Hip-hop grows and changes at a blinding, breakneck pace. As it continues to plant the seeds of new movements around the world, adapts to cultural fluctuations and welcomes new, innovate artists into its domain, it finds new ways to enrich people’s lives. For the people who have been part of it since almost the beginning, it lends them a uniquely guided perspective not just on music, or even just culture, but the world itself. Talib Kweli is one of those people. He’s been rhyming since the late 80s and has been prominent on the scene since 1995. He’s worked with every lauded producer you care to name from J Dilla to Madlib to RZA to Hi-Tek to Kanye, him and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) blew the world apart with Blackstar and he’s increasingly gained a reputation as a formative activist, especially with regards to Ferguson. Taking all that into account, his is a perspective that’s worth paying attention to.
Last week I headed to the Jazz Cafe in Camden to see him perform and speak with him. The whole night ended up feeling like something of a microcosm for the way the culture has been developing. Before he performed two British acts warmed things up – OthaSoul and Òlah Bliss. The former are a UK hip-hop act who have been going from strength to strength on a local scale for years, whilst Òlah Bliss is an accomplished RnB singer, meaning that the audience were treated to an even split of scratching and instrumentation. It was a fitting example of the broadening scene that Kweli has presided over all these years, and accordingly his set was a potent mix of classic material, covers, reworkings and tracks from his recent collaboration with 9th Wonder – Indie 500.
When that name originally appeared, it was regarded more as a banner for ongoing collaborative work than a single release. After the show, in the hallway outside the green room, I spoke to a happily exhausted, but still excitable Kweli about the what might be next for it. “It was a loose-knit coalition of artists, 9th Wonder had a situation, we had a distribution deal, and so he said we should do a project together. I don’t know what the next move is at this point, but I’m glad people are appreciative of the current move.” He explains. “It’s loose-knit, and it’s free flowing.”
For my part, Indie 500 is another example of Kweli’s tendency to move around and work with as many different and interesting practitioners as he can. The show ended up being a near-perfect microcosm of this, as during the performance he brought out a host of guests. The first was RnB singer Yummy Bingham, who has been in the game for years and worked with damn near everyone, whilst the second was Brazilian-American MC NIKO IS, who Kweli signed to his Javotti Media label recently. The third, and most surprising (both to Kweli and the stunned audience) where Foreign Beggars, who popped up for an impromptu appearance during the encore.
So in the space of one show we saw three very distinct shades of hip-hop culture, all curated by the man himself, but what’s it been like for Kweli over the 20+ years he’s been doing his thing, to see it grow? “Hip-hop is a global culture, it started with the Zulu nation and it’s grown for there. I’m glad I could participate in the spread of it across across the world.” He says, smiling, his long coat gone and his snapback swapped for a trilby. “I think modern technology has allowed hip-hop to become more free and less focused on making something that just bangs in the strip club.” Kweli has always struck me as an artist who values collaboration above almost all else, someone who believes that creativity knows no boundaries. At the beginning of ‘Inner Monologue’ the opening track from his 2013 album Gravitas, a quote from Neil Gaiman appears, in which he states that, regardless of medium “Whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique – you have the ability to create art.” It seemed like a perfect encapsulation of Kweli’s mindset. “I think that was a perfect quote, and not enough people understand that. Neil Gaiman is the shit. I put it on my album without asking him, and then he heard it and retweeted it. I fucks with Neil Gaiman.” He laughs, elated that the subject had come up. “Real shit, that’s my nigger, Neil Gaiman.”
Accordingly, Kweli’s projects don’t begin and end with music, he’s an accomplished writer as well, having recently penned a biting piece on Medium which reviewed Pitchfork’s review of Indie 500. The piece ends up becoming an admonishment of the state of music journalism. “I feel like there’s a generation of music people who love music and are good journalists, and I think it’s a shame that Pitchfork, Complex and other mainstream sites that have a lot of followers don’t have a better editing process. That they don’t make sure that the people who write reviews for them get the information right, at the very least.” He explains. “Music is a natural resource, there’s always going to be people who love music, and who are good at writing about it, but unfortunately we live in this disposable culture where sites have to get eyes on them as quickly as they can, they have to have everything instantly, so they don’t have a chance to really take the art in, as it’s meant to be appreciated. A lot of these reviewers write for its own sake, and to get it out first.”
