Talib Kweli knows he has an uphill battle with Idle Warship, his project with genre-hopping musicians Res and Graph Nobel. The trio combines rock, pop, R&B, dance, jazz, New Wave and, yes, even hip-hop. So the battle he faces isn’t over the quality of his output as much as expectations: the group’s debut album Habits of the Heart, released November 1, follows years of collaborations and 2009′s Party Robot mixtape. But after being held up as the harbinger of “real hip-hop”– that amorphous term that holds as much weight now as “indie rock” — Kweli wants to move forward, even if many of his fans hope every new album has the words “Black Star” written across them instead.
Treating Idle Warship like a “brand new group that people never heard before,” Kweli and co. released Habits of the Heart on Spotify three weeks before the official release date to generate buzz and attract more listeners. Whether this leads to increased sales remains to be seen, but it exemplifies the rapper’s ability to embrace new models and avoid stagnation, a trait he has carried over musically throughout his 15-year career. The outspoken rapper talked to Hive on rebuilding your name, Occupy Wall Street and music magazines. And yes, Hive asked him about Black Star.
You recently celebrated your 36th birthday. Do you find it harder to find inspiration as you get older?
It’s natural to start thinking about the second phase of your life. I’ve been doing hip-hop for a living for 20 years now. In that respect, I find myself thinking about other things, but it’s not for lack of inspiration or a lack of passion for what I’m feeling. What changes is the idea that I’m going to be doing the same dance that I did 10 years ago, where I have to go up to every radio show, glad-hand people, make good with all the DJs. That part gets kind of tired. You just want to do it at your own pace and on your own terms. But that’s not because of a lack of inspiration. It’s harder to come up with music and a plan that draws people to you as opposed to you running out and tap dancing trying to sell your music all the time. For a new artist, I certainly encourage them to go out and do that. But once you’ve done it a bunch of times, it becomes your duty to find a new way, because it makes you look foolish if you’ve been doing it for 20 years and you’re still trying to convince people to take a chance on you.
Why did you decide to release the album on Spotify before the official release date?
It took a long time, even up until now, to get people to truly understand that Idle Warship is its own thing. I want people to go to iTunes or wherever to buy the album, but part of the plan of putting it out early on Spotify stemmed from me running into the challenge of having to do interviews and shows and people not understanding the difference. I would tweet “New Idle Warship is not hip-hop. Please support it.” And someone would retweet “I’m getting that in the morning. Real hip hop!” I was like, “Dude, I just said it’s not hip-hop.” But some people have invested so much in what I’ve done previously. Putting it on Spotify sells it with the music. I don’t think I would do this with a Talib Kweli album, but Idle really needs to be treated like a brand new group that people never heard before.
“This might sound a little crazy — but it’s hard for a black rapper to get love in Spin; especially a black rapper who is talking about the struggle. I’m not saying the white rappers they cover are safe, but it’s a white publication that feels very comfortable with rappers when they are not talking about the struggle.”
Stu Pflaum of Element 9, the label that helped release Habits of the Heart, recently said that the group’s web traffic tripled since the Spotify launch and real-time feedback has heavily increased. Was this the plan or an unintended consequence of the early release?
Yeah, that’s definitely the plan. There was no buzz for Idle Warship other than “Oh, Talib Kweli and Res are doing something that’s different? I don’t know what it is.” And now you got at least 120,000 people at this point who have heard the album and are telling their friends. If you love it, you are going to support it and that is the best way we can get the buzz for it. This new generation of fans doesn’t support artists. Whether or not you download it for free, I still have to pay to make it. But you can’t be bitter and be an old fogey about it. That’s what letting people hear the album ahead of time does. From the fan perspective, music should be free anyway. Okay. So I’ll let you listen to it for free, but then on the flipside, you have a responsibility. If you choose to like it, then help me support my family and give you more music. Or at least buy tickets to a show or a T-shirt.
Justifiably or not, you were seen as a leader in the rise of independent hip-hop in the mid-1990s. Do you feel you’ve been unfairly held to a higher standard since then, like people have ideals about you etched in stone that you must adhere to?
Yeah, I feel like I may have spoiled some of my audience a little bit by the amount of music that I put out. I said a line in a song, “Just because you know the artist, you don’t know the man.” And some people are shocked at the things I say on Twitter because they only know the one side of me that puts out records with Hi-Tek, Mos Def and Madlib and that is all the same side of me. But there’s a different side that exists and as an artist, it’s my God-given duty to utilize all my influences. When I read some of the reviews for Gutter Rainbows, [Kweli's latest album released earlier this year], they were like, “Wow, this is Kweli’s consistently best work” and some of the reviews were “Wow, it’s more of the same from him.” So I get both of that. I know I can do great hip-hop music, but Idle was a challenge for me because I’m not sure I can make that type of music and pull it off.
