Back in the summer of 2004, Talib Kweli was readying a new LP, The Beautiful Struggle.  His last LP, Quality, was a huge success.  The album further cemented the BK emcee as a fresh face in Hip Hop and, right or wrongly, the face of Hip Hop’s “conscious” movement.  Artists garnered such a title in part because their music often focused on political, or social commentary as well as incorporated elements of Hip Hop’s culture.  I say “in part” because many artists thought to be “conscious” didn’t get the title because their music was a constant rallying cry for grassroots organizing or the theme music to political campaigns.  A large part of it was what they didn’t do, or what they didn’t say.  Their rhymes were devoid of shiny suits, and they often shunned the riches, violence, and excesses of mainstream rap and Hip Hop. Conscious rappers were supposed to be Hip Hop’s salvation.  The term became played out when any artist not on the radio, or not verbalizing their bank account was thrown into the conscious category.  The term became a limiting one, and many artists that were tagged as conscious emcees began to shun the title saying that it boxed them in, and prevented further artistic growth.  Talib Kweli, who was perhaps the ultimate “conscious rapper” voiced his displeasure with the label in this Treasurechest Vault interview from 2004, “It’s the same displeasure that any artist should have with any label. To say an artist like Jay-Z is a gangsta rapper, that might be accurate, but it’s not true. It’s not true to his character or true to who he is as an artist, or what he’s been able to do in music. It’s very limiting. You cut off a whole section of people that could benefit from his music when you label him a gangsta rapper. And it’s the same with my music. You say I’m a conscious rapper, yeah that’s accurate. But it’s not true to form of just who I am.”

There was a plethora of rules for every underground rapper.  The rules pertained to subject matter, attire, and definitely to guest features.  Do a verse with the wrong rapper, and you were shunned by the underground community.  Prior to the The Beautiful Struggle’s release, Kweli dropped a Beautiful Mixtape.  The mix was filled with songs that were cut around the same time, and, the story goes that it was actually an original version of the LP.  Much like the actual album, the mixtape contained some of Kweli’s most experimental music at the time including collaborative efforts with artists such as Jadakiss, and Fabolous, moves that surprised some of Kweli’s most snobbish of fans who considered the other two emcees on the other end of the spectrum and those off limits for a collaborative project.  I asked Kweli back then about the move to do songs with Fab and Kiss, and what he may say to criticizing fans.  “They’re ignorant,” he told me. “The only reason I didn’t do that before is cause I didn’t know where the studio was.”

With his studio directions firmly in place, Kweli made another guest appearance last week that took the “oh wow” factor to a new level.  This time he delivered a verse for Gucci Mane’s “Poltergeist”, a move that left many hardcore Kweli fans scratching their heads.  Artists collaborations can be some very exciting stuff, especially with artists as iconic as Kweli.  On one hand, many of us like to see our artists try new things and go to new zones.  On the other hand, many see Kweli as the face of certain kind of Hip Hop, one that doesn’t include Gucci, and is often in direct conflict with the whole “so icy” thing… Hate it or love it, the underdog is truly on top, and world’s have collided.

All in all, it’s a perfect time to bring back the Treasurechest’s Vault series with my Talib Kweli interview from 2004 where he talks collaborations, politics, the Beastie Boys ruining Hip Hop, and much more.  Check it out below…

Originally published August 2004:

It’s a struggle, but it’s a beautiful struggle.” So says Talib Kweli on his latest release, the aptly titled, Beautiful Struggle. I recently had the chance to talk with Kweli about his new album, education, politics, and his own evolution as an artist and human being. Whether he is spitting on the BlackStar album, flowing over Hi-Tek’s beats, or just talking in an interview there is something about Kweli’s voice and tone that makes you listen and think. Check it out….

DJ RTC: Talib, how are you doing?

Talib Kweli: Good, how are you doing?

DJ RTC: I’m doing well…So you’ve been around for a while and been all over, not just America but the world. What have you learned about music and life from going all these different places and seeing people connect through music?

Talib Kweli:
I guess I’ve learned that you have to travel. Traveling is a necessity in order to grow as a person. You have to see how other people are living around the world. So you can gain a real perspective.

DJ RTC: On the Blackstar album you ask the question, ‘At what point do you start to realize that life without knowledge is death in disguise?’ That’s something that’s stuck with me for a while. I’m about to teach 2nd grade in Chicago and I’m just wondering how to get that across and get kids to get into learning when the education system has failed a lot of people in this country.