It’s a point worth making, and it shouldn’t be too much to ask for music writing to progress at the same rate as the music itself. Certainly there wasn’t anyone in the intimately positioned crowd that failed to appreciate what Kweli was doing on stage. As the show progressed, he always made sure to pay dividends to the many producers whose beats were rippling through the monitors. Madlib’s work made an appearance, offering a tantalising reminder that the sequel to their 2007 album, Liberation, is currently in the works. “It’s a different process this time because I did the first Liberation on my own, whereas I’m doing this one in collaboration with Madlib.” He tells me, being careful not to give too much away. The late, great J Dilla, idol of Madlib and Kweli, also played a prominent part in the set. It might just be me, but with the way beat production has been developing, Dilla has risen to a new prominence, but for someone as close to him as Kweli was, it’s not necessarily a noticeable shift. “With me Dilla is always a constant, I hope that he’s coming up more often, though.”
Speaking in more up-to-date terms, I was curious to find out what Kweli makes of some of the more current material, given how drastically the scene has started changing shape. “Some people are caught up in the trends, Drake and Future are very trendy, but they’re going in the opposite direction to somebody like Kendrick. I like both sides, I like all of it, I like all of where hip-hop is going. I do especially like the way that people like Kendrick are incorporating live instrumentation into their work, and generally exploring the history and cannon of black music, I think that’s something that’s been missing from mainstream music for too long.” On that we agree, I’ve found it extremely exciting to see the kind of work Kendrick’s doing get so much mainstream attention, but there’s more. Many practitioners have started recognising how much educational value the culture really has, particularly people like 9th Wonder and Wu-Tang’s GZA. “Hip-hop is growing up, it’s becoming more accepted in the mainstream, it’s also becoming more acceptable in academia, which is a good thing.” Kweli says. “I think if artists like 9th Wonder and others like him, who are super involved in hip-hop involve themselves in academics it can only yield positive results.”
Kweli himself engages in a great deal of educational work, mostly in the form of activism. Increasingly he’s being approached for interviews about politics and equal rights as much as about music, and while he’s far from the only one, he certainly has a unique perspective on it. Towards the end of the show he gave a stirring speech during which he touched on the Black Lives Matter movement (during which he aptly compared the All Lives Matter argument to admonishing someone campaigning for cancer research for failing to mention heart disease) and the recent spate of bombings and other mass deaths across the world, encouraging everyone to trust their own perspective, rather than following the mainstream media.
He doesn’t necessarily regard music as the most direct link, though, more of a parallel. “I think that social media and social networking has allowed people to see more of artists in general. People get to see more of me now, and that adds another dimension to what I do.” He says. “In my experience a lot of activists don’t even necessarily listen to activist hip-hop. The activists on the ground are listening to Future and that kind of thing. Music is music, and there’s a time to get turned up, a time to party, but there’s not necessarily such a direct link when you’re on the ground. I think a lot of activists appreciate conscious hip-hop, but it’s not popular on the colleges campuses and other places with activism is strongest. You have Kendrick and you have J. Cole, but it’s not like the days of Public Enemy, it’s too broad for that now.”
Hip-hop, and all music that can trace itself back to African-American culture, has a sense of unity and social awareness about it. Engaging in it without being availed of a social conscience is nigh on impossible but Talib Kweli wields that consciousness with a remarkable amount of responsibility and poise. After the show, he made a point of sticking around to speak with fans one-on-one, simply for the joy of being able to meet like-minded people. His attitude, and the vibe of the show, reminded me that whatever level you’re at, hip-hop shows still feel more like parties than concerts, informal and free-flowing; the fact that someone like Kweli elected to play somewhere as intimate and friendly as the Jazz Cafe testifies to that. It’s not a show anyone will forget in a hurry.