Few hip-hop artists have made as profound an impact in as short a time as Talib Kweli. After releasing a few revered singles with partner DJ Hi-Tek, Kweli teamed with fellow New Yorker Mos Def for 1998's Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star, one of the best albums of the '90s. In addition to introducing the world to two of the most talented rappers of their generation, the album--along with likeminded recordings from The Coup and Lauryn Hill--played a major part in bringing a sense of spirituality, social conscience, and moral balance back to hip-hop. Since Black Star's release, Kweli has been busy, purchasing a bookstore with Def, traveling to Cuba as part of the Cuban Rap Festival, performing in countless benefit concerts, and helping to organize the Hip Hop For Respect project to raise awareness of police brutality in the wake of the Amadou Diallo shooting. This year alone, Kweli collaborated with Hi-Tek on Reflection Eternal, then traveled with two of the biggest underground hip-hop tours in years: On the Spitkickers Tour, he opened for Biz Markie, Common, Pharoahe Monch, and headliner De La Soul; on the Okayplayer Tour, Kweli, Dead Prez, and others performed sets backed by tour leader The Roots. Kweli has also found time in the past year to collaborate with everyone from England's The Creators to Wisconsin's Youngblood Brass Band. Kweli recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about life on the road, the state of hip-hop, and why the media are so hung up on Eminem.
The Onion: How is your experience with the Okayplayer Tour differing from your experience on the Spitkickers Tour?
Talib Kweli: There's a real family energy to both tours. This one has a lot more estrogen in it because half the acts on it are females. And The Roots are playing behind everybody, so it's more like a play, whereas the Spitkickers Tour was more like an old-school hip-hop jam. This is more like a new-school hip-hop play.
O: You usually play with Hi-Tek, right?
TK: Yeah. Hi-Tek isn't really on the Okayplayer Tour. He's done a couple of dates, but he really isn't on it.
O: How does performing with The Roots differ from playing with Hi-Tek?
TK: It allows me to expand more, as far as what I'm doing on stage. It gives a whole new dimension to it. I'm not in control as much as I am when I'm performing with Hi-Tek. I have to be more of a team player, which is not a bad thing, you know what I'm saying? You definitely need to learn how to do that if you're going to be working. It's not good or bad, just different.
O: On both tours, you're playing with some of the most revered acts in hip-hop. Is that at all intimidating?
TK: It's not intimidating as much as it feels like a blessing. I definitely feel like I'm blessed, and like I'm on the right track and in the right place.
O: On the Spitkickers Tour, you were playing with people like De La Soul, real pioneers of hip-hop. Do you feel like you learned a lot from them?
TK: Oh, yeah, I've been learning a lot from De La Soul and Common and Pharoahe Monch. Throughout my career I've been learning from them, so to be in such close proximity to them, to be around them, I feel like I really, really learned a lot. I've learned more about hip-hop from them than I ever have anywhere else.
O: You co-own a bookstore with Mos Def in New York. How did that come about?
TK: I worked at the store for five years, before I put out the Black Star album, and the store is a part of my heart. The community needs things like that. It was a real no-brainer: The store needed some money, so we gave more and more money, and after a while we had given them so much that we were like, "We should just purchase it." At the same time, I'm not really a bookstore owner, since it's a not-for-profit organization. My mother really runs the store. Me and Mos purchased it, we put our money down, and we bought books for the store, but I don't really run it at all. I'm too busy with my career, but I used to really be into books when I worked there. That was my life. It was a place to read books, obviously; that was sort of the cherry on top of everything. But a big part of my affection for the place was from being able to work for a black-owned business that respected me when I wanted to travel, that let me have things like foundation meetings and open-mic nights there. It really allowed me to grow.
O: Listening to the Black Star album, there's a sense of dissatisfaction with what hip-hop had become and where it was headed. Do you think things have gotten better since the album was released?
TK: Basically, with the Black Star album, we were speaking from our hearts, and I feel like even when we were doing the Black Star album, hip-hop was in a beautiful place. I feel like it's still in a beautiful place. Hip-hop is gaining more and more momentum and growing more and more. I think, as long as there's some sort of balance to the music, then it's all good. Back when we came out with the Black Star album, I felt like the balance wasn't really being represented. Now, I think it's being portrayed more in the media, really, and I think people really responded to the album in part because of our timing. When that shit came out, there was really nothing like it: Nobody was really putting out vinyl, nobody was really talking about those subjects. Things needed to be talked about.
O: Do you feel like the public has become more receptive to socially conscious hip-hop since then?
TK: I think the media has become more receptive. I feel like, for the fans and the artists, things have pretty much been the same.
O: I don't know if you saw the issue of Newsweek a few weeks back with Dr. Dre and Eminem on the cover, but it seems that the mainstream media, like Newsweek and Time, only really address hip-hop when something negative is happening.
TK: Yeah, I read it. You know, when Lauryn Hill came out and smashed everyone's records, Time did an article about that. So it seems like magazines either do it when hip-hop is making a lot of money and can't be fronted on, or they'll do it when hip-hop is getting a lot of negative press.
O: On a similar note, why do you think the media are so fascinated with Eminem?
TK: He's their wet dream. Because here's someone who can rhyme with the best of them, who has street credibility in addition to the fact that he can just fucking rhyme. He's everything at the same time: He's pop, he's hip-hop, he's underground, he's white, he's rock, he's commercial, he's offensive, kids love him. He's all that shit at the same time. It just doesn't get any better than Eminem.
