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LAist Interview: Talib Kweli

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Talib Kweli is your favorite rapper's favorite rapper. On his first farewell, The Black Album, rap superstar mogul Jay-Z gave Kweli the greatest sign of respect when he spit the following line "If skills sold/Truth be told/I'd probably be/Lyricly/Talib Kweli." The son of two college professors, the Brooklyn native is far from your average emcee. In the fall of 2007, Kweli released the critically acclaimed and commercially successful album Eardrum, the first from his new label, Blacksmith (Warner). Tonight and Saturday, the gifted lyricist returns to Los Angeles for two shows at the House of Blues.

What do you enjoy most about coming out to LA?
I definitely enjoy the weather. I enjoy hanging with Strong Arm Steady, who as you know are based out here in LA and are apart of my label Blacksmith.

So I hear there has been a second show added for the HOB, was that a result of the first show selling out?
The first show is sold out, so we had the opportunity to add another show on Saturday. I’ve been selling out the House of Blues for a while now. That's nothing new to me. But the love I am getting from Los Angeles on a consistent basis definitely feels good. I always have a great time and appreciate the love when I perform out here.

There are a lot of emcees you work regularly with out here in LA, can we expect any special guests to hit the stage with you this weekend?

Whoever happens to show up, you know.

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Right now many people are saying that the music business doesn’t have much left. Record sales continue to decline and the only way to make money is to perform live. Do you think rap shows can sell as well as live performances from other genres?
Good music is good music.People will pay to go see good music. I think the HOB will sell regardless of whether my album sells or not. I have built a fanbase who are loyal to me and my music and support my shows.

What mistakes from your time as an artist on Geffen are you trying to avoid now in your position of power with Blacksmith?

I learned that you have to be upfront with your artists. You have to address the challenges that will come about on a project. With Geffen when there was a challenge that arised on my project they weren’t upfront with me about it. Labels aren’t proactive with the addressing challenges. Now that I am in the position I am very upfront with my artists.

How do you feel about the response your latest album Eardrum has received? Are you happy with the album? Looking back, is there anything you'd do differently?
I think I got a little overzealous with trying to do too much too soon with the Internet. I didn't think Warner was moving fast enough so I was trying to do a lot of it on my own. I think for the next album I am going to stay patient. I think the response has been pretty good. I have been fortunate throughout my career to have for the most part received great feedback from the critics. I think the response with the album is consistent with the rest of the work I have put out in my career.

One of the biggest surprises for me and many others on Eardrum was "Nature" a collaboration with Justin Timberlake, how did that opportunity come along?

I met Justin doing an MTV show called Trippin' with Cameron Diaz. I spent two weeks in Africa with her and Justin. I really enjoyed my time with them. I caught up with Justin in the studio when he was in the finishing stages of working on FutureSex/LoveSongs. We wanted to work together on a record, his album had been completed. So we decided to do this song for my album.


Are there plans to work together on any other projects?

Not at the moment. But if the opportunity comes up to work with him again, I would love to do something again. I think Justin is a great artist and I learned a lot from working with him.

You worked with the production team, Fyre Department who rely on live instrumentation in their production, quite a bit on Eardrum do you see hip hop going in the direction of more live instruments in their beats?
The best hip hop in the last few years, has been produced by the likes of Dr. Dre and Kanye West. They do an amazing job of creating music that pays homage to the classics with samples but they also understand the process of creating the right sonic elements to accompany those great samples. They understand how a single is supposed to sound in the club.

You have worked with UGK quite a bit, tell me what working with and getting to know Pimp C was like.
I have become really good friends with Bun B, we recorded together on a few different things. We did my track "Country Cousins" together and when Pimp got out of jail I had the opportunity to get a verse from him on there too since my album got pushed back. I was like ok I can get Pimp on there too. I had never met him but we talked on text message. Pimp let me know off top that Bun put him on to me. Then recently I would see him a lot. He was so busy, he was doing a lot of traveling. I know, because it seemed like every time I was at the airport, I ran into him. He always showed me a lot of love and the fans have shown him a lot of love. What Biggie and Pac are like on the coasts that's what Pimp C and Bun B are like to Houston.

In an interview you did just recently with PopMatters you said "the perception of hip-hop is at an all-time low" but in my opinion there are many artists like Kanye, Ghostface Killah, Outkast, Common, yourself and even Lil Wayne who seem to have captured the attention of the most respected critics of music as a whole, not just hip hop. I don't remember seeing something like this in hip hop 10 years ago. Please explain that statement for me.
What I meant by that statement was the perception of music outside of the critics and outside of the intellectual circles. Music critics are great and like I said have been great to me. They do have influence on the buyers of music, but just a small percentage of buyers. I feel like when hip hop is being talked about outside of intelligent circles it isn't given the respect it deserves. I have heard a lot of people compare hip hop to the hair bands of the 80s. You know heavy on the image but the substance isn't there. When I was on MTV doing "Made" I was surprised by the kid Colin's idea of what he thought hip hop was. His perception of hip hop was ignorant. I know he isn't the only one who thinks that way about hip hop. Because of this perception, I feel like those outside of hip hop automatically dismiss it and dismiss us as artists.

What can hip hop do to improve its perception?

Let me start answering that one by saying I am not worried about the future of hip hop. I don't want people thinking I believe we are doomed. But I will say one way we can improve ourselves is by simply making the best music we can make. With most African-American art forms, this music is not done for the sake of art it's created as a necessity. We can make music so we can eat, so we have a roof to live under. Soulja Boy made "Crank That" as a necessity. What we should try to do is respect the art. I think we are caught up in the consumerism of our music right now, caught up in record sales and what we need to do to increase our numbers. To a degree you definitely need to be aware of the consumer and the dollar signs involved with the music. But it cant just be like we're just doing anything just to make some money and get on TV.

What's the latest on the project with Hi-Tek?

It's a plan and a contract in effect. It will happen but nothing has happened yet.

I am a big fan of yours, but I had no idea you spent some time in Connecticut at boarding school, Cheshire Academy. As a Connecticut native, I'm from Bridgeport, who knows what a culture shock it must have been to go from Brooklyn to boarding school I am interested to find out what did learned from your time in boarding school in Connecticut?

Bridgeport? Wow! You're from the 'hood (laughs). At Cheshire I learned a lot about white people. That's too general. I should say I learned a lot about white people from a certain class. I got to see first-hand that New England boarding school mentality. The things I learned back then have helped me navigate my way through life. What I learned wasn't really book knowledge, I read a lot of books on my own, I didn't need to pick them up from school. I did learn people skills in my time at Cheshire Academy. I was a Black kid from Brooklyn who wasn't playing basketball. I carved out my niche. I knew they needed me there. They weren't going to kick me out so I was able to get away with a lot of things. I positioned myself, I marketed myself as someone they needed to have there. That allowed me to get away with a lot of things. It also taught me the importance of positioning yourself.

What is in store for 2008?

I am very excited about Blacksmith TV, if you haven't already seen it you should definitely check it out. It shows a different range of artists. Res and I are working on a little side project called "Idle Warship." It's crazy it's kind of like dance music. Then I also have my artists Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady dropping albums in 2008. I am really looking forward to those albums.


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Photo Courtesy of Warner Music Group