Photo credit: David Morrison
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This interview is overdue. Talib Kweli and Ali have known each other forever, obviously, and even lived in the same building in Brooklyn for years, but we haven't been able to sync schedules until now.
Yeah I wanted to get my old friend on our couch because I appreciated his honesty and straight forward nature so much. Even when Talib could shy away from controversy, he refuses, but I wanted to ask him if he had regrets or ever wearied of responding to aggression. Yeah, and I wanted him to tell us how he keeps his drive so healthy, like where that ambition came from originally and what he still wants to achieve.
There's a lot of reminiscing here and a lot of setting the record straight, it's a good one.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Kweli! Kweli!
TALIB KWELI: Microphone check, one two, one two.
FRANNIE KELLEY: I can't believe this is only now happening.
TALIB KWELI: How long has this been going?
FRANNIE: Since 2013.
TALIB KWELI: Wow. This Microphone Check podcast?
TALIB KWELI: I'm late.
ALI: Me too.
TALIB KWELI: But I'm always on time.
FRANNIE: When we started it, you guys lived in the same building, right?
TALIB KWELI: We did, which is like – just so you understand my history in hip-hop, to live in the same building as Ali Shaheed Muhammad is like – that's like a dream.
FRANNIE: I get it.
TALIB KWELI: I don't know if you know that, Ali, but it's like, if I could tell 14, 15-year-old Kweli that one day you'd live in the same building as Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest, he'd be like, "You bullshit."
ALI: That is too funny man. I mean, we all need a place to live. It was a very nice building. I miss that building. You're making me miss the neighborhood now.
TALIB KWELI: You could visit.
ALI: It's changed though.
TALIB KWELI: You could visit.
ALI: Like the year after I left, I remember going up Myrtle and I was like, what's happening here?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. They used to call Myrtle Murder Ave back in the day.
TALIB KWELI: Actually, that whole neighborhood – I went to junior high school in that neighborhood. I grew up in Flatbush, but I went to junior high school and high school in Clinton Hills and Fort Greene. And it was problematic. It was a challenge every day to go from school to the bus station or the train station. Every day was a challenge.
ALI: You try to have that conversation with your kids? Do they look at you like you're crazy?
TALIB KWELI: Right.
ALI: Like, when your grandparents used to say they walked like 20 miles in the snow –
TALIB KWELI: Right.
ALI: – and chased by lions.
TALIB KWELI: Right.
ALI: But Brooklyn has changed a lot.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah.
ALI: How's it feel? From the place that you grew up to the way it is now?
TALIB KWELI: It feels different. I mean, obviously, everybody likes nice things. And gentrification often brings, at least surface-wise, nice things to a neighborhood. As someone who has some means and has a level of privilege, I like the fact that I can order things and go to nice restaurants and bars and stuff, but gentrification also comes at a price for the people who live in the neighborhood. So you have to be cognizant of that and aware as you're engaging in the privilege of living in a gentrified neighborhood.
ALI: It just makes me really value the Brooklyn I grew up in, because I feel like it helped to make me more aware of the hardship of life. At least, not talking like the hardships of the '60s or stuff like that, but still there was a high crime era.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. But it was economic turmoil. Yeah, I mean, Brooklyn in general. And not just Brooklyn. The city itself. When you look at 42nd St. You know, you grew up in New York City in the '70s, early '80s, it was a different city. It was – New York City was – people use Chicago now. When we were growing up, they used D.C. and New Orleans. Those were the murder capitals. When we were kids in New York, New York was the murder capital.
People talk about old New York, and they talk about how the gentrification has changed things. People are still suffering, but the crime is covered up, I guess, in different ways.
ALI: Yeah. Can you talk about the suffering that you witnessed ?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, so I grew up in Brooklyn in a neighborhood called Park Slope, that right now is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the whole country to live in. And when I grew up there, it was pretty nice too. It wasn't the Park Slope of today, but I describe my childhood like Sesame Street.
If you look at old shows from the '70s like Sesame Street and Electric Company, these were inner-city shows that focused on diversity and education. But if you looked at the location and the people, if you looked at Gordon and Maria and then you watch – Electric Company had Morgan Freeman. These are black and brown people who are clearly from inner-city experiences trying to make their neighborhood better. This was the vibe you got from these PBS programs. And as a son of educators growing in a neighborhood like that in Brooklyn, that's definitely the vibe I got.
So yeah, where I went to school and where I grew up at, there were crackheads and pimps and hustlers and gangs and shootings and violence, but there was also this celebration of diversity, this celebration of inner-city life, and this focus on education that was unique to my experience as the son of two educators. And that's my vibe of Brooklyn. I grew up in a neighborhood that was hood back then, but it's changed. It wasn't a hood like Bed-Stuy or East New York or Brownsville. But those are nuanced differences.
ALI: Just wondering how the adversity of that time, like, mirroring how it has formed a lot of great artists, because of the oppression and the adversity, and how that's transformed the art and the culture and music in New York specifically at a time period. I'm just wondering how does that transform the artist now, the one that's born maybe ten years ago.
TALIB KWELI: I think something that's unique about hip-hop is your music is just as informed by your region where you grew up as it is your parents or your inspirations. Kids now in Brooklyn – we were talking about AfroPunk. It takes place in a park that was overrun by the crack epidemic when I was growing up. So AfroPunk to me is a celebration of the black nerd and this liberation of black kids who are growing up in the hood but are not joining gangs and not – they're wearing different clothes, they're skateboarding, they're listening to different music.
And that's sort of the vibe that I was on when I was younger, which is why I gravitated to Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and Jungle Brothers, which's why the De La Soul video for "Me, Myself, and I" meant so much to me as a young hip-hop head in junior high school at the time. I'm looking at these guys, they're in a high school in the video, and they're the outcasts and they're the nerds in high school. And I'm like, that's the hip-hop that I relate to. That was an in for me.
But for De La to do it, it was revolutionary. People weren't doing that. People weren't dressing like how y'all dressing or doing the things y'all were doing. That was part of it. That was part of the Native Tongues aesthetic. Now that aesthetic has grown a little bit, and you have children of that aesthetic. Myself, somebody like an Anderson.Paak. People like that. Who also performed at AfroPunk this year, and I got to perform with them.
To see that celebration, and just how my children are, who are growing up in these same neighborhoods, to see how much they embrace intersectionality, they embrace solidarity with other cultures and stuff, they embrace shedding or not paying attention to stereotypes of what black youth life is supposed to be. Me, growing up listening to y'all and Boogie Down Productions and everybody, we were more Pro-Black and culturally nationalistic, and it was like, "I'm Black and I'm Black." And that's good too. That's needed. You need to assert your blackness as a young black kid.
But now, this generation, led, I think, musically by like a Kendrick or a J. Cole or people like that, or Chance the Rapper, they're asserting it, but they're not wearing it on they sleeve like how we did. They're not wearing – yes, they are wearing dashikis, but they're not wearing black medallions and making songs talking black and this – they're just asserting their experience, to where it's closer to honesty, I think. And I think that's the evolution.
It's the evolution from the Civil Rights generation evolved into like a Malcolm X thing, and the hip-hop that I grew up on, that you were part of, was a resurgence of the Malcolm X mentality, the Pro-Black Malcolm X mentality. You had a – and that's when you had the Five-Percent come in and a lot of rappers became Muslim at that time. And now people are still on that, but it's not as pronounced. It's more subtle, and it's more about the whole culture, I think, for these kids.
