have all died down.”
While Kweli may have once spat lyrics that were as risqué as Ross’, his biggest early fixations were more nuanced. In the early 90’s he studied, rhymed and wrote about the Five-Percent Nation. That faction is most famous for breaking away from Malcolm X and The Nation of Islam in the late 60’s, because the splinter group claimed to have a far truer understanding of God.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was member, but I certainly spent a lot of time with people who were down with it. I studied it because I was fascinated by it,” Kweli says, before adding that the discipline’s numerology was particularly alluring for himself and his rap elders like Rakim and Gangstarr. He adds: “It took the teaching of Mohamed and Malcolm X, and broke them down into everyday language that people on the street could understand. Every number was assigned an attribute—one is knowledge, two is wisdom, three is understanding. That’s what drew me to it, it made me realize our purpose for being here as humans is seeking knowledge.”
Given that reasoning, The Five-Percent Nation seemed like a discipline that Kweli was destined to at least dabble in. It seems especially apt given the fact that his birth name, Talib, means ‘student’ or ‘seeker’ in Arabic. While that name may seem to be prophetic, given his bibliographic lyrics, Kweli insists otherwise.
“I’m not special, everyone is a learner,” Kweli says, adding that he is not trying to feign humility with such statements—he simply sees them as fact. “That’s who we are as human beings, learners. There are ignorant people out there who, when you try to teach them something, they’ll go ‘I’m not tryin’ to hear that.’ But that’s extremely unnatural. That’s an unnatural process, that’s a person fighting who they actually are.”
Such stubbornness may seem to be a fitting description of Kweli’s closest friend, a man who took his studies of The Five-Percent Nation a step further and became a full fledged Muslim, adopting the name Yasiin Bey. That cohort, formerly known as Mos Def, has gained a notorious reputation for eccentricity as of late. Aside from his name change, Bey has been endlessly tardy for studio appointments, stage performances, and interviews with the press, often neglecting to arrive at all. And when he does make an appearance, it’s usually in a bizarre fashion— be it donning a “white robe, yellow scarf, ball cap and leather jacket,” for a recent gig in Victoria Canada (http://exclaim.ca/Reviews/Concerts/yasiin_bey-ship_point_victoria_bc_july_15), or hunkering down in America’s most controversial jail cells. The latter instance was covered in a recent story by the Guardian that read:
“Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, had agreed to submit his body and fame to a form of torture. The body bit would involve being chained to a feeding chair while doctors inserted more than a metre of rubber tubing up his nose, down his throat and into his stomach. His fame would hopefully draw attention to that fact that this is happening daily to 45 hunger strikers in Guantánamo Bay.”
All that quirkiness has led to fiery backlash from music journalists and hip-hop fans. But Kweli sees his friend’s behavior through a different lens.
“To be honest, there’s absolutely nothing that’s frustrating to me about Yasiin Bey,” Kweli says, before admitting that his old Black Star cohort is far from a flawless individual. “He can be hard to get in touch with at times. He moves at his own slow pace, or he might be a little late. But stuff like that is minor in the grand scheme of things, because that time that he’s taking is the time that he needs to be what he is. Being that way is what makes him such a beautiful performer.”
But Kweli says his admiration for Bey stems from a much deeper source than musical ability, adding:
“The amount that I’ve learned from him about being a man, making music, being free, praying, being peaceful, respecting God, and respecting women… these are all things I learned on my own to a degree, but Yasiin is certainly stellar in these regards. And he has taught me a lot.”
Kweli’s patience for the eccentricities of brilliance may be best displayed in his bond with Yasiin. But it also extends to other friendships—especially his infamously erratic pal Dave Chappelle.
“Dave is a good friend of mine, somebody I see often. What’s funny about his situation is that he just decided that he was done,” Kweli says of the beloved comedian, who notoriously fled on a small odyssey to Africa, thanks to the pressures of his $50 million TV contract. “When people know you’re getting paid that much, it’s quite a mind fuck. Imagine if everyone you ran into on the street recognized your face and thought you had $50 million in your pocket right now. Imagine the things that people would say to you.”
Kweli adds that he’s frustrated by media pundits, and even some of Chappelle’s oldest fans, who dismissively accuse the comedian of being crazy.
“The reason why it seems abnormal, what Dave did by quitting and giving up the show, is because none of us can relate to that pressure. The pressure was like ‘here, you get $50 million. Now you need to do whatever (TV Network) Comedy Central tells you.’ It wasn’t worth it.”
Kweli was nearly pushed toward his own breaking point late last year. That stress and duress peaked near Christmas time. He had a new album due on his own Blacksmith label, a company and team he had spent years developing. But as the new disc’s release date approached, he felt like those business partners were falling short. It seemed like today’s sporadic music climate required a leaner, brawnier operation. Before long Kweli found himself delaying the album indefinitely, firing all of his staff and then fielding applicants for a whole new company.
“I felt like I knew a lot more about what I needed to push my record forward. There was drama for sure, but I didn’t care about it with some of the people I let go because they weren’t even trying to pull their weight,” he says, before adding that some of those terminations were far less bearable. “My manger, Corey Smith, that’s someone who I love, that’s my brother who first brought me into this business. It was definitely hard firing him. But he just sent me an email yesterday about a new opportunity. It feels like we settled all the business, and we can just help each other as friends now.”
