In 2007, I did a phoner with Talib Kweli for a feature piece on his then-brand new album Eardrum. Reading it over a decade later, I see how hung up I was on Kweli's decision to collaborate with Houston rappers UGK. I did get a great quote out of him in regards to his guest spot on Yeezy's "Get Em High"--but in hindsight, I can think of a zillion more questions I might've asked.
It’s two decades and change since hip-hop came into this world, via a Bronx-born street group called the Sugarhill Gang who dropped a letter bomb called “Rapper’s Delight.”
America liked rockin’ out “to the boogie da bang bang,” and the novelty song midwifed a musical movement that’s become a multi-billion dollar industry spawning millions of kids who want to be MCs, beat makers, or DJs.
No one, however, could predict the schisms that cut wide swaths through the contemporary rap scene – East Coast versus West, the north versus the south: it’s certainly as political as the current Middle East crisis, and nearly as violent.
In today’s parlance, if you’re from New York, you’re addicted to bling and corporate takeovers, ala P Diddy and Jay-Z, or you’re an alleged street gangsta, like 50 Cent. If you’re from Memphis or Atlanta, you’re likely a purveyor of crunk, good-time party music made popular by Three 6 Mafia and Lil’ Jon. The newest sound on the west coast is hyphy; in Houston, Texas, it’s snap.
These geographical trends create boundaries that are mental and physical – while someone might have a regional hit that sells several thousand copies, they’re virtually unknown in the next state, which leads to animosity, occasional turf wars, and, in the case of Biggie and Tupac (and, most recently, T.I.’s best friend Pliant Johnson), death.
“It’s easy to get caught up – I’m gonna go as far as saying there’s a real rivalry,” says Brooklyn-based hip-hop star Talib Kweli, one of the few heroes of the genre to transcend the man-made barriers in recent years.
With his newest album, Eardrum – the inaugural release on his own Blacksmith Music label, an imprint of Warner Brothers – Kweli seems determined to build yet another bridge across the great divide.
“Coming up in New York, a city with so many different types of people, it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t have access to the same opportunities,” he explains. “When you’re traveling, and you tell people you’re from New York, you’re treated like a star. You get spoiled, and when you go to Philly, New Jersey, or Connecticut, you think, ‘Man, they talk country!’ But once you get out of the city, you realize that everyone talks that way – it’s New York that talks funny.”
Kweli, who lists hometown MCs KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim as his personal “holy trinity” of hip-hop, sees a nation divided into subcultures, where strong artists become superstars in their own communities, but rarely make it to MTV or the Billboard charts. “For a long time,” he says, “southern artists got no exposure at all.”
But since the rise of crunk – solidified by Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz’ hits like “Snap Yo Fingers,” and Three 6 Mafia’s Oscar win for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” – the Dirty South has become an indomitable force.
“In Houston, Memphis, and Atlanta, artists have developed their own fanbases and their own counterculture,” Kweli explains. “Now that corporate radio stations are playing what’s popular instead of what’s regional, New York is feeling the backlash. They hear someone like [Louisiana rapper] Lil’ Webbie, and not understanding the production process, they think it sounds like trash.”
Swimming against the East Coast flow, Kweli recruited Houston’s Bun B and Pimp C for Ear Drum, recording a song called “Country Cousins” with the UGK rappers that epitomizes the similarities – and differences – between the Big Apple and the Dirty South. It was an astute move for the thinking man’s rapper, best known for his work with Mos Def in Black Star, and his solo output, which yielded acerbic political commentaries like “The Proud” and “Gun Music,” and warranted a gold record for his 2002 full-length Quality.
“I’ve just got a good relationship with Bun,” Kweli maintains. “He’s been like a brother me, and he’s the only artist in the business who regularly calls me just to check in.”
Longtime fans who worry about Kweli trading in his subway pass for a pair of overalls needn’t fear: With songs like “Revolution” and the minimalist “More Or Less,” he delivers the scathing socio-political observations that everyone has come to expect, using the latter to call for “More rap songs that stress purpose/With less misogyny and less curses/Let’s put more depth in our verses,” before urging his listeners to monitor politicians’ accountability by voting.
Obviously, the need to educate and the desire to party are creating conflict within Kweli’s own conscience – after all, how do you reconcile serious offerings like ‘04s The Beautiful Struggle with his humorous guest spot on Kanye West’s “Get Em High,” released the same year?
“Sometimes, you need to have dimension,” Kweli claims after a telling sigh. “The reason I had so much fun with Kanye was that he set it up like that. Doing a song about getting high and meeting girls on Black Planet was something my fans won’t let me get away with on my own records. I did it out of fun.”
“Look at the history of rap,” he continues. “[Grandmaster Flash’s ghetto opus] ‘The Message’ wasn’t recorded until 1984. Go back earlier, to Wild Style, which was a film about people participating in the culture. You see [rap pioneer] Busy Bee talking about money, and jumping in the limo to drink champagne with a bunch of girls.”
In the old days, Kweli eulogizes, “hip-hop was decadent but potent – songs like ‘The Message’ just added value.”
“If I do something less socially relevant, or say something less deep, my fans have a problem with it,” he says, somewhat frustrated with his intellectual image.
“It’s something,” he admits, “that I’m fighting all the time.”