I have long been a fan of Talib Kweli's -- his music (both his solo work & collaborations with Mos Def, Hi-Tek, and Madlib) and his consistent & refreshingly uplifting & positive outlook. His unwavering commitment to thought-provoking, conscious, non misogynist hip-hop in an era when that approach to the genre doesn't generally fit the criteria for lucrative success is admirable. Talib Kweli is a truly unique artist and as a high-profile hip-hop act he is an anomaly in that he safely walks that line between mainstream (including his work with Kanye West -- an artist that once opened for him) and independent hip-hop; he is well known above the radar while still maintaining the respect of the ever discerning underground hip-hop world. So when I had an opportunity to attend a listening party in New York last night for Kweli's January 2011 release, Gutter Rainbows, and to also sit down and talk with him a bit for the Amoeblog, I jumped at the chance.
Of course, Talib Kweli is no stranger to Amoeba Music. Not only has his music long been a favorite of staffers and customers alike, but he has also had some very well received Amoeba instores, including at Amoeba San Francisco along with Hi-Tek back in May of this year just as the duo (aka Reflection Eternal) was dropping the highly recommended (but generally slept on) Revolutions Per Minute. And back in August 2007 in support of his last solo album Ear Drum, he had an instore that was streamed live. Kweli put on one of the best ever live sets I've seen at Amoeba Hollywood -- as witnessed in the video below. Last year at SXSW in Austin, TX, when he was performing a showcase with Hi-Tek, Amoeblogger Smiles Davis sat down with the artist to ask him ten questions about hip-hop and his take on the genre.
Talib Kweli live @ Amoeba Hollywood, August 2007
Last night (December 21st) was the listening party at the bar Snap on West 14th Street in Manhattan for Gutter Rainbows (Javotti Media/3D), which will be a digital only release. The night was unlike most listening parties in that it was a more intimate event and also was technically a semi-performance for Kweli, who mingled throughout the night with fans and media folk. He spent the entire preview playing time of his new album, which drops January 25th, up in the DJ booth rapping along on the mic to many of the new release's 14 songs, and introducing each track, big upping its producer and giving some background history. He also fielded questions from the invited partiers (many longtime friends from Brooklyn) who packed the club and gave an update on what he's been up to.
He spoke about how some people he ran into this year would routinely ask him where he had been, implying that he had been artistically idle, although he's been extremely busy. He noted that much of this misconception was due, he believes, to his former label doing a very poor job at getting the word out on the 2010 Reflection Eternal album with Hi-Tek. "They didn't promote Revolutions Per Minute properly," he said of Warner Brothers, who are no longer the major label that distributes his music. He also chided those who were "hating on Kanye," saying they were "missing out" on the great piece of work that West's latest album is. Someone shouted out, "Why the title Gutter Rainbows?" The always positive Talib replied, "Because wherever you go, even if it's a negative situation, you've got to look for the beauty in a situation and celebrate that beauty. And that's the purpose of the title of Gutter Rainbows."
Talib Kweli "How You Love Me" (Gutter Rainbows, 2011)
The new album features cameos from several artists including Sean Price, Blaq Toven, Outasight, Chace Infinite, and Blacksmith Records (the label he co-founded/runs) artist Jean Grae. The number of producers enlisted is even greater; 13 different producers from all over worked on the album's 14 tracks. These include 88 Keys, S1 (aka Symbolyc One from Texas, who is now best known for producing "Power" on Kanye's new album), Ski Beatz (who produced "Cold Rain," the second LP single that drops online today), and Oh No (who produced the Jean Grae cameo track "Uh Oh"). E Jones produced "Friends & Family," in which he name checks a slew of hip-hop artists including the "Mystik Journeymen," who he raps, "introduced me to Top Ramen" in a humorous nod to the Living Legends low-budget early career survival techniques that included throwing Top Ramen parties. Following the fun listening party segment of the evening I sat down with Talib, first up asking him why there will be no CD or vinyl for the new album. "Gutter Rainbows is going to be digital only because I'm focused on Prisoner of Conscious as a full release. Gutter Rainbows is more just for the fans," he replied, adding, "I haven't been on Warner Brothers since the beginning of the summer, so part of the inspiration for Gutter Rainbows is being a free agent. And Prisoner of Conscious will actually be on Blacksmith/EMI."
I asked Talib why he worked with so many different producers on Gutter Rainbows. "I tend to want to work with a limited amount of producers but the producers for this album, they had sounds that were right for what I wanted," he said. And how different did he find it working with so many producers on this album versus working with just Hi-Tek? "Well, I could work quicker [on this album]. Working with Hi-Tek is a blessing and an honor. It's not often that you get to work with the greatest and do a whole album with him...As an artist I have a lot of different ideas and not all of them fit in the format of Reflection Eternal. And this [Gutter Rainbows] kind of allows me to have all of my ideas come out."
