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(Soundbite of music)

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

They say you can tell a man by the company he keeps. If that's true, then Talib Kweli's record speak volumes. The hip-hop star has teamed up with some of music's brightest lights.

In 1998, he and Mos Def formed the duo Black Star. Their album produced by Hi-Tek became an underground sensation. Kweli then got a little help from Kanye West on the track "Get By" from his 2002 album "Quality." The single scored big and landed Kweli on the soundtrack of the box-office hit "Stomp the Yard."

Well, Hi-Tek and Kanye are both back on Kweli's new album "Eardrum" along with KRS-ONE, Jean Grae and Roy Ayers. And Talib Kweli is with me now in studio. Talib, thanks for coming in.

Mr. TALIB KWELI (Rapper, "Eardrum") Oh, thanks for having me, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. So I remember, years ago, I read from "Don't Believe The Hype," my first book at Nkiru, which you started. So tell me a little bit about how you see your music side relating to your community involvement side.

Mr. KWELI: Well, having that job in Nkiru was perfect for me, and I actually sought out that job. I was in NYU, and I wanted to quit school and do music. But I knew that if I did that, I would have to have a job and apartment before I told my parents I quit. So I walked around every single book and music store in the city. That's how I got a job and C.J.(ph) in Nkiru hired me.

And, you know, and when you come through for your signing, she was very excited because to see a young black woman who looked like her and that she identified with, was - that was huge for us when you came through. Like - it might have been like years ago for you, but for us it was like, oh, Farai is coming, you know?

CHIDEYA: No, no, I was psyched. It was great.

Mr. KWELI: Yeah, we were psyched, too. Nkiru allowed me to pay my bills and still participate in that community.

CHIDEYA: Let's hear a little bit from this record. This is "Oh My Stars" featuring Musiq Soulchild.

Mr. KWELI: And featuring my kids, Amani and Diyani, who rapped on the beginning.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, My Stars")

Mr. KWELI: (Singing) Asked my daughter how it looks? She fixed my hat so I can wear it cool because she's like that's what we wear in school. Then she asked me, daddy, you know any superstar? I looked at her and said stop being silly. That's what you two are. I say it now and I've said it before. And you could trust me on this 'cause I've been through it y'all. Follow your heart and you can do it all.

CHIDEYA: So, yeah, your kids, this is about your kids.

Mr. KWELI: Uh-huh.

CHIDEYA: It features your kids.

Mr. KWELI: Uh-huh.

CHIDEYA: How does it feel to involve the next generation?

Mr. KWELI: It feels good. I don't want to limit my daughter and my son to what I do for a living. They enjoy hip-hop music. My son writes lyrics and he...

CHIDEYA: How old is he?

Mr. KWELI: He's 11. He's always asking me when he can get in the studio. And he, you know, he'll write these rhymes. So I said, all right, we'll go in the studio and play that rhyme.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AMANI FELA GREENE (Talib Kweli's Son): (Singing) Freestyler...

Mr. A. GREENE and Ms. DIYANI ESHE GREENE (Talib Kweli's Children): (Singing) For me, myself and I, our rhyme is on the paper 'til they get sky-high...

Mr. KWELI: Then his sister, she followed whatever he does. So she came in there. She'll kick the rhyme - she already knows all his rhymes by heart. So they end up doing it together.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENE and Ms. GREENE: (Singing) Cares Talib Kweli. Now, I'm the best superstar on BET.

CHIDEYA: How would you describe your music? Do you have a description of what you call your music? Conscious...

Mr. KWELI: I stay away from the titles of conscious, just like a gangster rapper should stay away from the title of gangster. There's consciousness in my music, and my music comes from a conscious place. And when people say that, I certainly take it as a compliment. But my job, in terms of selling my music, is to be universal and to try to get it to everybody. So I don't like that discussion because it separates and it's destructive to hip-hop, I think.

CHIDEYA: Chuck D of Public Enemy once said that hip-hop was on CNN of black America. And you recently in a track off your new album called "Say Something," brought Barack Obama into play.

(Soundbite of song, "Say Something")

Mr. KWELI: (Singing) Blacksmith Music, if you don't pay how much(ph). I'm going to show you how we break an artist. That's a threat. I'm not making a promise. Speak to the people like Barack Obama. They're worship like a Black Madonna. Come on.

CHIDEYA: So what do you think about the whole idea that there's this form of communication through hip-hop about politics? Is it important to you?