ALI: Yeah. It's interesting you bringing up AfroPunk reminded me – and I had not thought about this, I don't know, for nearly almost 30 years until you mentioned AfroPunk. But we used to go to Boys and Girls High where they had, during the summer, the African Festival. So that was like a place to kind of go and feel, from a communal entertaining sort of a sense, your tie to Africa, what really ties us as African-Americans.
TALIB KWELI: Right.
ALI: And being exposed to things you weren't educated on.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah.
ALI: And talking to people. And that just came from the music and – there was a lot going – the food.
TALIB KWELI: That's a great example, because like even on many levels, my connection to the African Street Festival is deep. I'm talking about real real deep. The organizers. I'm very cool with – Rich Mason, Brother Belawa, his pops is one of the organizers of the festivals. This is a friend of yours, a friend of mine. The mother of my children – I used to work at Nkiru Books, which me and Mos Def owned, we bought later. Every year we would go to the African Street Festival at Boys and Girls and set up a tent. And I would live in that tent. And live there, selling books for the whole time.
ALI: I never knew that.
TALIB KWELI: The mother of my children – Amani and Deani – Darcel, I met her at the African Street Festival. I met her on July 4, 1995 at the African Street Festival. She was selling incense. I thought she was the flyest thing I ever saw in the world. A year later, July 4, 1996, as me and her are walking around the African Street Festival while she's pregnant, nine months, with Amani. She went into labor, at the street festival. So my son comes from that African Street Festival.
Now we talk about how it's evolved, they don't call it the African Street Festival. They call the International African Arts Festival now, to bring in sort of the international thing. And Boys and Girls, they don't have it at Boys and Girls anymore. They have it at the same park that they have AfroPunk at.
ALI: AfroPunk. Yeah.
TALIB KWELI: But it's interesting, because that generation, it's not as popular. The African Street Festival is not as popular as it was when we were kids, even though it's in the same space as AfroPunk. AfroPunk is way bigger.
ALI: Well, I'm just – you were mentioning it and it just made me think about, you know, that was my go-to when I was 15.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah!
ALI: So AfroPunk is –
TALIB KWELI: Is for them.
ALI: – the upgraded version of that. And, well, culture's seem to be more melded together. In New York, it always felt that way, for me at least. Different than going to Alabama and seeing the real separated lifestyle of people from different racial backgrounds.
I'm just curious to know how this culture is now, where things are sort of understated to a degree. One, how does that come out in the music? And two, how does that transform legislation? How does that advance us as a people? How does it unite us as a people, where's that going? Through the music of course, not from any other scope.
TALIB KWELI: Right. Hip-hop has always been a great unifier, and I feel like more than anything on the planet, hip-hop music has educated people and brought more cultures together than anything. I mean, at its heart, at its root, hip-hop is folk music. It's speaking in the language that people are still speaking on the streets. By the time you get to most pop and rock and R&B music, the language becomes more romantic. It becomes more abstract. Hip-hop is still saying the exact words and the phrases, and hip-hop will let you know if that phrase is played out.
So same way Public Enemy and KRS did for kids from outside of black culture, it became informative. That's what a Kendrick does now. That's what a Chance the Rapper does now. But it's interesting, because even a Beyoncé, she grew as an artist, and she decided to start doing things that came across as more socially aware like her Super Bowl performance and choosing to look like a Black Panther and stuff, people got really really upset.
There's this Saturday Night Live skit that I love. This was like a bunch of white people in an office who just discovered Beyoncé was black when she performed at the Super Bowl. They were like, "Oh my god, she's black." And it's because these artists have always been black. They've always expressed cultural awareness and love for blackness in their music, but because they're not saying it, they're not saying, "I'm black," like how a lot of rappers from our generation said it, a lot of people come in and they're now being surprised.
From Obama to Donald Trump, there's been a shift in our country where people who were claiming the country was post-racial because they voted for Obama are now realizing they really have deep-seated racial things in their minds that they've really wanted to express. Trump allows them to express it, and it's being played out I think with artists in general.
Whether you're a football player or whether you're a musician, someone who's a fan of yours feels like they own you. And they feel like they have some sort of say-so. They can tell you how to behave or give you instructions, because they've invested time watching you play or they've seen your video on YouTube. I can't even say they've invested money anymore cause it's not like they buy records. Before at least they could be like, "I bought your record. I'm a fan. Therefore, I get to" – now they be like, "I'm a fan. I streamed your music for free. You need to respect what I have to say about" – you know what I'm saying?
I think it's – we're moving into a place where that whole shut-up-and-sing mentality is becoming more pervasive and artists are now having to step up – now you're being forced to deal with it. I saw what's happening with Chrisette Michele. She got dropped from her label and she was complaining on social media about it. I know Chrisette. I like her a lot. She had me on her album. I did not agree at all with her decision to perform for Trump, but I think her decision was: "I'm just doing this because this is what I want to do as an artist. I have the right to make this decision." I don't think she understood that that decision had consequences. So it's like, now, in this time, we have to deal with it.
And I also think that the artists are not necessarily the best examples for the frontlines of the struggle.
ALI: Why is that? Do you think that they're not challenging enough? Do you think that there's a lack of brute honesty? Do you think that there's a lot of maybe compromises made for self-advancement? Like, why do you think that?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. I think that the artists that stand the test of time, that we revere, that we talk about all the time, from your Stevie Wonders to your Nina Simones to your Bob Marleys, are not the artists with the number one hit records. They're the artists that invested in the culture and gave back to the culture. We wouldn't be talking about James Brown the way we talk about James Brown if he didn't make "Black and I'm Proud."
But that's like looking at things from the scope of history. Most people don't look at things from the scope of history. They look at just what's happening right now. And if you look at what's happening right now, you want to do the trendy thing so you can make the money now and get on the radio. And I think those artists that step up and step out, they're revered in the historical sense, but at the time, they're banished and punished. Like Nina Simone particularly went through a lot of things. They're the exceptions to the rule.
The rule is: the artists have huge egos. All of us, I think, have huge egos, want to be liked, and want to be accepted. I think that's a huge motivation for a lot of artists, and I include myself too. I'm seen as a conscious artist, but make no mistake, I take that stage, my ego helps me get on that stage, and my ego is rewarded from the accolades. And as a spiritual person, I try my best to give the praises to the most high, but my ego jumps in the way often and will be quick to accept the praise and accolades, even though I try to fight it.
Artists are naturally followers. Wherever the vibe of the people going to go, we gon' go follow the people. And I think particularly in hip-hop, because hip-hop is seen as the voice of the youth, people look to the rappers, and be like – when something happens, if a tragedy happens, a young black kid gets shot by a cop, people like, "Why ain't the rappers saying something? Where's Immortal Technique? Where's Mos Def? Where's Lupe Fiasco? What they gotta say?" And it removes people from they personal responsibility without realizing that those artists are exceptions to the rule. Most artists are followers, just want to keep their head down and get that check.
ALI: Well, what sort of self-protections do you have to make you fall not victim the chaos that's out there? Well you already spoke about giving praise to the most high. I was going to say, that checks your ego, to prevent you –
TALIB KWELI: And I try. That's a fight.
ALI: What is it that is your motivation to continue to make music? Cause you've been doing this – you a veteran. You've been doing it for a long time.
