Talib Kweli On Mainstream Hip-Hop, Parenting And Honoring The Old School : The Record The New York rapper's political and layered rhymes have been pegged as "conscious rap," a label that has now become pejorative. His latest album challenges that image, paying homage to old-school hip-hop and working with the present.

Talib Kweli On Mainstream Hip-Hop And Honoring The Old School

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Talib Kweli has been writing and performing for almost 20 years now and he spent much of that time trying to shake one label, conscious rapper. Hence the name of his latest album, "Prisoner of Conscious." Kweli's music is complicated and layered, his lyrics often political and always razor sharp.


CORNISH: Talib Kweli's version of hip-hop is a far cry from what we hear on the radio today. That hip-hop, says Kweli, is obsessed with excess.

TALIB KWELI: We're in our rock and roll hpase, you know, sex, drugs and party, party, party, party. That's where it's at in the mainstream. But you'll be fooled if you only get your hip-hop from the mainstream, you know. The things that move people are not just found in the mainstream cultures. And when we talk about hip-hop in general, hip-hop's basically preoccupied with life.

You can find a hip-hop song dealing with any subject matter. But the stuff that's being promoted and marketed and the corporations are spending major money on is the decadent stuff, which is mostly about drug use and sex. And that's why people get a skewed perception of hip-hop.

CORNISH: Kweli admits he doesn't get nearly as much radio play as that decadent stuff, but on his new album, he collaborates with people who do, like the rapper Nelly and R&B singer, Miguel.


CORNISH: He brings a little bit of Marvin Gaye to this and I didn't know if you were seeking more musicality, even though people may focus on your lyrics.

KWELI: You know, what you just said is exactly, exactly the point of this album. It felt like Motown. It felt like Marvin Gaye. But it's still got 808s in it. It's still upbeat. So it still works for today. And he definitely came on and sounded like Marvin Gaye, which I think is a great thing because it's great to pay tribute to those who came before us.

But that's - what you said is exactly it. "Prisoner of Conscious," the album is called that because people wouldn't appreciate my lyrics if they didn't like my musical choices. And I feel like my musical choices have been overshadowed by the content of the lyrics.


KWELI: People feel like nowadays hip-hop is so empty, the hip-hop they hear on the radio, that when they hear someone have a little bit of substance or content, they're drawn to it. And even though I've worked with some of the best producers in the business, you know, people still don't understand that musical choices have a lot to do with where I go musically.

So this album, I tried to stretch musically.


CORNISH: Now, let's talk a little bit about the title of the album because a few years ago you actually told NPR that you try and stay away from using the word conscious in titles?

KWELI: Yes, I think I remember that.

CORNISH: Yeah, you said, just like gangster rappers should stay away from the title of gangster. What were you thinking back then and how has your thinking changed about this?

KWELI: Well, you know, I might have misspoke slightly. It was about me being called that and accepting that as a title, like as if that's all I am.

CORNISH: And what did that mean at the time? I mean, when people were called a conscious rapper, what did that mean?

KWELI: Well, you know, the history of conscious hip-hop is interesting. The best MCs in the world have always, when I first came in the business, always needed to have something conscious, something dealing with the community, something uplifting, something positive. Even if the majority of the content was negative, you had to have that. And that changed over time.

You had, you know, Tupac and Biggie came out and then you had Jay-Z. And the best rapper became about who was the tough guy, you know? Who's busting they gun off or something like that. And now you have, like, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, J. Cole. They're talking a lot about partying; you know, sex, having fun.

And those are the guys who are considered the best. And you know, people consider conscious rap now to feel condescending or feel like not a part of the mainstream. So the challenge for me is, how do I be as good or better than these rappers out here? And how do I stay relevant with my music still being considered conscious?


CORNISH: Let's talk a little bit about your background because I read that your parents were both professors in English and sociology, which I cannot think of two disciplines that would better breed a rapper.

KWELI: That's what hip-hop is. It's sociology and English put to a beat, you know.

CORNISH: So what music did they listen to and how did it influence you?

KWELI: My musical influence is really from my father. He was a DJ in college. My parents met at New York University. So he listened to, you know, Motown and he listened to Bob Dylan. He listened to Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones, but he also listened to reggae music. And he collected vinyl.

So I grew up in a house that had stacks of vinyl lined against the walls. And when I got to the age where music became really important to me, maybe around nine, 10, 11, I spent a lot of time listening to those records over and over again.

CORNISH: Were any of them hip-hop albums?

KWELI: Nah, my parents were not hip-hop fans. They were fans of urban music. So whenever hip-hop crept into the mainstream culture, like, there would be certain records - I remember the first rap record that was on the radio that was real, real boom-bap hip-hop that I remember was Run-DMC, "You Be Illin'."


KWELI: My parents weren't into that. I didn't get into hip-hop on my own until junior high school and I wanted to impress my peers and all my peers were listening to hip-hop. But up until that time, I had only listened to what my father listened to.

CORNISH: Ah, and so you've got kids and I'm wondering, do they engage your music? Have you changed your style over the years as you've been a parent?

KWELI: Yeah. My kids are the most inspiring thing that pushes me. It used to be because they were born and I had to take care of them. Now it's because my son raps and he's better than me. So now I gotta keep up with him, you know what I'm saying?

CORNISH: And can I ask, how old is he?

KWELI: He's 17. And my daughter sings. I performed at the Prince tribute a little while ago at Carnegie Hall. But the day before, I went to see her sing with her student group at Carnegie Hall, so that was a good feeling as well.

CORNISH: In the end, did your parents come around to the music that you came to love?

KWELI: My parents were very understanding and very accepting and pushed me to do what I wanted to do. They didn't quite get hip-hop at first, but they were supportive of me participating in hip-hop, definitely. And then, once they saw I participated in it and they saw how I did it and then they got to know about The Roots and Nas and Mos Def and they started to see other examples, then they came around to it, too.

Now, they're both professors, they use hip-hop in their classes, both of them.


CORNISH: Well, Talib Kweli, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KWELI: Oh, no, this has been a pleasure. I love listening to NPR and coming up here and chomping it up with you all.

CORNISH: Well, best of luck with the album.

KWELI: Thank you.

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