Critical Conscious: Clash Meets Talib Kweli

NYC rapper on beats and books...
Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli is the by-product of critical thinking. With a deep-rooted love for Miles Davis, not to mention long-time university professor parents, this inherited vérité can only mean it would be intrinsic for the Brooklyn-born emcee to pepper his wordplay with a profundity you won’t find elsewhere.

As half of a multitude of venerable collaborations – most notably with Mos Def in Black Star, the other with Hi-Tek in Reflection Eternal – these monumental movements saw him become to the go-to guy for ‘conscious rap’, an appellation that would soon turn into a pejorative for earthy types who fused clichés like frankincense and myrrh into their lyrics.

Kweli’s fifth solo studio album, Prisoner Of Conscious, plays on the ‘socially aware rap’ branding he’s been subject to, flipping the stigma on its head – you see, he likes to enjoy life, too. Clash caught up with the rapper to talk about disappointments, books, and the Illuminati.

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‘Push Through’, from ‘Prisoner Of Conscious’

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You retweeted something Mac Miller said: “People take this conscious stuff to the extreme when the real conscious people are balanced; they all got unbalanced minds.” Would you care to elaborate on that?

I retweeted that based on a long Twitter conversation. With that particular one I agreed with the sentiment of it. Sometimes people focus so much on being positive and conscious that they become out-of-whack, or, out-of-balance on that side. They view the world from some sort of victimised perspective, where everything [and everyone] is out to get them. It allows them to not take responsibility for things in their lives that they’re probably doing, which are holding them back.

In the ‘90s you read a lot of Illuminati books. What type of perspective were you trying to gain back then?

I was a teenager and I was reading everything. I had the privilege of working in a black bookstore. There were a lot of perspectives in the world, especially dealing with oppressed people – black people – and I found myself aligning with nationalistic and, later on, a more pan-African way of thought.

What I found when you read a lot of those New World Order and Illuminati books is that the intent behind them is religious. They talk about the Antichrist and stuff like that, and that’s what they’re focused on – but that’s not my focus. So when I learned that, and seeing the history of the author, which made me suspicious, you can only take that stuff with a grain of salt and do your own research.

‘Prisoner Of Conscious’ and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ ‘The Heist’ are two substantial, independent hip-hop albums that have charted in the US top 50. What does that say to you?

I think people want to be entertained thoroughly. But a vast majority of people want escapism in their entertainment and those songs get played on the radio. There’s songs that deal with romance, emotions and affairs of the heart and stuff like that, or “throw your hands up and let’s go to the club” – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But my challenge as an artist is to make music that, in my opinion, is challenging. And the responsibility is mine. It’s not for me to tell the fans you need to like it because I’m positive. Nah, you need to like it because it’s dope. Macklemore does a great job with that. And I’m glad to be associated with artists like that.

One publication said the single ‘Get By’, from your album Quality, was your magnum opus. Do you personally agree with that statement?

I think ‘Get By’ is a magnum opus, but I think I have a couple of them. ‘Get By’ is certainly the most popular one, but there’s works of art that I will stand the test of time – they’re equal to or better than ‘Get By’. But that track is certainly one of the hugest parts of my legacy and it’s definitely been one of the most enduring parts of what I’ve done.

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‘Get By’, from ‘Quality’

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A few people I’ve spoken to have expressed disappointment because you’re supposed to be a conscious rapper, yet you’ll do collaborations with certain artists who are not in alignment with what you’re seen to stand for. What do you have to say about that?

Just because someone has a bag, it doesn’t mean I have to jump in it – that’s their bag, and I have my own. I’m not just a fan of hip-hop – I am a fan of hip-hop – but I’m way more than that. I’ve been doing this professionally, and well, independently for years. I’m feeding my family with it, I’ve added to the canon of music; I’ve given people albums that they’ve felt have added to their lives. My place as a top-tier lyricist cannot be debated.

You know, when people give me their little opinions, just because everyone has an opinion, it doesn’t mean everyone’s opinions are valuable. I’ve very confident with what I’ve added, and if someone is truly a fan of music then they’d want artists to run towards challenges, not away from them.

You’re going to write your own memoir, is that correct?

Yeah.

When one thinks of Talib Kweli it doesn’t necessarily bring to mind someone who has been subject to controversy. What angle are you going to take with it?

Controversy and drama is the base of all of our emotions. People get book deals based on that, but celebrity fades over time. Drama fades over time. When you’ve really added to the canon of art, that never fades: it only magnifies, it only gets bigger. When I make an announcement that I’m writing a book it’s not just that I’m gonna do it and I don’t have a plan. I have a book deal not based on controversy or drama, but based on the fact that I have a real story to tell that will last over time. Those things still have value to a lot of people.

What are three books you would recommend that are centred on hip-hop?

That’s a good question. I could tell you top three hip-hop memoirs… Definitely Jay-Z’s Decoded; My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep's Prodigy; and The E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX.

What are they missing that will make yours different?

The traditional way to write a book – and this is not to diss any hip-hop artist – is to have a writer, or an editor, or a journalist write it with you. So far, with the vast majority of hip-hop artists and musicians, that’s what happens. But I don’t wanna do that. I’m definitely gonna have a good editor, but it’s gonna say written by me. When you read the words they’re gonna come from my typing.

You’re enjoying the success of ‘Prisoner Of Conscious’, but are you already thinking about the next album?

I’m definitely thinking about the next one, but my thinking has changed. ‘Prisoner Of Conscious’ is a statement that will sustain me for some time, in terms of shows and everything like that. The next one may not be as big of a push; it might be something that’s quieter.

I’ve been listening to your music from the beginning to now. The production, the things that you say – everything has remained consistent over time. But do you feel overlooked?

I appreciate you saying that, tremendously. But no, I don’t feel like I’m overlooked; my focus has been on authenticity. It’s been on lyricism and I’ve achieved that. My focus hasn’t been on “I wanna make on all the money right now,” or “I wanna be the most famous right now” – that has not been my focus.

Some guys were always on that – the Lil Waynes, the Kanyes, the T.I.s, the Jay-Zs – and they become number one. The guys who focus on the money, if they’re good at rapping, that’s what happens for them. There are rappers that don’t even have a lot of record sales but they’ve found ways to make deals to get a lot of money.

I’m truly inspired by that; it helps me navigate how I move. But my focus has just been to be the best at my craft. Like you said, you get it because you’ve been listening for a long time, but some people don’t get it because they come into listening to my music with preconceived notions or perceptions. As you see from following my career and social networks, I’ve worked hard to combat that. But there’s only so much I can do, there’s only so much I can say before I put the music out and let it stand on its own. That’s what I’ve attempted to do with this album.

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'Upper Echelon', from 'Prisoner Of Conscious'

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‘Prisoner Of Conscious’ is out now. Find Talib Kweli online here

Words: Safra Ducreay

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