How seriously do you take reviews? Does it affect your creative process or is it more natural curiosity?
I’ll read as many reviews as I can find time to read. But I try to do the knowledge, though. I always live by the quote “If you don’t know the history of the author, you really don’t know what you’re reading.” When I read a review, I take it from how much this person knows about me, how much they have invested in my career, do they know hip-hop? Where are they actually coming from with this review? And certainly there are people who I take seriously and people who I don’t take seriously. There are magazines out there like Spin that will find something negative about anything I put out.
Why do you think that is?
Just over the years, when I read Spin — this might sound a little crazy — but it’s hard for a black rapper to get love in Spin; especially a black rapper who is talking about the struggle. I’m not saying the white rappers they cover are safe, but it’s a white publication that feels very comfortable with rappers when they are not talking about the struggle. Look, I know I’m nice as an MC. Ain’t no question in my mind. But when you look at reviews of me in Spin and how they dealt with me throughout my career, they ended up being very snarky about my sincerity and about who I am as an artist. And that’s not just myself; I notice that across the board. But that’s just one small example.
Are you implying that it’s a form of racism?
I wouldn’t go as far as to call it racism, but I definitely would say it’s a not-so-subtle form of prejudice. I don’t think they’re inherently trying to stop black people or a movement. People notice what they notice because of how they grew up and where they live and how things affect them. I’m singling out Spin — maybe unfairly — because there are other magazines that I’ve had issues with how they’ve covered what I do. These are publications that are outside of the realm of hip-hop, even as prolific and as big as hip-hop is. Even though GQ says “We did a rock star cover” and two of the people on the cover are rappers. As big as hip-hop is, there are still big-name publications, whether it’s Spin or Rolling Stone, who just don’t get it.
Here’s the part where I ask the inevitable “Black Star update” question.
Me and Mos are focused on independence and quality of sound. We’re really into a Madlib/Dilla thing right now. Anything you hear from us is probably going to be that type of sound. And it’s about independence, so we are trying to find out the right mediums to get the songs out. When you heard “Fix Up” on Colbert, it wasn’t even mixed; it was something we recorded a week before. Now we’re at the mixing stage of the song and we are going to put that out ourselves. We have a bunch of songs recorded. We are just trying to figure out the best way to release them, whether it’s going to be one by one, EP or album. Right now, the plan is to release “Fix Up” and then Yaasin is working on a Yaasin Bey Presents project and then we’ll see how it goes.
When do you hope to release it?
[Pause, then slowly] I am working to put out a Black Star project for people to buy sometime next year.
In 2008, you posted an open letter supporting Barack Obama, but also condemning the two-party system and the electoral college. Have your feelings changed towards him now?
My feelings toward Obama remain exactly the same. My position hasn’t changed on electoral politics in this country; I still don’t agree with the system or how it’s ran. Anyone who expected Obama to get into office and then: Utopia! .Clearly, if anyone has seen what happened to Bill Clinton with Ken Starr, we were in a time of prosperity and they did everything they could to bring that man down. So I know how dirty and crazy politics work and Republicans made it very clear that they weren’t going to let Obama accomplish shit. So the idea that he’s not been able to deliver on some things, of course he wasn’t able to deliver! I would’ve been surprised if he delivered on anything. With that said, he’s actually doing a better job than I thought he was going to do.
What are your thoughts on Herman Cain?
Herman Cain is Bizarro Obama. He’s the flip side; he lives in an alternate universe. The thing about Cain — it’s what Touré said — he’s just not a serious thinker. When he’s saying “If you are not rich, it’s your fault,” you’re not a serious thinker. I don’t think being prosperous in America or material gain has anything to do with your level of intellect. But I think Cain is a hard worker and a decent man. I think he’s doing this because he really believes it in his heart, but he’s not a smart man. And that has nothing to do with color or race. I don’t care who [Republicans] pick. Anyone in this country who really thinks Obama is going to lose is crazy.
I like the shit Ron Paul be saying. He’s fucking crazy, but he’s without a doubt the smartest of that group and that’s why they don’t even talk about him.
You recently visited Occupy Wall Street and performed the song “Distraction.” Do you see the movement getting stronger or fading away?
I definitely don’t think it’s going to fade away. The fact is that for many people in this country, their futures have been stolen from them. College tuition is up 600% in the last five years. There will be no Medicaid, there will be no Social Security, there is no future for a lot of these people. And a lot of us are complacent. A lot of us are too busy living our lives. A lot of us are frustrated and don’t know what to do and those people who are sleeping in these places are representing all of us. You have police going to war with the people who pay their salaries; the people who sleep in the streets for them. It’s just a real sad situation, but this is the most American thing I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Habits of the Heart is out now via Blacksmith/Element 9/Fontana.