TALIB KWELI: I'm extremely blessed. And my blessings come from the work. I give to the people and the people give back to me. I don't need a hit record to go on tour. I haven't had a hit record in years. My career's not defined by likes or stats or hits or numbers or winning a game. My career is defined by my connection to the people. And it's also a bit selfish. It's selfless and selfish at the same time. I'm rewarded for speaking up for the people by the love that the people give to me. So it's within my best interest to keep doing it.
FRANNIE: So you were talking about you have – you see hip-hop in its full history. When you look at something, you don't necessarily judge it for what it is right now, but from where it's coming from and how it might play out later. But at least a sizable portion of your audience doesn't have that perspective. What does it feel like to be making work for people who aren't at your level?
TALIB KWELI: At the end of the day, I try to remember what my job is. I have moved more in the activist direction as I've gotten older, cause as a grown man you take on more responsibilities. You become more aware of your actions. But for the longest, I was very quick to say, "Listen. I'm not an activist." I have a platform that I help activists out and I enable activists. I can be a voice for activism. But I'm not an activist. I'm an entertainer.
That's my job. My job is to entertain. If I'm not dope, no one's going to pay attention. There's a lot of conscious rappers that are not dope. They don't take their job at being an entertainer seriously. So their platform is not as effective.
I focused, and I feel like this has helped me, I focused on making sure that I'm good at my job of being an entertainer. At the end of the day, when people buy my music, people come to my shows, the first thing – and not every artist agrees with this. There's conscious artists that I'm friends with that don't agree with this. But the first thing first is to be dope, be entertaining. I wouldn't say that's an advice for life, but when it comes to my job, that's gotta be first.
And so, social media has taught me that there is a lot of fans who like the beats and they like the flows and they like my talent and they like to hear me rap, but they weren't really paying attention to what I was saying. As a matter of fact, they hate what I was saying. They just didn't realize it until they saw me write it on Twitter without a beat.
And it's like, they're looking at what I'm writing and they're like – I get this everyday, people saying, "Why are you like this? Why are you talking about these things? I'm such a fan. Your music is so positive. Why are you" – and I'm like, "I'm saying the same things. You're just reading it as opposed to hearing it." So that's been an eye-opening experience for me, that there are people who are invested in me as an entertainer that have no clue, don't have the information or the knowledge to understand what I've been talking about for 20 years.
FRANNIE: This is kind of related, but – so you've essentially taken Nkiru Books online with Kweli Club. So you are a book purveyor, a music purveyor, an apparel purveyor as well. Do you apply any of the same principles that you do to writing songs and performing to that role?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, I mean, I think as a songwriter, you apply every single skill.
I grew up loving baseball. I think my mind thinks in the same way that a baseball player's mind thinks, as far as like – what I love the most about the sport of baseball is that you have to think steps ahead. I think that's why people sometimes find baseball boring. Cause if you're watching basketball, it's constant action, back-and-forth, up down – if you're watching football, it's constant back-and-forth. Baseball is a lot of people standing around in their position, and you have to be like, "OK, if the ball gets hit there I'ma make this play. If this play happens, I'ma make" – and it's a lot of, like, thinking three, four steps ahead. So I've employed that into my music, into the way I write lyrics.
I went to school and studied acting at NYU. Sense memory, blocking, creating backstories for your characters, these are all skills that I learned in experimental theater that I applied to my songwriter and to my stagecraft.
Working at Nkiru, I think I might be the rapper with the most book references of any rapper. I'm referencing things from – Ayi Kwei Armah's 2000 Seasons to James Joyce Portrait of a Young Man. And sometimes I'll just reference things from just spending so much time in bookstores. I'll see the titles. I think working at the bookstore absolutely increased my level of knowledge and my sort of well of things I could draw on lyrically.
People, especially in my early career, were impressed by my knowledge that I just got from some other writer and just put it in a lyrical form. So I couldn't even take the credit. I'm like, OK, "Thieves In the Night," on the Black Star album, that hook is literally verbatim the last paragraph of Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye. And it was like, we got props for that, but any time I get props I'm like, "Nah, that's Toni Morrison." So it's definitely been a direct influence.
FRANNIE: Did she get publishing on that?
TALIB KWELI: We did not. No. We just stole it. Sorry, Toni.
FRANNIE: I think she's good money-wise. But is there any sense that you need to sort of pave the way for your work in a way, educate your listener before they're able to kind of keep up with you?
TALIB KWELI: Nah, that's – the onus is on me. You don't want to be a conscious lyrical miracle spiritual rapper that's so deep that your songs are no fun.
TALIB KWELI: The job is on me to make the song dope enough. That's the challenge really, and that's why I'm drawn to that challenge. The most challenging thing as a musician is to make music about sobering, deep, not fun, depressing things that no one wants to talk about and put it in a song format that when people hear the song, they feel uplifted. That to me, it's hard to do. That's why people don't do it. And so, if I gotta explain to you what I was trying to do with a song, I didn't do my job.
TALIB KWELI: If I need to give you like Cliff Notes or if you need to take a couple classes before you hear my music, I didn't do my job as a musician.
FRANNIE: So Black Star is performing currently, which is not as a rare an occasion as people perceive it to be. What's the audience for a Black Star show look like?
TALIB KWELI: They need babysitters.
TALIB KWELI: Sometimes they check their watch because, hey, it's getting late.
But it's a very diverse audience. Black Star is a hugely diverse audience. People from all races, religious backgrounds. We've done songs that are uplifting to women, so we got a lot of women who come to the shows.
Mos Def, Yasiin Bey, is a phenomenon. He's a cultural icon, one of the greatest human beings I've ever met in my life. To share a stage with him is incredible for me. As an artist, I learn so much from him. Early in my career I really, really learned a lot from him, and I'm still learning a lot from him. I performed with him last night and I learned some things last night. I have my own fan base, but he draws a crowd that really increases my fan base in a way that I can only be grateful for.
And the Black Star audience is an audience that has taken that journey with us. They're people who were in high school or college, a lot of them, when that album came out, who that represents the standard for them of what they think good hip-hop is, and I love that. And then I have – there's younger kids who don't like what's going on in today's music who go back and visit Black Star and other albums and people that we were influenced by.
It's great. I do well for myself. I do a lot of clubs and theaters, and I think I tour and perform more than any rapper. I'll take the Pepsi challenge on that. But the Black Star shows just increase what I do exponentially.
FRANNIE: I remember being in high school and college and seeing that album everywhere. I have this vivid memory of seeing it at Wesleyan University and being like, "Yup."
TALIB KWELI: That sounds about right. The college kids love Black Star.
FRANNIE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean –
TALIB KWELI: It might be the book references.
FRANNIE: It's possible. Yeah.
So there is this combination of things that's happening when you were talking about a very specific black experience and expressing that very clearly, very Pro-Black, not obfuscated in any way like is more common now, but that album was received by so many people who didn't come up that way, don't have that experience in their life. Have you ever experienced any tension around that?
TALIB KWELI: Not for Black Star and not until now with the social media thing. I mean, I equate it to Public Enemy. Public Enemy is blacker than Black Star I think. And I remember when Public Enemy was the number one biggest, highest-selling rap group in the world. I mean, they were super pop, and Chuck D was like, "I'm a follower of Farrakhan. Don't tell me that you understand." That's a super, super pop group. They got the S1Ws. They out there really making songs like "Anti-N***** Machine." They kept it really, really, really, really Pro-Black, but if you keep it honest, the people who are about solidarity and the people who are about art can see it and understand it.
