Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli

The socially aware MC explains his long absence from recording and the challenges he issues with his new CD, “Prisoner of Conscious.”

Talib Kweli has a reputation as one of hip-hop's most poetic and socially conscious MCs. He established himself with the groups Black Star and Reflection Eternal before moving on to solo projects and has traveled around the globe as one of the genre's most in-demand performers. The Brooklyn, NY-born rapper wrote poems and short stories in elementary school and, in high school, looked to hip-hop as a means of self-expression. With his latest CD, "Prisoner of Conscious"—his 5th studio album, three years in the making,—Kweli stretches his wings by exploring new vibes and joining in some unlikely collaborations.


Tavis: Talib Kweli has always pushed the boundaries of hip-hop with politically aware lyrics that put him in the forefront of artists who tackled the big issues of the day so much that his work has been prejudged in the past before it was even released.

After a long absence from recording, he’s now challenging what many have come to expect from him with a new CD titled “Prisoner of Conscious.” Let’s take a look at Talib performing a cut from the new release.


Tavis: Good to have you back, man.

Talib Kweli: Good to be back.

Tavis: You doing all right?

Kweli: I’m good, man. How you doing?

Tavis: I can’t complain, man. I said a bit about this in the introduction which is – my word, not yours – a departure, if not a departure, a little different from the flow you’ve had before? Is that a fair assessment?

Kweli: Yeah. I would say it’s slightly different in terms of the focus. You know, my focus for most of my career on my solo albums or with Hi-Tek, my most stuff has been lyricism and lyrics. And at this point, I think I’m confident enough in my craft where I feel like that’s gonna be there.

So I made different musical decisions. Now they weren’t necessarily like, okay, I’m trying to get a hit single, but, you know, we went to Brazil. I recorded in Puerto Rico. We did a record called “High Life” which feels like, you know, West African music. We shot the video in South Africa, me and my man Rubix.

So it’s me sort of removing myself from just being beholding to hip-hop where I’m from and sort of, you know, giving myself to the whole world, but trying to do that without the losing the essence of what it is that the people love.

Tavis: What’s the risk in doing that where the fan base is concerned, or is there no risk as you see it?

Kweli: With me, there is no real risk. There’s a risk that people may – you know, first of all, I’m confident in the music. I think it sounds good. I think it stands on its own whether I have to talk about it or not. But beyond that, even if people don’t like the songs, there’s enough of my catalog that they can go back to, you know. And the third point is, I stand behind the songs, so either way.

Tavis: This notion that I raised earlier of people expecting a certain thing from you and, you know, judging the project even before it comes out based upon what they’ve come to expect from you, what kind of box does that put you in as an artist?

Kweli: Well, no one likes to be in a box, you know.

Tavis: Right.

Kweli: Like I’m sure with what you do, people might put you in a box and assume certain things about you. I don’t know what other projects you have up your sleeve right now, but I’m sure you have a couple that, when people see them, they’re gonna be like, “Why is Tavis doing that?” But you know why. It’s clear to you.

And, you know, people invest in you as an artist. They have invested in me, but there are fans who have invested time and money and energy and bought t-shirts and, you know, really invested in me as an artist, so they feel like they have a stake in sometimes who I choose to work with, the beat selection or whatever. You know what I’m saying?

You know, that’s understandable. The pressure is on me. The burden is on me to represent. Even if you feel that way, for me to create a project that’s so crazy that, when you finish listening to it, all your preconceived notions are shattered. That’s my job as an artist. So I appreciate the challenge.

Tavis: That’s a pointed paradox you’ve just laid out. I never quite thought of it in that way. But where is the line between what the “investor” as you chose – I love that word. Because as fans and as consumers, we are investors. We’ve been buying your stuff for years. You know, we bought the t-shirts, bought the concert tickets, all of that, did the download thing. So we are investors to some degree. But investors usually have a say in the shareholders’ meeting about what happens with the product.

Kweli: Right.

Tavis: But music is a little different. So taking your metaphor, taking your example, where is the line between what the investors have to say about your work and what Talib has to say about his work?

Kweli: Well, what they’re investing in is me as an artist.

Tavis: Right.

Kweli: The only way for me to be an artist is to be honest in my craft. If I veer from that, I’m not giving the investors what they want. Sometimes it’s my job as an artist to know what I want to do even when the fans tell me different. When the fans say, “Oh, no, don’t do that,” for me to be like, “No, I wanna be a leader.” You know, as an artist, I have to be a leader of my fans, not like follow them. Because if I chose to follow them, you know, they could do it.

You know, it’s me who’s doing it. So I think the line is where you’re in the studio, you’re creating. That belongs to you as an artist. Nothing should taint that. I shouldn’t be thinking about what the fans want, I shouldn’t be thinking about what the radio wants, what the label wants, what your manager wants, a song for the chicks, a song for the street. You should just be honest in creating.

Now once you put a bar code on it and you put it out for sale, how you market it and promote it and who you market and promote it to is up to you. I believe in the fair even exchange, you know. If a fan spends $10 on an album, they got that album.

It’s even exchange. I owe you no more, you owe me no more. But like any good business relationship, if you keep doing business with somebody, if a fan keeps coming back to you, then you owe them a little more. You want to give them a little bit more love. You know what I’m saying? That’s why you do the in-stores and you do the free concerts and you meet fans. You know, you do all that extra stuff.