Mr. KWELI: My personal take on politics is I deal with social situations and cultural situations in my music and in my life. I have said on record many times that I haven't voted. I'm not the type of person who says, I'm never going to vote. I think it's clear to me that our system has failed us. It's a shame because so many people fought and died for our right to vote. So it's an absolute shame that the system has failed us this greatly. But at the same time, because of the failure of system, it's impossible for a candidate that resonates with me to get to that level. And Barack Obama is the first person who's even come close.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like you're really saying that not voting for anyone is better than voting for someone that you see as the lesser of two evils or three evils or five evils.

Mr. KWELI: I definitely, without a doubt believe in that. And my mother will -she probably going to listen to this and be really mad at me because I said -because she disagrees with me. She believes in voting for the lesser of two evils. And I think that's a generational thing. I think that I am seeing the Internet and seeing technology take and seeing how the work I do through music directly affects people's lives better than any politician I've ever met. And so my life experience was not standing on the frontlines fighting for the right to vote. My life experience is like, okay, we got the right to vote, but because people's minds aren't at a place where they know what they're voting for - no one knows this issue and who they're voting for.

CHIDEYA: Let me go also to your, I guess, financial politics. In 2006, you played with the Roots on the Jazz Philosophy Tour. The tour was sponsored by Kool cigarettes. Do you ever regret doing that? Or was it a mixed message for you about what you believe in?

Mr. KWELI: I've had my issues with them. And I have fans who certainly hit me up on MySpace and check me on stuff like that. I mean, I tell you what the facts of the matter is from my prospective. I don't get paid to sell music. I've never had a platinum album. So I'm not living over record sales. I've performed in nightclubs that have huge sponsorship deals with liquor companies. On stage they're pouring drinks. People are smoking cigarettes. So to me it's hypocritical to not take that check and say - if that's the case, then I don't need to perform in no more nightclubs anymore. I'm not going to do a Kool ad where I'm smoking a cigarette. I'm not going to work for their company. But if they're paying me to do what I do, then, yeah, I have no problem. I got over that a long time ago.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's take a listen to another of your songs called "Eat to Live."

(Soundbite of song, "Eat to Live")

Mr. KWELI: (Singing) My rhymes got nutritional value. Forget on how I live, it's critical when the conditions allow you. (Unintelligible) you and trust the critiques who doubt you. Try to write shit about you, but we can't make a living without you. Go hungry. You got to watch what the media feeds you, and don't be (unintelligible) animal either neither. It's harder than it sounds.

CHIDEYA: So when you think about the song "Eat to Live," in some ways, it's much more idealistic than what you were just talking about - the art, the commerce and how they blend. How do you combine your idealistic side with this other side of you, which, as you're explaining is like, look, I got to eat to live on a very different level?

Mr. KWELI: Right, right, definitely. Your mind state when you're an artist recording in a studio, for me, it has to be different and my mind state as a CEO trying to pull my record out and compete in a marketplace. So when I'm in the studio, I'm strictly thinking about the beats, the rhymes and the song. The decision I make once the songs are created, and there's a barcode put on the package, and I'm out there in the street selling it, those decisions as a businessman are different than the creative decisions you make.

I did - in store, where, K came out to me and said, yo, if you feel this way, why don't you just exist outside of the system? And my answer to him was I do. I put our mixed tapes. I do shows. I put our album "Liberation with Madlib." I put them on the Internet for free. I called it "Liberation." What else - how much more out of the system can I exist? He's like, well, you should only do that. You shouldn't have a deal with Warner Brothers. You shouldn't do these other things. I'm like, okay, that sounds good. But you wouldn't be standing in the line for me to sign your CD if I didn't do these things.

I have my foot in both worlds, and I do believe in that. I believe that in order for a revolution to happen, it has to happen on every level. Music doesn't just coincide with business. That's why they don't get along. That's why kids steal artist music and don't feel guilty about it. I have my music stolen so many different times, but what you have to do is you have to harness it. And if you can't beat them, join them, but not in the defeated sense. In terms of just acknowledging the trends and be affluent(ph) where how you're doing business.

CHIDEYA: Talib, thanks so much.

Mr. KWELI: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Talib Kweli's new album "Eardrum" drops today. He sat down with me here in our NPR West studios. For extended audio of my interview with Talib Kweli, check out our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.

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