Talib Kweli: You make knowledge relevant to life and you make it important for children to learn things that will really relate to things going on in their lives, and not abstract. You can read Shakespeare and that’s cool for culture and everything, but if you can’t explain accurately to a child why Old English will help them in life, then you might as well be teaching something else that relates to what’s going on in their real life.

DJ RTC: You said, “God gave us music so we pray with our words.” I’m just wondering what you see the power of music being? I read other interviews and you wished people would ask you more about the music and less about the image. I want to give you this chance to talk about why you make music and what propels you to keep going.

Talib Kweli: I think that the music is what attracts and draws to everything but it’s not what’s actually being sold. I don’t make money off of selling music. I make money off of showing up at places and it’s more the image than anything. If I didn’t create the proper image I wouldn’t have anything to sell. But I think that the music, when I say people don’t do interviews about the music, I’d like to do interviews about specific songs, the motivation behind songs, the instruments, the musicians playing on the songs things like that.

DJ RTC: We’ll let’s talk about the new album. What can people expect musically from this in relation to what they’re used to from Talib Kweli? Where are you going musically with this record?

Talib Kweli: I was trying to be as honest with it as I can about my musical ideas and use the resources and experiences that I’ve attained to make the best possible s**t that your ears could possibly hear.

DJ RTC: When you did ‘Get By,’ that was huge. And I’m sure you have people come up to you and tell you how uplifting that was for them. How does that make you feel when you release a part of yourself through music and others come up to you and say, ‘that song really made me think.’ Or, ‘that song changed my life.’ What does that give you?

Talib Kweli: I feel like I’m in the right place and I’m doing the right thing when that happens.

DJ RTC: On Chapelle’s show when you and Mos Def did that performance and you started it out and you guys talked first about being labeled a conscious emcee, or a conscious rapper. What is your displeasure with that label?

Talib Kweli: It’s the same displeasure that any artist should have with any label. To say an artist like Jay-Z is a gangsta rapper, that might be accurate, but it’s not true. It’s not true to his character or true to who he is as an artist, or what he’s been able to do in music. It’s very limiting. You cut off a whole section of people that could benefit from his music when you label him a gangsta rapper. And it’s the same with my music. You say I’m a conscious rapper, yeah that’s accurate. But it’s not true to form of just who I am.

DJ RTC: Do you feel it’s difficult at all to balance between gaining new fans and continuing to expand vs. keeping the old fans that expect a certain thing?

Talib Kweli: Less and less. I’ve felt that in the past, but less and less I feel that.

DJ RTC: What do you say to the people that see you on a track with Fabolous or Jadakiss and say, ‘that’s bullshit, Talib Kweli didn’t do that before. That’s ridiculous.’ What do you say to those people?

Talib Kweli: They’re ignorant. The only reason I didn’t do that before is cause I didn’t know where the studio was.

DJ RTC: I saw you on the cover of a magazine with Kanye West and the Beastie Boys. That was interesting to see all those people together. I heard you were going to go on tour with them in the fall. How did that come about?

Talib Kweli: I begged them. Nah, I’m just playing. I’d been thinking about what I’m gonna do in the summer and I knew the Beastie Boys had an album coming out. I was thinking about interesting tours and something I could do that was just different. And I thought it’d be cool if I could go on the Beastie Boys tour. So I actually asked them during the photo shoot for that cover, ‘yo if you go on tour, consider me.’ At that point they weren’t sure if they were going on tour or not. But then they went on tour, and then we got the call.

DJ RTC: They’re kind of an interesting thing in hip hop. A lot of people really love the Beastie Boys, and then you have other people that don’t like them and say that they came in and ruined hip hop, and changed it forever.

Talib Kweli: I think that’s just some bulls**t. The Beastie Boys transcend the world of hip hop. They transcend the world of music. They are their own thing. When they were just in the world of hip hop, they were on their own thing. They came in down-by-law. What they’ve been able to develop is something I would like to develop: a fan base that goes with them wherever they go. Their new album is a straight hip hop album. It’s more of a hip hop album than most of the hip hop albums that’s out now. They just do what they to do and hopefully everybody can get to that point.

Talib Kweli

DJ RTC: How do you go about when you’re making songs? Do you go for a beat or sample first, do you find a theme, or do you just start writing?