I think, like watching Public Enemy get with Anthrax was big for me, because it showed that there were musicians on the rock side and on the pop side that were able to see through people who might label Public Enemy as racist and be like, "No, I get what they're saying. I get the art of that, and why it's important." And Anthrax, as a huge rock group, elevated Public Enemy's message. So I'd like to think that my fans who listen to Black Star are like the Anthrax guys who – they just get it.
I didn't really get any backlash until the social media, and Mos don't be on social media, so he don't really get none of that backlash.
FRANNIE: Yeah. I mean, I don't know how you do it. I don't know how you deal with that on social media.
TALIB KWELI: Quite easily and handily.
FRANNIE: No, I notice. I'm just –
TALIB KWELI: No, I have fun with it. I wouldn't engage in social media if it wasn't fun. I'm blessed that I'm privileged. I've lived a very blessed and privileged life. At this stage in my life, there's not many things that I have to do that I don't want to do. And that's not most people's experience, but for artists who are good at their craft, you can create the sort of life of privilege where you don't gotta deal with things.
A good friend of mine who's a plumber told me Trump was going to win, and I told him, "Hell no. That's impossible. There's no way." Because I was in, like, a privileged bubble where I'm going – I'm traveling the world, right, but I'm only seeing and dealing with people that I agree with. I don't have to get on the train and sit next to someone who's racist. I don't have to sit in a cubicle next to someone who doesn't have the same views as me – and have to deal with them because I need that job. I don't have to deal with that. So in a lot of ways, I'm protected in that way.
So if you see me take the time to address it, it's because I really want to, and I really think it's necessary. I enjoy the discourse. I honestly have a lot of fun exposing racists. And I think there's a lot of people who don't have my voice, don't have my platform, and feel empowered when they see me do it, because they are not able to do it.
TALIB KWELI: Yes.
FRANNIE: They kind of came after you with this post that says that you were not being an effective ally or an ally in the ways that they wish, and then you came back at them basically. I'm just wondering – that was in 2013, I think?
TALIB KWELI: Mhmm.
FRANNIE: If that had happened now, would you have responded differently to their criticisms?
TALIB KWELI: Yes, absolutely. There's a lot of things I learned from that exchange. On the flipside, I don't necessarily think that they learned anything – it's not – I can't say "they." It's one person. Brittney Cooper, I think her name is. Who runs the Crunk Feminists.
TALIB KWELI: She's very respected, at this point. Back then, she was kind of new and just starting. She had this blog. Now I see her writing for Essence. So I see she's really elevated her game. But I'll tell you what I learned, and then I could express what I feel like they didn't learn.
TALIB KWELI: What I've learned is that you never ever ever declare yourself an ally. And even though I felt like I was right in everything I was saying, the one thing I did wrong was declare myself an ally. And I did it from a place of hurt. I did it from an emotional place of hurt. Because I'm looking at myself and my actions as an artist, and I'm like, "I'm me. I'm Kweli from 'Brown Skin Lady,' 'Black Girl Pain.'" I'm like, "All these other rappers out here doing – and you saying I'm not a good ally? No I'm a good ally." What I've learned since is that's the ego. When you declare yourself to be an ally.
Now, my critique for them is that if you're going to have an issue with something that someone says, and you're going to write a piece critiquing it, then the first that you should do is quote what they said verbatim. If Ali says, "I don't like pancakes," and then I write a blog saying, "Yo, Ali said something about something he don't like pancakes," and I start giving my opinion, but I don't quote him directly, then I'm being dishonest as a journalist. The issue I had with them is that this woman took issue with what I was saying and wrote a blog about it, but she didn't ever, not once, in her blog write what I said.
She wrote her interpretation of what she thought I meant. That's fine. You can do that opinion, but at least put what I said, so that people can come to their own conclusion. What she did was she drew a conclusion and presented her conclusion as fact, and that's something that I think people do on the Internet generation. And hopefully as a journalist she's got better at that, but that's what she did to me. She made a conclusion, a very false, inaccurate conclusion about something I said, and presented it as fact, and because she has a following, people then took it as fact.
What's interesting is it was based on – the backstory is based on an exchange that I had, and it's more interesting cause my new single right now is featuring Rick Ross.
FRANNIE: I know.
FRANNIE: She's at Cassius Life now. She's at Cassius now.
TALIB KWELI: OK. Jamilah's great. Rosa Clemente is a great Afro-Latino activist that I've been arguing with on panels for years. This is just – we the argue-on-panel crew. That's what we do. Rick Ross had the lyric that was very inappropriate, and a teacher –
FRANNIE: "Put molly in her drink, she ain't even know it."
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, yeah. Very very very inappropriate lyric that condones rape. I don't think he meant to do it, but when you're talking about oppression, your intention doesn't really matter. The result is the only thing that mattered.
TALIB KWELI: I was asked about it on social media. I said, "I don't agree with that lyrics. He shouldn't've said it. I'm a fan of Rick Ross, but that crossed a line for me." Then I was asked to do HuffPost Black Voices, and I went on with Rosa and Jamilah. The point that Rosa and Jamilah were making was: he's not hip-hop. If you do a lyric like that, you're not a part of hip-hop. While I agreed with their critique of the lyric, what I disagreed with them about was saying that just because someone has an ugly or inappropriate lyric that we're ostracizing them from hip-hop. I don't agree with that.
Hip-hop is beautiful. Hip-hop is ugly. You can't just take the good parts you like. You have to embrace it all if you're going to be honest about your experience with hip-hop. So my only disagreement with them was: Rick Ross is still hip-hop. Because I'm hip-hop, we as a hip-hop collective have to take responsibility for this lyric.
The woman Brittney Cooper said that I was shouting Rosa down and didn't like how I was talking to Rosa. Rosa's a friend of mine. Rosa completely disagreed with that assessment. And on Brittney's blog, Rosa responded, and said, "Listen, this is not how I feel about – you're representing me. That's not how I felt about it." So that hurt my feelings. But now I've learned not to have your feelings involved.
And what I've also learned is that the pain that women, and particularly black women who love hip-hop, feel runs so deep, that it's something I'll never be able to understand. So even though I felt like they took shots at me unfairly, there's a reason why they took those shots. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. This comes from a lifetime of her – I mean, her blog is called "Crunk Feminists." So she's somebody who was listening to crunk music which became trap music. That music is very misogynistic.
So it's like, here's a woman with a lifetime of listening to misogynistic hip-hop, but being conflicted and trying to figure out how she's a feminist but still likes hip-hop, and she sees one rapper man defending another rapper man, and she saw red.
And made me write a song, which became one of my favorite songs I've ever written, a song called "State of Grace." And in that song, I tried my best to try to put myself in the mind state of a woman who grew up listening to hip-hop, and with all the messages that are anti-women, that are hateful to women, that are violent to women, that you hear in hip-hop. How that might affect how you see hip-hop. You might go see your favorite rapper, and he's kicking misogynistic lyrics, and you might want to go backstage for a picture. He's trying to get you to a hotel room. Like, these are real experiences that I'll never experience.
So even though I was upset, and I got emotional over it. I actually learned from the experience. I still think Brittney owes me an apology for not being fair in her piece to me. But I also learned too.