O: Do you think that if he weren't white, he'd still be such an object of the media's obsession?
TK: Oh, hell, no.
O: It's interesting, too: As with gangsta rap, the media look at Eminem without really looking at the social factors that created him. They're saying, "Why on Earth is he saying these things?" without looking at where he came from.
TK: People don't understand the context of where he's coming from. They don't understand that he's had a really rough life, the sort of life that most of us either can't relate to or just have no idea about. And two, they don't understand what it took for him to get to where he got to be. They don't understand the context of the battle-rhyming world, of what you have to say to take somebody apart who is in front of you. And that's the aesthetic that Eminem comes from.
O: Why do you think materialism is so prevalent in hip-hop?
TK: It's American culture, you know? Housewives in Wisconsin flip through magazines, looking at Gucci ads. That's just American culture. Also, when you have people from an oppressed culture, they're going to think that imitating your oppressor is the key to success. They're going to think, "If I have as many material things as the oppressor, then I'm successful." It's natural. That's always been a part of hip-hop. It's a celebration of things, of goods, of making it.
O: Do you think the kids who pick up these albums sort of live vicariously through them?
TK: Yeah, I think they feel basically the same way they do when they see a Jackie Chan movie and he's beating everyone else up.
O: How did you hook up with Mos Def?
TK: We were both 14 years old, hanging out in the park, rhyming and shit.
O: Why do you think you work so well together?
TK: We come from the same place and we're into the same things. We appreciate the same sort of things. We're like brothers.
O: On a similar note, why do you think you work so well with Hi-Tek?
TK: With me and Hi-Tek, it's a matter of mutual appreciation. I would go to Cincinnati, and he and Mood had their own studios, they had their own cars, they had more than most rappers I knew in New York. When they came to New York, I was doing shit that they wanted to do and they were doing shit that I wanted to do. It was just a sort of mutual respect that happened.
O: Hi-Tek produced all of Reflection Eternal. Did you ever think about working with outside producers?
TK: Eventually, but not right now. I've got this Reflection album popping and then I got another Black Star album. I've got a lot of ideas I'd like to try that are independent of both Mos Def and Hi-Tek, but right now I'm just happy to be doing this Hi-Tek shit.
O: Mos Def is working on a rock-oriented project with [legendary Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist] Bernie Worrell, among others. Are you interested in doing anything along those lines?
TK: It definitely appeals to me. Am I ready to go there musically? I don't think so. Mos' project is coming out dope, and I respect and appreciate that, but that's not me right now. You know, if any of those musicians were to ask me to do something, I'd jump up in the air, but that's not where I'm at right now. I'm too busy doing this shit here.
O: What do you think is an artist's responsibility to his or her audience?
TK: My opinion is that it's an artist's responsibility to paint a vision of the future that's better than what we have now. If you're just showing people what they have, you're not really leading them anywhere. Artists are visionaries, and it's our job to bring the information and the vision to people who may not be looking at things that way, but hopefully someday can.
O: If you could change one thing about hip-hop, what would it be?
TK: That we would take ourselves more seriously as artists. We don't take ourselves seriously enough, because we still have the older generation saying, "That's not music," and we fall into those traps.
O: One of the more striking songs you've done is "Manifesto" [a track from the Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1 compilation that maps out a 10-point plan for hip-hop artists to follow]. What prompted you to write that song?
TK: It was pretty much for me, to keep myself in check. Notorious B.I.G. came out with the 10 crack commandments, and Chuck D wanted to sue for using his voice on the song. So I thought, "If Biggie can do a song about crack using the 10 commandments, then I can do a song about hip-hop with them, as well." So that's where that came from.
O: You traveled to Cuba as part of the Cuban Rap Festival. What was that like?
TK: Cuba was one of the most beautiful places I've been. It was very interesting to be in a place unaffected by Western culture. You have people coming up with their own editions of things, their own way of doing things, their own ways of thinking. It was quite an experience to feel the passion and love of a people who don't really have anything, who are cut off from the rest of the world.
O: I read in your bio that you were an experimental-theater major at NYU. What led you to that world?
TK: I did theater all through high school and college. I wrote plays and poems well before I started writing rap songs. So, when I arrived at NYU, I started checking out their theater programs, and it was experimental theater that appealed the most to me. It was the thing that made the most sense to me.
O: Do you feel like your experiences in experimental theater have helped you as a performer?
TK: Yeah. I think as far as being on stage, as far as writing songs, as far as handling a crowd, the things I learned in that one year definitely helped. I've definitely taken them a long way.
O: Overall, was college a positive experience for you?
TK: It was in and out. It was boring to me. It was like, whatever. I had been doing well in school all my life, and I just got tired of it. It happened in high school, but obviously I couldn't drop out of high school, so I finished it. I could have finished college, but I didn't want to, so I left to pursue hip-hop full-time.
O: Mos Def has done quite a bit of acting, most recently in Bamboozled. Is that something you're interested in?
TK: Not really. I could do it. I was trained to do it. I love watching movies and everything, but that's not really my focus right now.
O: Your album took a year and a half to record. Why did it take so long, and how do you think you changed over the course of making it?
TK: Hi-Tek was in Cincinnati and I was in New York, and I was touring and doing Black Star shit, so we just took our time with it. We didn't want to rush it. We just wanted to come up with the best possible album. We didn't do a whole lot of songs; we just worked on the songs we knew were going to be dope. As far as changing, I think I just grew. I learned more about music and learned more about being a man. My focus, my priorities got a little sharper.