Talib Kweli: the hip-hop of hope
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Ask Talib Kweli about the late rapper the Notorious B.I.G., and Kweli, a walking, rapping encyclopedia of hip-hop, paints a portrait of an irredeemable thug. From the description, it comes as no surprise that the rapper also known as Biggie Smalls did time in prison on drug-dealing charges and was killed, at the age of 25, in a drive-by shooting by a still unidentified assailant.
“Biggie showed that a rapper could be just completely debaucherous, with no social value,” said Kweli, who performs Saturday, Feb. 2, at Belly Up Aspen.
But Kweli’s assessment of the Notorious B.I.G. doesn’t end there. “I love Biggie. He’s in my top five. He could still be considered the best, because he was so talented.”
The 32-year-old Kweli ” whose first name is Arabic for “student” and last name is Swahili for “true” ” has been variously termed as an “alternative,” “conscious” or “positive” rapper. Those are labels that would never stick to Biggie, but for all the difference in their messages and their personae, Kweli sees as many similarities as differences between himself and the late gangsta.
“It’s different when you put it under a microscope. A conflict is a lot easier to write about for a journalist,” said Kweli by phone from New York City. “But we’re two rappers from Brooklyn ” that’s a lot in common.”
Despite that essential bond, Kweli has taken a different path than Biggie. Kweli, the son of two professors, was and remains a fan of such hard-edged acts as NWA and Ice Cube. But he was also a fan of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Souls of Mischief, groups that leaned more toward uplifting social commentary and sophisticated musicality than gangsta posturing. “More rap songs to stress purpose with / Less misogyny and less curses / Let’s put more depth in our verses,” he raps over a hypnotic beat in “More or Less,” a song from his masterful new album, “Eardrum.”
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When Kweli first set his sights on a career in music, in the early ’90s, it wasn’t to get a piece of the extravagance that came to be associated with hip-hop a decade later. For one thing, rapping didn’t offer the promise of tricked-out SUVs and diamond jewelry. Kweli who attended a Connecticut boarding school, had a more narrow outlook on the possibilities offered by hip-hop.
The rappers around Brooklyn, he said, “were local celebrities. They weren’t making money.” He came to know those rappers not through music videos and magazine covers, but up close, while he worked for a promotion company. “The idea that I could be a rapper wasn’t that far away,” he said.
Kweli’s ambitions were on an appropriately small scale. He was looking for acceptance not from MTV, but from his circle of friends and acquaintances. “It was the idea that I could write. I was a lover of writing, and thinking that if I could write hip-hop, it would make me more popular with my peers. It was a competition thing.”
On the business side, he aimed, if anything, even lower. When he told his parents, who knew nothing about the hip-hop scene, that he wanted to skip college to be a rapper, they were philosophically supportive. But they told their son that they expected him to make it on his own financially. Kweli figured that was an attainable goal: “Hip-hop was big enough that I felt I could make a living. But that was secondary,” he said. The teenage Kweli, though, couldn’t even clear that hurdle, and moved back in with his parents for a spell.
Kweli had his breakthrough as a member of Black Star, a duo with fellow Brooklynite Mos Def. Their 1998 debut album, their only full-length CD, was a high-minded and literate work that went against the grain of, and spoke out against, the thuggishness and violence that had been dominating the hip-hop world. The pattern set by “Black Star” ” huge critical acclaim and a somewhat lesser commercial achievement ” would run through “Train of Thought,” a 2000 CD with DJ Hi-Tek, and a series of solo albums. “Eardrum,” released in August on Kweli’s own Blacksmith label and distributed by Warner Bros., and featuring contributions from Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart.
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Kweli doesn’t specifically say so, but he and Biggie shared something beside a borough and an occupation ” the ambition and drive to be excellence. Biggie achieved it with his outlaw image ” in 2001, he was named by the hip-hop magazine Source as the greatest rapper ever ” but Kweli, born three years later than the Notorious B.I.G., came to believe that the route to greatness meant offering a message of hope, especially to the black neighborhood from which he came.
“As a kid, I wanted to be famous as a rapper,” said Kweli, who performs Saturday, Feb. 2, at Belly Up, with DJ Chaps opening. “You couldn’t be the best if you weren’t responsible to the community. You had to have songs that spoke to the community. KRS-One, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane ” they all dealt with the community. They rapped about black people, about the ‘hood.”
That emphasis ” seen in “Joy,” a song from 2002’s “Quality” about being a father, and in “Eardrum”‘s “Eat to Live,” a touching plea to take care of the basic needs of poor children ” may not have resulted in enormous sales. But it has made Kweli a favorite of those whose opinions matter most to him. Rapper Jay-Z, on his massive-selling 2003 “The Black Album,” paid the ultimate prop: “If skills sold, truth be told / I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli.”
Kweli seems to have an ambivalence about his particular artistic direction. It was recently reported that his next album would be titled “Prisoner of Conscious,” a reference to the label that has been applied to him. Kweli says the report is premature, but “thematically, it would certainly make sense.”
Kweli’s criticism of gangsta rap isn’t so much with the content. Instead, it is that so many imitators followed so closely in the footsteps of Dr. Dre, Ice T and Biggie that originality and genuine creativity were tossed aside in the chase for dollars.
“The gangsterism at first was something different, something attractive,” he said. “Then there were a hundred followers, and it no longer shocked mainstream America. What they’re not doing is concentrating on the musical side. They’ve seen it before, but the earlier ones were way more convincing. It’s now being made fun of in mainstream America.”
Kweli points to the African-American animated TV show “The Boondocks” ” which features the voices of Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes ” as evidence that the menacing aspect of gangsta rap has faded to dust.
Mostly, what Kweli seems dismayed by is the imbalance that has ruled hip-hop. He believes he has been tagged an alternative rapper not so much because his words are squeaky clean ” they’re not ” but because so many other rappers have rushed to the profane side of the music.
“They’ve lost that, but I’ve maintained it,” he said. “That’s a balance we’ve lost over a long time.”
America will probably never completely lose its fascination with gangsta rap. As Kweli points out, “Sex and violence is the easiest way to sell things. Show us guns and titties, and it’s easy to sell that. People will buy that.” But he believes a corner has been turned, with the mainstream edging closer to where he has always been ” being critical without being cynical, addressing the concerns of normal people, not just wannabe gangstas.
“I think the idea of having fun is coming back,” said Kweli, bringing up Souljah Boy, who had a No. 1 hit last fall with the dance-inspired “Crank That (Souljah Boy).” “The point of those records is to have fun. I think we’ve lost a piece of that.”
Kweli awaits the day when the best of both hip-hop worlds can co-exist, when a fantastically skilled rapper ” a latter-day Biggie ” sings with a sense of joy and delivers relevant observations on the world.
“It’s a different competition these days: Who is the best businessman? Who’s got the best swagger? Who can be the coolest?” said Kweli. “At the time I came in, it was almost about not being cool. It wasn’t about looking the part. It was really about bringing it. The best MCs, like Lil Wayne, aren’t the best because they can rap; it’s because they understand that.
“When we’re having fun and also making great music, that’s when we’ll know we’ve returned.”
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