I wanted to also add, I ran into Rick Ross shortly after that exchange. He apologized for his comments, said they were inappropriate and it was wrong. They removed the song and everything. But it was funny because the woke, sort of feminist blogs were saying, "Kweli is not ally." The hip-hop blogs were saying, "Kweli disses Rick Ross."
TALIB KWELI: So it was like, I just couldn't win.
Rick Ross ran into me. He's like, "Yo, why were you – I felt a way when you said" – and I explained – we had a conversation in a nightclub where I explained my position and he understood and we came to an understanding. And that's how we moved on from that. And when you listen to my single with Rick Ross, he doesn't address that situation in particular, but his verse is about being apologetic. His verse is on my song is about taking responsibility and being accountable for things you've done in the past. So I was excited to be able to work with him on that level musically.
FRANNIE: I brought it up because, in light of all of the harassment allegations that are coming out and everything, it seems more obvious than ever for men the constancy of the shit that we're putting up with. And that it's not just in hip-hop.
TALIB KWELI: Oh yeah.
FRANNIE: It's walking down the street. It's everybody you walk past. It's every situation that you're in. And so I think it's a little bit easier for men to see now, like, actions like saying, "I'm an ally. You're going to let me be your fucking ally," the ways that those words impact us.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. No, I had to go through that to learn that. And I get an education on women every day. That's one of the blessings of engaging on social media. My language and my level of awareness, because I'm engaging all the time, I want to keep it as honest as possible. I don't run from any conversation. So I check myself – and I get checked. I don't get checked that often, but I get checked sometimes.
Like I got checked over – years ago I had accepted a gig in Israel. And then the BDS people came to me – cause I felt like as a musician, I could go to Palestine; I could go to Israel; I could band them together. I was like, "I'ma bring a Palestinian artist on stage," and then the BDS people came to me like, "Nah, bro. We boycotting." And I spent a week arguing with people on Twitter like, "Well, I felt like me, Talib Kweli, I could go and make a difference." And turns out I was wrong about that. So I like getting the education.
I also notice as far as the women thing, you know, just watching what happened to Hillary Clinton last year. Hillary Clinton is not a politician that I hitch my wagon to, but misogyny for men is an abstract. You could say you're a feminist. You could say you're anti-misogynistic. But you'll never go through it. So to see the anger and hatred thrown at this woman, not because of her policies but because she was a woman, the same way I saw it for Obama. I saw it for Obama. I could relate to that. I'm like, "Yeah, obviously." But when I saw it happen to Hillary Clinton, I was like, "Oh, this country really hates women. Like, really, really hates women in a way that I will never understand." I've never seen anything like it.
FRANNIE: Yeah. All this stuff that was subterranean before and is so much in our faces, it's – it's such a fulfilling feeling that it's here, like, this moment is here, that we can talk about it out loud, but it's also horrifying and overwhelming. Yeah. And it makes a lot of sense that a Black Star show would be sold out in this day and age.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. Yeah. Black Star, I think – you know, we learned from the best.
ALI: I was going to say Black Star is just good, period. The end.
ALI: That's –
FRANNIE: When did you first become aware of Talib and of Black Star?
ALI: Very early from the Rawkus singles. And a good brother that's not with us anymore Chaka Malik was –
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, RIP Chaka.
ALI: I don't know. Was he managing Mos at the time?
TALIB KWELI: He was managing Yasiin, yeah.
ALI: And I remember him being extremely excited.
TALIB KWELI: Yes he was.
ALI: About everything with these young men. I guess I could say he's still young to me. But back then they just seemed extremely young, and I was extremely excited because I felt that, not that our end was near, but it was a different level of enthusiasm for making music and it wasn't as high as it was when I was 19.
TALIB KWELI: Tribe Called Quest did a last tour ever that Black Star, we went – we toured with y'all for a couple of dates. But that was incredible to me. You could watch some of those shows on YouTube too. I watched them.
TALIB KWELI: Some of those – "This is our last album." And then Mos being very excited. Mos kept running on the stage with y'all.
ALI: I just – it was just – in hearing some of the pre-release stuff that they were working on, and I just was excited because I felt like you passing the flag to incredible artists who are going to take it in a completely different place than we had taken it, and were going to do beautiful, wonderful things with the art. And so it was just a on-the-sideline enthusiasm for like, "They're the next," and looking forward to support them however we could.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, I went to see KRS-One perform at the Building in 1991. And I was 15 years old, and I had a camera with me. And I was the first one on line. And I couldn't get in cause I was 15. It was me and my homeboys. And then Jarobi got us in.
ALI: You told me this story. Yeah.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. He didn't know us at all. He just saw us standing out – he was like, "Y'all want to come in?" And that's how I met Jarobi, but I have a picture with Ali from that night. I think you had on one of those ponchos, right, with the pointy hood.
ALI: I don't even remember. Oh, yeah, that's right! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. You had your hood on the whole night. In the club. I remember that.
FRANNIE: That sounds right.
TALIB KWELI: But I know this because I have a picture. There's a picture of 15-year-old me, with Ali, in the night club. And that was my first real – before then, I was just listening to BLS and KISS and reading Rap Masters and Word Up! That was my first – like, I went to this nightclub and KRS performing and I took pictures with Jamalski, Tommy Davidson, Nikki D.
TALIB KWELI: These were superstars to me at the time. Jarobi, Ali. My whole entire high school experience, I had those pictures in a photo album of that night.
FRANNIE: That's amazing.
TALIB KWELI: This was so visual to me, because I used to show people whenever they came in the house. Like, "Look. Here's me with Tribe Called Quest."
FRANNIE: Yeah. Oh I get it.
ALI: I just remember the first time hearing "Move Somethin," it was as big as Public Enemy to me.
TALIB KWELI: Wow.
ALI: It was just massive, the song. Everything about the song was massive. The beat was monstrous. And it's like the best entry-level, I think, kind of a song.
TALIB KWELI: Shout out to Hi-Tek. He's brilliant.
ALI: Lyrically, it's just – and coming from New York it made me feel like, yeah, that's that New York ish. You know, like, really.
FRANNIE: I mean, cause Hi-Tek, his drums always sounding like they were related in some way to Tribe's drums.
ALI: Yeah, and you gotta understand the context and the wave of – hip-hop kind of was going a little bit glossy, and I don't say that in a negative way, but, you know, it was shined up, and popular and dancey. Not like Chubb Rock dancey, it was something different.
TALIB KWELI: Right. Not like "Hot Dog."
ALI: Yeah. You know. But when that dropped it made me feel as if, like I said, you passing on the flag to someone who's going to continue to have the foundation of the music and the feeling, the heartbeat of the ancestors, but then they're going to add their own stamp onto it and take it to a place that we were not able to take it to. That's what I felt.
TALIB KWELI: We were coming across as anti-Puff. Like, that's how people looked at us.
TALIB KWELI: We were – Puff was – at that time, from 12 to 1 in the nightclubs, you're only hearing Bad Boy. That's it. The slick Bad Boy sound. Or if it was somebody Bad Boy adjacent, like Gina Thompson or somebody that Puff had produced, if it wasn't somebody on Bad Boy. Those records were just like – it was ubiquitous. It was just everywhere.
And I used to work for Puff and Jessica Rosenblum, before Black Star, before Reflection Eternal. I was at those clubs with Puff and Enuff and Funkmaster Flex and Biggie and all them. I saw that play out. The direction we went in, we weren't trying to be anti-Puff, but that's what it became because he was so ubiquitous. But I think Black Star balanced it out.
