Black Star was such a classic album and such a perfect teaming of complimentary parts, that you can bet Talib Kweli gets enough questions about reconnecting with Mos Def. Full disclosure moves us to admit that even we asked some derivative of that question when we had an audience with the BKMC. Kweli’s answer was telling, though. He said he’d love to do another Black Star, but the proverbial “time” is of essence. As he put it himself, back in the late 90s “I really didn’t have sh*t to do other than Black Star.”
Times have changed in a real way. These days, Kwe is an internationally known, true-hop monster on the mic; constantly touring, showing up on slews of recordings, heading a new label, dropping mixtapes and a forthcoming album, plus recently linking-up with one of the great producers (Madlib) in recent memory. The latter collabo produced a lean, nine-track banger of beats-n-rhymes that Lib-and-Lib gave away for free…FREE.
Kwe is a lock to be a major-player in 2007, so T.I.R.M. managing editor Vincent Thomas got with him to rap about artistic freedom, movements and flags, old label woes and new label missions…and most definitely the thinking behind that $Free.99 gem they dropped on us last month.
T.I.R.M.: It’s still hard for me to wrap my arms around the whole “free-album thing.” Give us the story behind that.
TK: Well, I was working on my [upcoming] album 'Eardrum' and Madlib – you know, he’s really prolific – he submitted something crazy, like, 400 beats for me to work with. And, I knew I couldn’t use all of them or even a lot of them on Eardrum, so I started thinking, ya know?
T.I.R.M.: So Madlib obviously doesn’t produce the bulk of Eardum, right?
TK: Naa. I’m working with Pete Rock, Kanye, Just Blaze, Hi-Tek – a bunch of people.
T.I.R.M.: OK. That’ll be official. But…back to Liberation…you had all this heat from Madlib and, I guess, you’re trying to figure out what to do with all this art…
TK: Right. So I started thinking: What if I did a project with him, ya know? And I’m thinking: “Can I sell it? Maybe I can give it out for free!” Ya know? But being so involved in the record industry it’s like, “Naa, we can’t give anything out for free.” But yo, if DOOM can do it, then I’m thinking I can do it. And I saw the online success of the Dangermouse and Cee-Lo project and that gave me a lot of confidence and motivation. Plus, a lot of my fan-base is online and I knew they’d appreciate it.
T.I.R.M.: Yeah, I dug that quip on “Time Is Right” where you’re speaking of fans on Myspace, perhaps, being a bit impatient with your response to friend requests and you spit, “That’s really me on that sh*t, not a representative.” So, it becomes pretty clear that you’ve fostered a personal relationship with fans via the internet. What’s the reaction been to this gift you blessed them with?
TK: The reaction has been phenomenal. Fans are always getting at me about straight spitting and it’s like, when I make my albums, I’m always so concerned with making complete songs that stand the test of time or whatever. But with this joint, I had the opportunity to take Madlib’s beats and I could just spit and be an ill emcee. And, I think a lot of my fans – especially the ones that started with me – they really felt that and appreciated that.
T.I.R.M.: What about the media? How has it been received by the music press?
TK: That’s been phenomenal, too. I Googled my name and, like, the first five pages were all positive reviews. Now, after that, you get a negative review here and there, but the reviews have been largely positive.
T.I.R.M.: As they should be. Tell me, though: What’s your estimation of Madlib as a producer and what did he think about the whole “free album” idea?
TK: The first time I got put on to Madlib was in the mid-90s with his work on Coast to Coast and the Alkaholiks. Then there was his stuff with Lootpack, which I really like a lot. But when I really fell in love was his Quasimoto stuff. That was – that is just genius. I was really floored, ya know? Those beats were so ill, but he’s actually playin around with ‘em. So I got at him about 'Eardrum' and he’s like, “Whatever you wanna do… I got some beats all ready. Go head and spit on ‘em.” And it’s like, “I don’t have to talk to nobody?” He’s like, “Nah.” Tthen, later on I get at him like, “OK, I’m thinking about taking some of these songs and giving them out for free.” Ya know? I didn’t know how he’d react. But he was cool. He was just like, “Yeah. Whatever. Put it out.” So that’s how we did it. But, now I wanna see about getting a deal, ya know? Because, it was so ill. Let’s make some money with it.
T.I.R.M.: Now, your new label Blacksmith released the album. At the beginning of “Happy Home” you speak of “feeling free” and, of course, the album title articulates this new freedom, too. What’s it like being in control?
TK: Well, I’ve never been in a situation where my artistic freedom was questioned. I always had control over what I wanted to do artistically. But when Rawkus was folded into Geffen other things changed, ya know? I mean, it’s funny because, originally I actually had no interest in running my own label. But it's like, I might as well when you dealing with Geffen, whose totally inept. They do no marketing, no development. They don't do no work. For them, I was like a tax write-off.
T.I.R.M.: Was there anything else that sort of motivated you to grind toward this?
TK: Yeah, you know, I just always thought that we gotta have a flag. The music I’ve been involved with and the artists I’ve been associating with – from Mos to De La to Common to Kanye to Lupe – it’s always been highly respected in music business, but we’ve never had a flag we can wave, like a Ruff Ryder flag or a Def Jam flag or even the way Jeezy has his snowman. Just something for us to feel proud to put on a T-shirt and rock for a movement. That kind of common vision and flag was integral for Def Jam, Roc-a-Fella – all that.
And, the artists I run with…they’re such visionaries and so focused on art – the intricacies of art that sometimes we forget that this is also about marketing ourselves, too…ego has to be on display. It’s not like all of these artists are going to sign to Blacksmith, but this is a common movement that we can shout out that represents what we’re about. It’s letting people know that all is not lost with this hip hop sh*t.