By Carla Torres | August 21, 2015 | People
Here's everything you need to know about rapper/DJ Talib Kweli before he performs at Rec Room.
Brooklyn-born-and-bred rapper Talib Kweli has been spitting mesmerizing rhymes for over two decades, injecting his political and spiritual views in his soulful tracks, and as of most recently, taken his skills from the mic to the turntables, going from lyricist to DJ. Don’t believe us? Just watch him in action tonight as he takes hold of the decks at The Gale’s subterranean boom box Rec Room.
In anticipation of tonight’s show, we caught up with the hip-hop extraordinaire to find out his thoughts on the Miami music scene, the low down on his most recent album (which dropped four days ago), and why his teacher told him he would never be president.
How often to do you get down here?
Not as often as I would like.
Any big plans, besides your show on Friday, while you're here?
I'm going to do some recording. I have an artist that I work with out of Orlando from Brazil named Niko Is.
You dropped a surprise, complimentary album four days ago aptly titled "F--- the Money." I can't imagine that the title was a coincidence.
No, it's wasn't. That "F--- the Money" track is a track that I've had and liked from a German producer but I didn't know what I was going to do with it. I played it for a South African rapper, Kasper Nyovest, and he jumped on it about a year ago. But, the summer's been tough. I lost a good friend—guy I grew up with—and a rapper named Pumpkin Head from Brooklyn, and it made me want to release a project immediately. I was like, You know, you never know when you could go. Pumpkin Head inspired me to write on the spot and then right before I released it, Sean Price passed away so this record is dedicated to them.
How would you say this album differs from your previous works?
My fans may not like this album. This album is very much me experimenting with different sounds and different styles. I've done that throughout my career, but I've done it in a way where I've put in on records and asked people to buy it. I don't know if that's what I need to be doing with things in the new era where people aren't used to buying music. It's a different sound that I feel, if it was an experiment, that's another reason why they would give it away for free.
One of your most famous songs, "The Blast," is all about pronouncing your name right, and it even has some girls from Miami in it. Have you always dealt with people saying your name wrong—what's the story there that made such an impact on you, enough to write an entire song?
When I was a little kid, I vividly recall teachers really messing up my name bad and not even attempting to try. I also remember teachers being critical of my parents for giving their kids African names, saying 'You can't be president with an African name.' Like, really? Can't? You know what I'm saying? Of course you f---ing can. I don't want be president, but when I was little, I was told that someone with my name would never even be able to get a real job—much less be president. It was like, You need to have a westernized homogenous name to make it in this society—a very oppressive attitude.
What prompted the switch from the mic to the turntable, and is it something that came natural as an artist?
Well, it's not a switch. I perform more than any rapper and that's not even an exaggeration. I put out two or three projects a year as an MC. I perform 200-250 shows a year, every year. The DJing is secondary to that. The DJing is just a hobby—something that I do for fun.
Are you going to get on the mic and rap some of your songs tonight?
It depends on how drunk I am—I'm just joking. I might, I don't know—if I feel it. I don't necessarily do that when I DJ, but I've done it before several times.
Is there a reason for that?
It has a lot to do with several factors or not at all. Maybe I want to perform but they're not paying me to perform and I can't give them that satisfaction. It could be that maybe they didn’t pay me to perform, but the vibe in here is so right that I want to perform anyway. The vibe dictates whether or not I do something I’m not contracted to do.
What are your favorite kind of tracks to spin?
Because I have name recognition from being a rapper, I'm getting contracted as a to DJ to go places that maybe you wouldn't regularly go to. So when people come to the club to see the DJ, they're coming to see me DJ. I like a party that I can DJ where I can play a Drake record and Nicki Minaj record, but I could also play a Steely Dan record and a Nina Simone record. And if I could find the balance between that, it’s a good night.
What is your favorite record of all time?
The records that you start with and that you end with are probably your favorite records. The records that you play in the middle are the most hype right now. So right now in this moment, if I needed to get the crowd hype, I would play Kendrick Lamar's "Alright"—we gon' be alright. That's what I would play. But I like to start with like Stevie Wonder’s "Fingertips," which is Stevie Wonder at 12 years old on the harmonica, which surprisingly, a 12-year-old Stevie Wonder holds up very well in the nightclub. Or I start with like Biggie and Tupac—that's another good one. I like Mo Town. If I was allowed to just do nothing but a slow Mo Town set that would be great.
Do you think the platform you have as a musician to express your ideas and beliefs made you become an outspoken activist? Or is it the flip side? Was it music or a specific artist that first made you open your eyes to what's happening around you?
I think I'm just a perfect mix of my parents. My father was really into music. My mother was really into political action and joined committees and causes that progressive black folks were into in the '80s. Growing up that household, it all came together in a perfect storm.
What current issues do you feel strongly about?
To me, the biggest root of the problem that causes racism, the problem that causes police brutality, the problem that causes brain drain, the problem that causes absentee fathers, the problem that causes takes millions and millions and millions of tax dollars that could be used for education and health care and puts them in the wrong places is all driven by protecting systems of white supremacy. I found that it all boils down to the prison-industrial complex. And the prison-industrial complex existing and taking so much away from America because it's so disproportionate to people of color and it's just wrong in general… it's affecting all of us as Americans. It's bad for the country, so I think the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration are the biggest symbols of systemic racism and the greed that started systemic racism. So people who are involved with fighting against that—that's where I'm at with it.
What are your thoughts on the Miami music scene?
I don't know much about it as I did five or six years ago. I'm slowly moving away from knowing so much about popular music and the Miami music scene is very based on popular music, as far as I can tell… it's a global music scene. It's a club-based, scene-dance-music-club-based scene.
What's the craziest night you've had in Miami?
The craziest night I had in Miami… the top four I can't even tell you about.
You don't remember?
No, I remember, but I just can't tell you.
What’s your opinion on Apple Music’s recent launch and the overall evolution of listening to music? Would you consider having your own station on it?
I'm actually working on something for Apple Music for a station. I do have my own station on TuneIn radio. Apple Music's been very kind to make a couple of playlists of my music that I thought were really dope. It seems like the people there who are involved in that project are tuned in, but I'm not a fan of streaming. I accept it for what it is because that's how people have chosen to listen to music. I understand why it's more convenient and why our generation, which never even had any experience with actually purchasing music, would take to this. It makes perfect sense, but at the end of the day, I have seen enough seasons to know that what's really valuable is art. It's not like the temporary experience of having something on your phone or on a compressed mp3 out of a s----y-ass speaker. The value's having something vinyl or even if you have it on your computer, having the proper size file to be able to hear it as what the artist did. Vinyl sales are making the whole business go up right now because young people are discovering , I'd rather have a more intimate experience with my art then just this new stuff.
Are there any new artists or talent out there that you're excited about?
Niko Is who I just mentioned. K'Valentine, a young lady from Chicago who I'm working with on my label Javotti Media. Javotti Media is my label and the people you see me rocking with are the ones I'm excited about. Jessica Care Moore is one of my good friends; she's a poet out of Detroit, an internationally renowned poet. She's putting out an album, which is going to be the next official Javotti Media release.
What’s in the works for you?
I have several things in the works. An album that with 9th Wonder coming up, an album with Madlib coming up. Hi Tek and I are getting back together. More of the traditional sound that people expect from me.
Photography by Dorothy Hong