It was like, we were the kids who went to the club to dance to the beats. We couldn't afford to get in the club. We had to know somebody to be on the guest list. We couldn't afford to buy drinks. We didn't even drink! We go to the bar and be like, "Water." They be like, "Five dollars." You'd be like, "Five dollars for water?" And the bartender would look at us like, "Man, if you don't get a real a drink and get out my face." With the velvet rope culture, we couldn't – you would see the drug dealers and the hustlers and the people that sort of were represented by the glossy hip-hop celebrating, popping bottles and everything, and we were just so anti-that because we looked at it like: that's not real.
We were hopping the turnstiles, buying dollar hoagies, freestyling in the park. And I feel like that sort of broke – we don't care about anything but the culture. We care about the vinyl. We care about respecting the elders who came before us. There was a resurgence of rocksteady at that time. There was a resurgence of vinyl. There was a resurgence of –
Even Black Star's first song was us re-doing Boogie Down Productions. We were looking to Boogie Down Productions and rocksteady and Rakim like, "No, that's the culture. Why don't they play those records in the club? Where's that at?" When I first worked for Jessica Rosenblum, the hot records in the club were Gang Starr "DWYCK," A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nice and Smooth. Those are huge, huge, some of them platinum-selling, huge hip-hop records.
But yeah, very quickly, it turned into, like, the sampling of Kool and the Gang, and the sampling of huge pop hits that we weren't willing to do. We were like, "Nah, that's not how you do it." Even linking up with Hi-Tek, Hi-Tek looked to Q-Tip and Showbiz and L.E.S. and Diamond D and Pete Rock, and he's like, "I'm trying to be like them." I'm not trying to just sample the popular things. So it was us looking backwards to go forward.
And I think there were a lot of MCs around doing it, from El-P and Company Flow – and he's still doing his thing – to Wordsworth and Punchline, to Sir Menelik. But I think Black Star, us adding the cultural aspect made us sort of leap frog over a lot of the people at that time. The fact that it was so Pro-Black and so, like, for the culture.
And I think also Yasiin Bey as well. I came in as his sort – he was mentoring me, but he was at that time running around with De La and Tribe Called Quest.
TALIB KWELI: Like touring with De La and doing music with y'all. He was bringing something from y'all to the underground I think. Plus his acting experience as well. He was like an underground superstar. He was drawing in artists – Mos Def is responsible for a lot of people who were like, "I'm not on that underground. I don't listen to underground," for changing a lot of people's minds on that. Like, "I don't like the underground but I like Mos Def." And me being adjacent to him, I got some of that as well.
FRANNIE: Right. I moved to New York in 2000 to go to NYU.
TALIB KWELI: My alma mater.
FRANNIE: Yeah. And I experienced that as a fan, that Rawkus vs. Bad Boy sort of divide, and the way that people would kind of, like, take a stance. And Soundbombing was just – especially II – was just huge.
TALIB KWELI: I keep hearing that this year a lot. This year I'm hearing a lot of people say to me how influential Soundbombing was to them.
FRANNIE: Oh yeah.
TALIB KWELI: I didn't really look at it like that. That was a project Rawkus was trying to capitalize on the mixtape culture.
TALIB KWELI: But because of the quality of artist that they were involved in – this is Eminem's first appearance ever, was on Soundbombing – it's now become iconic, even though it was just like a money play at the time. And now it's become, like, a thing.
FRANNIE: Oh yeah. Well, cause first of all, we were all only buying mixtapes. That was the only way we were spending money. Or we were on, like, Limewire, Kazaa, or whatever. So we were used to listening – we weren't putting on an album. It just mimicked our – or it catered to our –
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. That's exactly what they were trying to do. They were like, "People only buy mixtapes. Let's put out a mixtape format."
Puff, when Big passed – rest in peace – came to a Lyricist Lounge performance, two weeks after Big passed, that me and Mos Def were headlining. And he was getting a lot of hate from the people in the audience, and Mos was performing – this was a year before Black Star dropped – Mos was performing "Children's Story." Puff came backstage to talk to us about the record. He was like, "Was that about me?" And Mos was like, "Nah, that's about the culture in general." He sort of gave him a if-the-shoe-fits-wear-it answer.
But that was a very interesting moment for me, because I had worked with Puff, and now I'm part of this aesthetic, which was a completely different thing, and it was interesting. It was interesting to see how much the culture meant to Puff. Like, even though people saw him a certain way, he didn't see himself that way. Big and Craig Mack and all them were doing Lyricist Lounge before they blew up. So he saw himself, rightfully so, as part of this hip-hop culture.
ALI: In the culture. Yeah.
TALIB KWELI: But he had blown up so big. We saw the same thing happen with Jay-Z around the Kanye era. People looked at Jay as this untouchable pop phenomenon, but he's like, "I'm a lyricist. I like these Kanye West beats. I like Kweli. I like" – you know what I'm saying? It's interesting to see how these mega-stars always have to point to the culture. When I read Jay-Z's book, one thing he says over and over and over in the book is, "It's really for me about the rhymes. All this comes from just rhymes." And I have to always remember that.
FRANNIE: I mean, I think it's important for people to remember – people forget how young Tribe was when they were changing the world, but you were so young when you made Train of Thought. I mean, this is a thing that is kind of – it's something – it's partly about black genius, black excellence, but if you even talk about OutKast, the records that they were making when they were 17, 19, it's like, it's hard to fathom.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, CeeLo too.
TALIB KWELI: He was the youngest member of Goodie Mob, but he sounded like this old preacher.
ALI: Old man. Yeah.
TALIB KWELI: When he first came out, he was in his early 20s.
FRANNIE: But could you – and I'm asking this on behalf of our producers as well, but could you talk a little bit about what was your mindstate when you were making Train of Thought? You created such a picture of a whole life, and it somehow – it got through to very young men.
TALIB KWELI: For all intents and purposes, that's my first album where I got to spread my wings as a solo MC. It's a group album, but I was the featured MC in the group. So Black Star was a compromise, the best kind of compromise. We upped each other's game. I learned from Mos; he learned from me. But that was our vision. Reflection Eternal was our vision in terms of me and Hi-Tek, but lyrically, it was my vision.
There was even some arguments. Like me and Hi-Tek, that album was like banging on a coal until you get a diamond. We were just – there was a lot of friction in the studio. The thing I said about being an entertainer, I didn't always approach it like that. I learned how to be like that from being a professional musician. When I was working on that album, my focus wasn't so much on the aesthetic musically. My focus was what do I want to say? What do I have to say? What am I trying to say?
So I would deliver these songs to Hi-Tek, and he'd be like, "Mm, can you cut that verse? And maybe not have 38 bars on that verse? And maybe put a hook here?" Cause he was thinking as a musician. Like, he's like, "What you saying, it sound cool. I get what you trying to say. But musically it doesn't work for me." And I didn't understand the musical language as much as he did back then. So it was a lot of friction of me feeling like he was trying to limit my message, and him feeling like, "I'm trying to make the music better."
And so that friction of us both being visionaries and trying to be perfectionists – perfection is not I think a goal we should try to attain, me personally – but it was like a lifetime of experience. Black Star approached that a little bit, but I had to share the space with Mos Def lyrically. Reflection Eternal is like 20 tracks, notebooks of notebooks of notebooks of rhymes that I had through my life.
