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.'"

Kweli, who participates in numerous awareness campaigns on police brutality, the case of death row inmate Mumi Abu-Jamal, and controversial new laws such as California's so-called anti-youth bill, is careful not to distance himself from others in the hip-hop community who aren't so outspoken. When asked if he believes there is a responsibility in being an MC, he replies, "I believe there's a responsibility for me. Definitely." When pushed, he won't acknowledge that a larger purpose is inherent in the role.

To him, divisiveness and finger-pointing have undermined the more conscious realms of hip-hop in the past, citing the moment in the early '90s when "it got to the point where X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers and KRS-One were all beefing over who's more righteous" as "when the movement lost its steam."

Kweli's message is more personal than overtly political. "I think the biggest issue for our generation, and especially my community, is self-love, self-esteem. Understanding how valuable we are and not allowing things to happen in our community that happen just because we love ourselves enough to not let them happen. That's what my focus is. Focusing on culture, focusing on how we talk to one another, because I think if we solve those problems, all the other shit will fall into place."

Because he and Mos Def rose out of the underground reaction to the debauchery and greed that is often marketed as the perfected urban lifestyle, Kweli is expected by some of his fans to maintain a Spartan economic status. Again, he's not comfortable sliding into a position that might sequester him from the rest of the culture, or limit his development. He caused a stink in indie circles a while back by posing for a Levi's billboard that was displayed on the side of the Hotel Sofetel in L.A.

"I assess every situation as it comes," he explains of his decision to take the offer. "On one level, Levi's came to me and said we want to do an ad, we want to put you in our jeans and put you on a billboard. And the extra added shit was we're going to give you a red sign where you can write whatever you want to write on it. So I wrote, 'We are a reflection of our ancestors.' And they put it up in L.A. with a sign declaring what I believe. I don't see nothing but positivity that came out of that." He pauses and then adds, "Plus, they paid me for that, and I do have a family and sometimes these underground hip-hop purist motherfuckers don't want you to pay your rent."

The relative commercial success of the Black Star record encouraged similarly minded artists who don't subscribe to the thuggery of the platinum sellers to focus on full-length efforts as well. Grassroots acts like Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Styles of Beyond, and Cali Agents followed suit with nationally distributed albums. Balancing creative control with financial aspirations, members of today's underground are carving out niches where they can support themselves and retain their integrity.

"When artists start making money and their reality starts changing," Kweli says, "they have to grow and change, too. And you can get seduced by that shit real easy and start changing for the sake of that. Like, if I do this, I can make this amount of money, and what happens is your art suffers. So a lot of artists who really care about the art, or a lot of fans who care about the art, shun the money, shun those aspects because they feel that if they get involved in that, it's going to water down and dilute what we're trying to do.

"Sometimes that limits your art just as much as going ahead and selling out. You gotta grow -- as a man, as a human being, you're going to experience different things. But the idea is to be honest with how you grow and let the people know how you're growing, and then you should be all right."

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