That business stress was compounded by the deaths his grandfather and his uncle, who both passed away within two days of each other. Kweli says he shared an especially unique bond with his grandfather, a Korean war vet who was assigned to work with pioneering computer technology during his overseas stints.
“I remember going over to his house as a kid, and him telling me IBM was the wave of the future. He was always printing stuff out on computer paper. And he was really into jazz. He lived in Harlem and didn’t believe in holidays, he felt like they were just excuses for people to spend money needlessly. He wasn’t around us much in his later years. But I really remember him with computer stuff and jazz music when I was really little.”
Kweli had an even more limited relationship with his grandfather on his Dad’s side. In fact, he was introduced to that elder in the strangest of circumstances. One night in the early 90s, after hours of DJing at a nearby bar, Kweli slumped back home to his parent’s place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He switched on the TV to help him doze off. But, before long, something compelling flashed onscreen. It seemed mundane enough at first— an old movie called The Landlord starring Bo Bridges, who played a millionaire that aimed to purchase, and spruce up, a run down inner city building. As the plot lazily unfurled, Kweli was slowly roused by the on location details that Bridges and his fictional hired driver travelled past—a street corner, a park, café doors.
“I sat up and said to myself, ‘Is that my block? Is that my building in the background? Is that my grandfather?’”
Sure enough, Stanley Green—a seasoned set extra and occasional character actor who would go on to raise Kweli’s father— had landed the part of Bo Bridges’ driver in the B-grade film. The MC adds that his grandfather scored even better roles, playing Diana Ross’ father in a biopic, and acting opposite Sidney Poitier on a few occasions. But Kweli has no desire to be cast in movies, like his grandfather or his partner Yasiin Bey (who co-starred with Bruce Willis in 16 Blocks and Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job). For now, Kweli is content to foray into another medium aside from his music—the same sort of literacy that first inspired his song lyrics.
“I’m going to be the first rapper who writes his own autobiography,” Kweli says with a laugh, digging ever so slightly at his numerous fellow MC’s who hire ghostwriters to assist with their memoirs. Kweli adds that his own book should hit shelves sometime in 2014, and that he conducted all the research himself. “I had to interview my parents, research Park Slope, recall memories I’d forgotten. I especially wanted to know more about my old neighborhood— knowing where I come from, I wanted to learn more about where Park Slope came from. “
As his Google searches probed deeper into his neighborhoods’ past, Kweli found himself fascinated by the tiniest of details. For instance the main street, titled Park Street today, was initially dubbed Gold Coast, because of the affluent residents on that lane.
“That made me wonder, ‘why didn’t rich people stay here?’ Then I found out that Park Slope quickly became the neighborhood that it is today,” Kweli says, before elaborating: “It became a place of bohemian culture. Early in the 60’s lesbian and gay couples could move here and not have anybody bother them. Mixed race couples, anybody that wasn’t accepted by society could come live in Park Slope. That made sense, because when I was growing up it always felt like Sesame Street. Or better yet, The Electric Company—it felt real funky (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPI63UKkdHY).”
In a way, Kweli was very much a product of that environment—a bohemian outsider, astoundingly generous with his tolerance and acceptance after mingling with throngs of his fellow outcasts. It made him receptive to the eccentricities of others, especially when those quirks were on par with his own. But it also helped him celebrate all that strangeness, embrace it with class, and strive to evolve it all into something even stranger.
Working on that autobiography, revamping his music label, and taking his brand into his own hands also drove Kweli toward a mindset that might have once felt shallow and contrived—and before long he found himself immersed enough in that cliché to subvert it.
“Like I said before, everyone is a learner. And what I’m trying to learn right now is how to make more money, to be honest with you,” Kweli says, in a deadpan tone that would rival the stereotypical ‘get rich’ mantras of Rick Ross, or countless other gangsta rappers. “I’m trying to be a more successful business man. When I started rapping, the music business was flush with cash, I could easily play a show and make enough to live off it. Now it’s all fractured. So rather than participating in the music business, I’d rather build an industry around myself. I’d rather be in the business of Kweli, as crazy as it is to hear myself say that right now.”
That D.I.Y. approach to his sound, image, and legacy is partially an effort to keep Kweli directly connected to his fans. But it’s also the kind of hands-on challenge that he needs to stay engaged in general.
Kweli realized that struggle was an integral part of his character way back in his sophomore year of high school. At the age of 14 he was bored and complacent in class, and his academic parents knew that a new approach was required.
“They sent me to a boarding school in Chester Connecticut, and it worked because it focused me—the campus was far from anything, and there were only 120 kids there. My parents damn near went broke. But that’s why I appreciate them to the end, because they really sacrificed a lot of money, energy and happiness so that I could study there,” Kweli says, and it soon becomes apparent why he’s been making gangsta-style boasts about getting rich and building his business. “I want to leave as much as I can for my kids, so that they can have a head start with their kids.”
By Kyle Mullin