Now, 15 albums later, I don't got no notebooks. I don't got no spare rhymes. I don't have any spare rhymes. If I make a rhyme, it's going on a track. I'm doing a song with it. Back then, I had three or four notebooks of rhymes. So trying to pick and choose from that is what sort of made that album.
FRANNIE: Can you explain a little bit about what was going on in your life, what was going on in the culture at large at that time?
TALIB KWELI: I was in love with my children's mother. I was going to the African Street Festival. I was working at the bookstore, and I was having children. I was becoming a young father. I will say that my children push me in ways. I was sort of in between should I get a job or should I pursue this music full time.
And then Darcel got pregnant and I'm like, "I gotta shoot my shot now." And I made a plan. I was like – I was working at the bookstore. I was going to NYU, and I was taking night classes at Medgar Evers College. And I was like, I need to go as hard as possible with this hip-hop thing for two years. And after two years, if it don't pan out, I'm just going to get a job.
And the moment I made that decision is when my career happened, the moment I decided I'm going to put my all into it – and I went to every concert. I went to every night club. I went to every open mic. I read every magazine. I bought every album. I read the credits. I immersed myself so much in hip-hop that a year after I made that decision, we dropped the "Fortified Live" single. And I was able to show my parents the vinyl. Cause they come from a vinyl generation. Like "Look. I'm serious." That's when my parents took me seriously, when I showed them my first single vinyl. Then they felt like, "OK. This might really be a thing."
TALIB KWELI: So I think definitely real-life sitch-ee-ay-shuns, as they'd say on the OutKast album, helped me out. Having Amani and Deani, knowing I had to provide my family, I was like – and I loved the music, so I was like, I want to make a living – I knew back then that making a living doing what you love is true freedom. I knew that. I just had to get there.
ALI: Do you still love the music today?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. Yeah. I have to. As I get older, I'm starting to become aware of age and body limitations. That's different. That's a different thing. Now, it's like, "Maybe I shouldn't take that gig." Before I'm like, "I'm taking every gig." Now I'm like, "Maybe I should sit this one out." So I don't take as many features now. I'm slowing down on things, because I'm picking and choosing more wisely.
Not necessarily cause I want to, cause I love doing it, but because I'm like, if I want to have the longevity, I need to be more careful how I move out there before I get sick. We got people our age that are passing away. We got hip-hop artists from Pumpkinhead to Sean Price to Prodigy that are dying on the road. These guys are my age.
And I know what they're doing. They're working-class musician. None of us are super millionaire, trillionaire, billionaires. We all have families. You out there working. That life road, that bluesman life, travel road, if you're not taking care of yourself, but even if you are taking care of yourself, it could be hard.
I tour more than any other rapper. I do it because I love it, but I also do it because, for me, I've never had a platinum record. I've never had a situation where royalties or making money from selling songs is able – that doesn't cover it. That doesn't cover it for me. My living is on the road. I make a living on the road.
Kweli Club, signing artists like NIKO and K'Valentine. I wrote a book now. I'm spending a lot more time hanging out with my actor friends, trying to do different film stuff. I'm trying to actively make changes, so I don't have to go on the road as much. But I still love it.
FRANNIE: In the video for "Get By," when Kanye makes that brief cameo, is that right before the car accident?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah. I would say so.
FRANNIE: It's like, the last picture of his face symmetrical.
TALIB KWELI: That's interesting. Yeah, I remember that. The car accident was out here. In Hollywood. Kanye was living a wild life. He had a lot of things going on. And he's such a genius. It's because of that car accident is why he's here.
TALIB KWELI: Where he's at. Because what he did was he turned that car accident into "Through the Wire," which he rapped while his jaw was wired shut, and he rapped about his jaw being wired shut and drinking Ensure. Who raps about drinking Ensure? He rapped about drinking Ensure.
He went up to Rock-A-Fella. He said, "This is my single." They was like, "Nobody wants to hear a depressing song about your car accident." He then took his own money he made from producing. He made a mixtape. He made the Get Well Soon mixtape. He made t-shirts for the mixtape. All his own money. He made a video for the song. He took the video to BET. He convinced BET – he paid for video promotion. He convinced BET to play that song, and that was his first hit record.
So he took a very negative, tragic situation and turned it into the start of his recording career, which I think is very impressive.
FRANNIE: Did you feel a way when he asked you to do "Get Em High?" In that way? Play that role?
TALIB KWELI: By the time "Get Em High" came around, Kanye was already a huge, huge, huge star. He had signed John Legend by that time. He was on top of the world. To the point where, our relationship was different. I couldn't get in touch with him as easily as I could've – somebody blows up super-star status, their life changes. And sometimes they don't know how to navigate it in ways where they can keep in contact with everybody. Our relationship became more of a text/email relationship.
But I was still very invested in having him on my album Beautiful Struggle, and he was still invested in being on the album. He came to a studio session. I wanted to buy a beat. He wouldn't give me beat tapes. Like, at that point, he was so in demand I couldn't get a beat tape. I went from getting beat tapes from Kanye with 20 beats on them to, I can't get a beat.
He showed up at the studio with shopping bags. "You don't need to pick a beat. I'll make a beat right now." And he made that "Get Em High" beat in about 15 minutes. I watched him make it. This was for the Beautiful Struggle session. And he said, "Yeah, this the beat." And it was, like, very keyboard-y to me. I wanted something more warm and lush with samples at that time.
He was like, "Yeah, the hook should be like, 'Throw, throw, throw your motherfucking hands! Get 'em high!" And I'm like – you know, I smoke weed, but I was like – I remember that session well. I was like, "I don't want to make a song about smoking weed for this album." That's not where I was for Beautiful Struggle.
And so I was like, "I'm cool on that." I ended up using "I Try," which John Legend wrote, and that felt like "Get By" to me. Kanye was like, "You sure? This is a hit! This is a hit." I'm like, "Mm. I don't like it." He was like, "Alright. Well, I'ma put it on my album." I said, "Yeah. Go ahead. Put it on your album." And then that's what it was.
So then when I laid my verse – I laid my verse while I was on tour in Europe, and I sent it to him. And then the album came out like a month after I laid my verse or like a few weeks after I laid my verse.
TALIB KWELI: I was one of the last verses on College Dropout. I went to Target – I was on the tour bus. I made the tour bus stop at Target. I was like, "We gotta buy this new Kanye album." And I was so excited about College Dropout. I didn't go to hear my song first. I just put it on the bus, and I listened – it was like 14 songs in, "Get Em High." Like, "Here comes my verse." He flew my verse in a bar late.
TALIB KWELI: Oh, I was hot. I was so mad, because I had just bought it at Target. So ain't no going back and fixing it. I called him up mad like, "How could you – you got me sounding crazy, like I can't rap." He was like, "That shit sound dope."
FRANNIE: It does.
TALIB KWELI: He was like, "I did what? It sound dope to me." And I was like, "No it don't. That's not where I laid those bars."
And then Common's flow – I've never said this in public. Common sounded – I didn't like how Common came in after me. So I called Common. I'm like, "Yeah he flew our vocals in right." Common's was like, "Nah, my vocal wasn't flown. My vocal was right. That's exactly how I laid it." I was like, "Oh. It's just me."