Talib Kweli: All those things happen…stuff pops up. What I find more and more often than not these days is I wake up thinking about s**t.

DJ RTC: How did you get into that ‘Lonely People’ track sampling the Beatles? What are you listening to on your own?

Talib Kweli: A lot of different s**t.

DJ RTC: Do you have any favorite artists yourself?

Talib Kweli: I have so many that we could just talk about that this whole interview.

DJ RTC: What collaborations are on this new album that we should check for?

Talib Kweli: I got Anthony Hamilton, me and Common, Jean Grae, Mary J. Blige, Kelis, Hi-Tek is producing on it, Charlamane, Midi Mafia, Just Blaze.

DJ RTC: People look to you for social commentary, it’s in your music all over the place and you really go deeper than just mentioning problems. You look for reasons and that comes through on a lot of your tracks. What can we look for on this new album?

Talib Kweli: This album is called ‘Beautiful Struggle.’ That’s really what it’s dealing with. It’s dealing with people’s struggle and trying to find the beauty in it. You can really find that any time.

DJ RTC: I wanted to get into that title. There’s a saying, ‘The unexamined life isn’t worth living, and the examined life is pain.’ The ‘Beautiful Struggle’ title stuck with me because you’re going to have this pain, but what can you do with it? And I was wondering when you decided to name the album that, and how you focused that theme?

Talib Kweli: I tried to let the fans lead where I was going with this album and that’s just where the beats that I picked took me. That’s just the phrase that captured what I was feeling the most.

DJ RTC: My friend saw you a few weeks ago on the bassment and they asked you if you were going to vote and the other person on there said they were not going to vote because they didn’t feel that anyone running represented them. What do you say to people that feel that way? In one sense it could be true, but you are only going to make a change by being active.

Talib Kweli: Well, I think being inactive is a detriment to society. I just feel from what I’ve seen, and I have yet to be proven otherwise, my power doesn’t lie in my vote. My power lies in what I do as a man in my community. As you called I was watching “Farenheit 9/11”. Have you seen that?

DJ RTC: Yeah, I’ve seen it.

Talib Kweli: Michael Moore is somebody who votes, participates actively in the voting process. He votes democrat, but he’s quick to call the democrats to tally. He calls them wimps all the time. He realizes that they’re punks. One of the most important scenes in movie is when it’s clear the republicans have stolen the election and the African-Americans in the house of representative go up and protest it. All they need is one white senator to join them. They just need one white democratic senator to join them in their protest in how the republicans have bastardized a system that really can work. Maybe the system can work, but it’s run by corrupt human beings who are corrupted by money and power. The fact of the matter is, a white democratic senator finds himself having a lot more in common with George Bush on his worst day than Maxine Waters on her best day. And if we can elect people to the House that are going to go up there and fight for our rights and get no support from the so-called democrats, then I’m just supposed to give my votes to the democrats because George Bush is evil? No. You can’t get my vote that quickly.

DJ RTC: What does someone have to do to get your vote?

Talib Kweli: They have to not be a career politician, and they have to tell the truth of what goes on in the political process. It’s very dangerous to register all these people to vote and convince them to vote and not tell them what they’re voting for.

DJ RTC: When I saw Farenheit 9/11 it aroused a lot of anger. It also aroused a feeling of powerlessness against Bush. He doesn’t seem to care what other people think, and he’s just been handed things throughout his life that he really hasn’t had to work for. Every company he’s had he’s run into the ground. And America, if we looked at it as a business, he’s running it right into the ground. And if this was a company he’d be fired. It’s hard to get people that feel like they have no sense of power to really care and I think that’s where it lies, investing people. I think through music is one way.

Talib Kweli: Yeah. I’m in a position that’s confusing because I’m in a position to affect what people think because I make music. At the same time I have to be as honest as I can be. I’m in a position where my vote is very powerful, and the democrats haven’t earned it. I’m not saying I would never vote. I’m a registered voter. I’ve voted before. I just can’t do it anymore just how this s**t has panned out.

DJ RTC: You said before, ‘give me the fortune, keep the fame.’ Do you still feel that way? You are in a position to have some kind of power to influence what people do, how they think, and what they see. Do you still feel that way, or do you feel you want to step up and be a leader?

Talib Kweli: I just want to make music. I accept the responsibility that comes with making music and wanting to get it out to people. But that’s not my focus. My focus is to make the music and to entertain.