Having noticed that earlier in the evening 6th Sense (who produced the album track "Ain't Waiting" that features Outasight) had walked up and introduced himself to Talib, I had to ask if Talib had previously not personally met many of the album's producers (most of whom are based far from New York) and instead communicated with them online. "I met 6th Sense years ago. I haven't seen him in years until tonight. Everything was online. Well, not quite everything, but the fact that there was so many producers all over the world," he explained.
Talib told me that Gutter Rainbows, which earlier in the evening he described as full of a lot of outtakes and tracks that for whatever reason didn't make the cut for the more official Prisoner of Conscious album, was a kind of "prelude" to that forthcoming full-fledged next album. So I asked Talib when Prisoner of Conscious will be released. Without missing he beat he responded, "When I'm done...When I'm finished." 2011 or maybe 2012, I asked? And he shook his head, again implying it will be whenever he is ready to release it. As he has said in numerous interviews already, the title and the goal of Prisoner of Conscious is to address how he has been labeled a “conscious rapper” and how this label has, in many ways, made him a prisoner within the music world. I asked him if additionally, as a conscious emcee, he feels that he sometimes is in the position of also having to be a defendant of or spokesperson for all hip-hop acts, especially the non-conscious, more popular rap acts. He nodded, saying, "It's a good position. I can't really complain. I don't have much to complain about. It's my job to make sure people understand all my dimensions."
I wondered aloud then if Talib is a Prisoner of Conscious, then is Barack Obama, of whom Talib was an outspoken supporter during his candidacy, a "Prisoner of Hope?" Does he agree that Obama has gotten a raw deal as president? "Yeah, that brother definitely got a raw deal. Being president is a hard job and I think he is doing the best he can but he was in for some hardships and he is in for some judgements. And he is dealing with that right now." Steering the conversation back to music, I asked about Blacksmith Records, the label he co-founded, and its upcoming releases. "I am very excited about the Strong Arm Steady release in February. Arms & Hammers [slated for a Feb 1st release] is a great album with Terrance Martin, Too $hort, DJ Khalil, myself, KRS-One, Kurupt, and The Game... I'm excited about what Blacksmith has coming out." I wondered if he felt that big labels, be it EMI or Warner, even matter anymore in this digital age. "No, major labels don't have the answer. They try to partner up with artists that do their own thing. If an artist does not have an independent mentality the artist is not going to be successful."
A victim of free downloading of his music, I asked Talib how he felt about the fact that most likely even before Gutter Rainbows is available to buy that some blogger somewhere will be offering free downloads of his music plus have the audacity to ask for donations for the blog. "I mean, that's his karma to deal with. People want to do something, look at something you're doing that's cool and attach themselves to it because what they're doing is not cool enough. But that's just part of the business." On the more positive side of the digital age, knowing Talib is an active Twitter user I asked how important a tool it is for him. "It's very important to the way that a lot of my fans connect with what I'm doing. Like a lot people here now," he said, gesturing to the crowd that packed the New York club on this cold December night.
Time was running out but I had a few last questions I had to ask. Will there be a long overdue follow up to the acclaimed 1998 Mos Def/Talib Kweli Black Star album? "God willing, at some point," he said. And what another Eternal Reflection with Hi-Tek? "Hopefully. I love working with Hi-Tek" And Madlib? "Yeah, me and Madlib are working on Liberation II right now." Was the 2006 Michel Gondry directed concert film, in which he appeared alongside Mos Def, as much fun to be in as it was to watch? "Yeah, Block Party [presented by longtime friend/associate Dave Chappelle] was one of the greatest experiences I've ever been a part of in this music business." Earlier in the night he had shouted out Queens, NY emcee Homeboy Sandman and also made a point of stressing how oftentimes people waste time complaining about how hip-hop sucks nowadays, but that he is not one of those people. "You just have to go out and find the good music. It's out there and plentiful," he said, so I asked him who some of his current favorite artists are. "Jean Grae, Strong Arm Steady. I like J. Cole, Jay Electronica."
Talib Kweli will be performing twice this week in New York City. This evening he'll be at Brooklyn Bowl, not emceeing, but DJing and presenting Bun B, Homeboy Sandman, and K-Salaam. More info here. Sunday (the night after Christmas) he is on a hip-hop star-studded showcase bill at the Highline Ballroom (431 W.16th Street) that also includes SAS, Jean Grae, Red Cafe, Shawn Pen (aka Little Shawn), Joell Ortiz, DJ K Salaam, Mickey Factz, & Naturally Amazing. More info here. For further information on the artist visit Talib Kweli's website, or follow him on Twitter.