Then that year, everyone kept coming up to me. "Man, you killed it on 'Get Em High.' I love that verse." I'm like, "You don't know what your talking about. I did not kill it." Now I've had to accept it. And I've had to learn – I've had to learn to rap it wrong, because people love it so much. Now I love it. Now I'm like, Kanye's a genius. He knew exactly what he was doing. That's not how I laid it, but that's what he heard.
FRANNIE: If anything I always feel like when Common's verse comes in, it's like, it's boring.
TALIB KWELI: OK.
ALI: Now that just blows any chances of having Common sitting there. Rashid, we love you, man. So, you know.
TALIB KWELI: "Real rappers is hard to find like a remote." That remote is hard to find.
FRANNIE: That's not a line.
TALIB KWELI: Shout out to Rashid. That's one of my favorite people in the world. But yeah, Kanye, he saw something. He sees things, and he's always done that. He's always seen things ahead of time.
ALI: So you get a call that one of your favorite groups is coming back together to make an album after 16 years and how did that phone call go? How did that happen?
TALIB KWELI: Which –
ALI: Which group.
TALIB KWELI: Oh! Tribe Called Quest.
ALI: That group.
TALIB KWELI: Your group.
ALI: That group. Yes.
TALIB KWELI: So, me and Kamaal had worked on or started working on a song like five years ago, alright. And I've always – when I would run into him, I would go over to his house, and we would work on it, go back and forth, go back and forth. And then, rest in peace to Malik, Phife passed away. And when Phife passed away, the idea of me bothering Q-Tip about my little song just seemed terrible. I was like, "I'm not calling him about that song ever again."
And I went to AfroPunk to see Ice Cube, the year before, Raphael. When I get to AfroPunk, I see Q-Tip backstage saying that he's waiting to talk to Ice Cube, because he hasn't seen Ice Cube in 20 years and he wanted to talk to him about something. And I'm like, "OK." And then he's like, "Yo, what's up with that song?" I was like, "Our song?" He was like, "Yeah." I was like, "Listen, bro. You're Q-Tip. Whatever you say. I'll be that at the studio tomorrow. What's up." And he was like, "Yeah, come through the crib tomorrow."
And I went to the crib, and when I got there, him and Jarobi were sitting there working on the Tribe Called Quest album, that I didn't even know existed. And then he's playing me these Phife Dawg verses, and I'm like – there's things that happen in your life that make you understand if you're a spiritual person and that there's a higher power. And the idea that Phife spent his last days recording that album, that to me was proof of god. Because it sounded so perfect.
So, yeah, I went over there to try to get my song done, but then I heard them working on this Tribe Called Quest album. I didn't bring my song up again. I went there the next day and I went there the next day. I went over to Tip's house maybe for two weeks straight. Then I told Dave Chappelle about it and then he came. He told Chris Rock and Chris Rock came.
You gotta understand, Tribe Called Quest, I don't have the words to describe how much of – this is my favorite group. Like, Tribe Called Quest has got me through – it defined my identity as a teenager. If you asked when I was developing who I am, developing into the man I am now, "Describe yourself." I'd be like, "Go listen to Tribe Called Quest. That's me."
So I just was like a fly on the wall, watching this album, which is – it's a brilliant album, by the way. It picks up where y'all left off. It's futurist but it's retro at the same time, and it's like, man, I couldn't believe my blessings. I just was like, "I must be doing something right in life to be in this moment." And the idea that they would ask me to be on it. Oh my god.
I saw Jarobi in a nightclub a year before I went over to Tip's house. And he says to me, "I wrote this verse while I was watching you on TV with Don Lemon in Ferguson, and I want to kick you this verse." And it was Sutra, rest in peace Voodoo Ray. It was a Sutra Tuesday Tuesdays party. We went outside, and he kicked me this verse that he said he wrote while watching me on TV.
A year later, I'm at Q-Tip's house, and Tip is like, "Maybe we should get Kweli on the album." And in my mind, I'm (flustered noises). They were like, "What song? What song?" They're going back; they're playing certain songs, and Jarobi is like, "What about the song that I wrote that verse." And it's that same verse. And this is Jarobi who let me in that club where I took pictures of you.
It all comes together. It was just right. It was just right. I was supposed to be on that song. I didn't know it, but going to the Building at 15 and meeting y'all set a series of things into motion that led me to being on that record, "Killing Season."
FRANNIE: Your path is, like, totally unique to you, right? Do you have any advice to people to help them achieve their own specific, unique self? Cause you're rare.
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, I think trying to be honest with yourself. I think honesty is the key. Pay attention to the trends without following them, which I think is harder to do than it sounds. But you have to observe your surroundings to know what it is that you want to do and how you're going to make it work.
I feel like people who observe their surroundings very well are looked at as psychics, are looked at as soothsayers or people who can tell the future. When you think about somebody like Nostradamus or Da Vinci, they talk about, "Oh, they saw these things ahead of time." No, they just were very observant of the things around them. They're observations were so on point that people were like, "Y'all can predict the future." Time is in control. Time waits for no man. We don't actually predict the future. But if you look at how things are going, you can – you have to be observant.
And it's cliché to say do it for the culture, but I'm glad that's a new cliché. I mean, I'm not glad it's cliché, but I'm glad it's a thing that people are saying, an affirmation that people are saying. Cultural currency is worth more than anything. There are rich people who are miserable. I'm not a rich man, but I'm rich in culture, and it carries me through life. The cultural currency I've amassed. It's allowed me to manifest my destiny.
When I was in high school, my wall was covered – I mean covered, every square inch – with pictures I ripped out of Rap Masters and Word Up! and all the rap fanzines. All these people are my friends now. I can call them up. That's not a coincidence. I made that happen from being observant of my surroundings I think.
FRANNIE: Well, thank you so much for coming here.
TALIB KWELI: Thank y'all for having me.
ALI: Yeah, thank you, man. You're an inspiration, because you're still – you have this youthful spirit, and you speak for a lot of people. And it's one thing to be an artist and to be, I think, admired for, you know, the songs you write and you gain the adoration of people long term. And that's one thing. But when you are a person that has that but you also stand up for people, it's really special. It's a special quality, especially in this time period that we're living in.
And I just wanted to say thank you. Cause I see the way that you're vocal out there beyond the music. Obviously the music is a platform that helps you to be in this position, but you're using your voice in a way that most people won't do. And it's needed.
TALIB KWELI: I appreciate you –
ALI: And I don't say that to have this pressure, not that I think – you from Brooklyn so you just gotta walk.
TALIB KWELI: No doubt.
ALI: And I don't say that as a means to be a form of pressure, but it's just something that I see and I don't see a lot of it.
TALIB KWELI: Well, I mean, I appreciate it from you, because I always say I learn from the best, and I look at myself in the scope of history, and in the scope of history, I got it from y'all. So I appreciate and accept and run fast towards the challenge. The challenge that you present to me to keep doing that is something that I run to.
ALI: Thank you. Big up your parents, man.
TALIB KWELI: Thank you. Yeah. Word up.
ALI: For real. For real.
TALIB KWELI: Word up.
TALIB KWELI: I'm a reflection of them.
TALIB KWELI: We are a reflection of our ancestors. That was the whole – Reflection Eternal, that's what it was about, and that's where I was at working that album. It's like, we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors, and if our ancestors could heard us, what should we say? If my newborn baby can hear me 20 years from now, what should I say? And that's what the goal was.
ALI: Yeah. Thank you.
TALIB KWELI: Thank you.