Tavis: The one thing that you have been consistent about from the very beginning is collaborations. I mean, you’ve never shied away from these collaborations.

Kweli: Oh, yeah. I love collaborations.

Tavis: Tell me why, number one, and then tell me more about the collaborations on this particular project.

Kweli: I like collaboration because, first of all, I’m good at writing lyrics. I don’t know how to make beats. I don’t play instruments. I’m not a good singer. So even when you see a solo album of mine, it’s still a collaboration. It might have my name and face on it, but even with your show, there’s people who work here and the credits run up and then it’s like you see their names. But it’s like I like the idea of people coming together.

I like the spirit of jazz. It’s like the jazz spirit. It’s like, you know, you have players who would go play on Coltrane and play on Miles and have their own album. You know, a drummer might have an album and get all his people to come together. I like that spirit of hip-hop. And even now in commercial mainstream hip-hop, you see a lot of that. A lot of that is corporate because, you know, more bang for your buck. You know what I’m saying?

But I like the idea that a lot of these records come out and you have multiple people on them. So, of course, I’ve done the “Reflection Eternal” and the “Black Star.” And on this project, it’s actually the most features I’ve had on an album. Actually, “Eardrum” had the same amount of features, but “Eardrum” was longer, so it felt more spread out.

This time I was just free. I didn’t limit myself. Sometimes I’m like, okay, it’s my album, my solo album, my vision, just you, you, and I didn’t think about that. If I had an idea for someone on a song or someone stopped by the studio or I ran into somebody at a party, I was just like let’s get busy, and that’s how it came out.

Tavis: Is there – this is my word, not yours – but is there a certain confidence or courage that it takes to be so collaborative on your projects versus doing the solo thing? I say confidence because it seems to me that you got to be pretty secure and pretty aware to be willing to share that much space on vinyl, on digital, with other artists.

Kweli: You know, to be truthful, when I listen to the album, there are a lot of features, but it doesn’t feel like it’s any less of me. And hopefully, that’s how other people receive it. You know, you design it that way, like the sequence and everything, and it does feel like it’s my album and there’s a lot of features.

But secondly, yes, it’s confidence, but it’s more like, with me, it’s more like this is my fifth solo album. This is my 11th or 12th album in music. So it’s like at this point, you know, you never want to rest on your laurels. But when you have product out there that’s still for sale on iTunes and Amazon – not really at the stores ’cause there’s no stores left.

When you have product there, I’m very happy to say, hey, if you want to just hear an album with me just romming, beats to the roms, go get “Gutter Rainbows.” I put it out myself. It’s independent. It’s very good. It came out in 2011.

If you want to hear me and Hi-Tek do another “Reflection Eternal,” we did. “Revolutions Per Minute.” A lot of people didn’t know about it, but we did it. I’m very proud of that album. I think it’s good quality work. You know, I got an album with Res, “Idol Warship,” which is like not hip-hop at all.

So it’s like I feel like I’ve done enough to where I can reference my own catalog and be like pointing to certain things and be like, if that’s what you want, I bet you I got one of those that you ain’t heard yet. You know what I’m saying? But in the meantime, I’m gonna be doing this over here.

Tavis: I always ask you when I see you how your mother is ’cause I know your mother.

Kweli: Yeah, and I appreciate that, man.

Tavis: No, I love your mother, I know your mother. I’ve worked with your mother over the years. But we’ve never really taken a second, which I want to do now, to talk about the impact that your father had on your musical choices.

Kweli: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. Yeah, my mother has influenced me as far as my writing certainly and as far as the way I carry myself and a lot of things. But my music side comes from my father.

Tavis: Right.

Kweli: My parents met in New York University. That’s where I went to college. My father was a DJ in college, so he collected a lot of vinyl. He had vinyl everywhere. He had vinyl like all over the house, line up on the walls, different types. Like everything from Bob Dylan to Bill Cosby, you know, musical albums to, you know, Marvin Gaye to everything.

You know, he was my first – he was into pop music, like he was listening to like – you know, we would listen to like Z100 guys, Shannon and Mr. Leonard in the mornings on the way to school. And then on the weekends, you know, with the family we’d listen to like Kiss and BLS. So I got like the pop music and then the R&B that was going on at the time, plus the old records he had.

I had like a lot of musical knowledge by the time I was like 10 or 11. I knew a lot of music. I didn’t get into hip-hop until junior high school. But when I got into it, it became very natural. Then when I really got into it in high school, hip-hop was very Sample-based and I knew all the Samples ’cause I was familiar with those records.

Tavis: So you knew they weren’t the first ones to come up with this stuff [laugh].

Kweli: Yeah. I was able to – I mean, even when I didn’t know them, I was able to – you know, that was one of the things of being a teenager for me hearing a record and then seeing the Sample one and go get the Sample one and be like, wow, that sounds crazy.

Tavis: I love the fact that you do it your way no matter what the project is and no matter why you collaborate with or not. The new project is called “Prisoner of Conscience” by Talib Kweli. I am always honored to have you on this program. Tell your mother I said hello.

Kweli: I will [laugh].

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Kweli: Good to see you too, man.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: May 20, 2013 at 7:22 pm