Black Stars

Talib Kweli offers his reflections on the state of hip-hop, Levi's, and the role of MCs in the African-American community

Just as with the physical universe, experts these days can't seem to agree about whether the hip-hop universe is shrinking or expanding. On the one hand, the music and the culture itself appears to be splintering into an infinite number of subgenre atoms that drift farther away from each other on almost a daily basis. The single rubric of "rap music" hardly does justice to the sociological and stylistic differences between, say, the Bentley joy rides of Bad Boy Records, the coffee-house bohemia of Black Eyed Peas, the ball 'n' drawl of Cash Money Millionaires, and the revolutionary communitarianism of Dead Prez.

On the other hand, these divergent and often seemingly contradictory forces appear to be commingling and intercommunicating more than ever. The preferred slang in 2000 for hanging out is no longer "chillin'" or "maxin' and relaxin'" -- it's "building." As in bridges, foundations, shared understanding. So when Kurupt of Long Beach's Dogg Pound is in Queens, he builds with Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and the bedroom studio of Del The Funky Homosapien of the semi-underground crew the Hieroglyphics is currently littered with the latest LOX and Jay-Z CDs.

Maybe the world of hip-hop is simultaneously spreading out and condensing, becoming both more fractured and more unified. Astronomy and quantum physics have posited their fair shares of more illogical explanations.

Talib Kweli (left) and DJ Hi-Tek move somethin' on their latest album, Reflection Eternal.
Talib Kweli (left) and DJ Hi-Tek move somethin' on their latest album, Reflection Eternal.

Take, for example, the Okayplayer tour coming to the Valley this week. According to its "WTF" page, "Okayplayer.com is a community of like-minded artists who value the power of the Internet and appreciate the ability it gives them to interact with their audience." It's sort of a virtual-age version of the Native Tongues enclave of socially conscious rappers A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, and De La Soul. Also united at a time when images of violence and sexism dominate the hip-hop airwaves, the Okayplayers represent something of a moral minority in the industry.

But holier than thou they are not. Brooklyn resident Talib Kweli, who will be joined onstage at the Celebrity Theatre by the Roots, Dead Prez, Rah Digga, the Jazzyfatnastees, Slum Village, and Bahamadia, counts Ice Cube as one of his favorite MCs and short-lists Pimp by Iceberg Slim as an influential book in his development. Yet his rhymes lack any misogynist, materialist or gangsterist references. He and his partner Mos Def purchased Nkiru Books, their borough's oldest black bookstore, in order to save it from eviction. On his newly released Reflection Eternal album with DJ Hi-Tek, Kweli drops a line like "I smack up these MCs like a gorilla pimp" one minute, and then describes himself as a "revolutionary entrepreneur who makes the fans clap" the next.

Hip-hop is many things to many people, and, increasingly often, individual artists like Kweli are coming to embody a wide variety of divergent strains within the culture. Technically speaking, he's a battle rhymer, an MC who came up at open-mike nights and freestyle sessions. Since hordes of would-be mike-rockers are looking to get their shine on in the Big Apple, a live-show rapper has to be able to defend his or her skills deftly. Kweli cut his teeth at the now famous Lyricist Lounge nights, where the hungriest unknown talent line up to earn respect and, they hope, a record deal. Of the ones who do, most sign with a small independent label. In his case, Kweli signed with the fledgling Rawkus imprint.

On a trip to Cincinnati, he met Hi-Tek, who was producing for the local group Mood. Hi-Tek's instrumentals favored clean drum sounds and soulful piano and horn samples, the ideal canvas for Kweli's urgently delivered, impeccably enunciated verses. They united as Reflection Eternal, which he explains means "we're a reflection of the ancestors that came before us."

Their debut single, "Fortified Live," came out in 1997, a watershed year not only for the Rawkus label but for the independent hip-hop movement as a whole. Two separate but related trends in hip-hop converged around that time -- major-label recording contracts became increasingly stacked against the artists, and a national base of fans looking for alternatives to the limited palette of styles offered up by mainstream groups started to coalesce. The network of struggling artist-run and artist-friendly imprints spread to virtually every scene -- Rawkus and Fondle 'Em in New York, Solesides and ABB in Oakland, Goodvibe in Los Angeles.

While most indies have enjoyed gradual development since then, Rawkus immediately exploded into the marketplace and is now a powerhouse in its own right.

"Hip-hop got so big that there wasn't enough room in the industry, so artists started making their own industry," remarks Kweli. "Rawkus was the first corporation to really tap into that."

The release that marked its transition from a 12-inch single shop to a full-featured consumer force was Kweli and Mos Def's critically acclaimed Black Staralbum. That record, coupled with the arrival of groups like the activist duo Dead Prez onto the scene, has prompted the media to herald a renaissance of consciousness in rap.

"They've always been there, though," Kweli says. "I think the people will always accept the truth and want to hear shit that Dead Prez wants to come with, with what all these artists want to come with. I think the media decides, 'Okay, now it's okay to like these motherfuckers.'"

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