[MUST READ] Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder: Navigating the Indie 500

Started by Flacko, Oct 21, 2015, in Music Add to Reading List

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    Flacko Too Blessed To Be Humble

    Oct 21, 2015
    Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder: Navigating the Indie 500
    On the eve of the release of their new album, the pioneering do-it-yourself artists look back at the birth of the independent hip-hop movement

    Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli and North Carolina producer 9th Wonder both sprung up from the late 90s / early 2000s independent hip-hop movement. This crusade found up-&-coming artists and former major label pioneers pressing up their own vinyl and CDs to sling independently, after having too many doors slammed in their faces. Talib came earlier under the Rawkus Records banner — alongside Mos Def and DJ Hi-Tek — and 9th Wonder a few years later as a part of rap trio Little Brother, in collaboration with Phonte Coleman and Big Pooh. Both career paths found the artists using the internet to amass their respective fan bases when the major labels took little or no interest in them. Yet those same labels came around later.

    At that time, DJ Warren Peace and I started an online portal for hip-hop on the internet, HipHopSite.Com. Before then, there was little representation for up-to-date hip-hop news on the net, as the very prospect of it was looked at like mixing oil and water. Clueless media buyers told us in the early days that “black people don’t have computers,” when we tried to pitch them for ad dollars, so we launched a mail order retail store to keep things running. We acted as a one-stop hub for this movement, where hungry fans could order these physical products online in the pre-digital music era. The movement exploded, introducing the world to once underground, now well known artists like Eminem, Mos Def, El-P of Run The Jewels, A-Trak, Chromeo, Aloe Blacc, Redfoo of LMFAO, and others. Tons of influential indie labels popped up, such as Stones Throw, Rhymesayers Entertainment and Duck Down, many of which are still around today.

    We worked heavily with Talib and 9th at that time, who are both pioneers of the do-it-yourself model, survivors of rap’s jiggy era and proof that you don’t need to conform to win. Their approach was unconventional at the time, with some older heads condemning their music as “nerd rap” or “that underground s---.” However in retrospect, they paved the way for today’s hip-hop artists, for whom it is now commonplace to use the internet to break in.

    Both artists would coincidentally be validated in the mainstream on Jay Z’s The Black Album in 2003. Jay gave a shout out to Talib Kweli on “Moment of Clarity,” while 9th would produce the track “Threat,” as one of the only relatively unknown producers on the record. Talib would later collaborate with Kanye West regularly, while 9th would go on to produce “Girl” for Beyoncé, not to mention have his artist Rapsody be invited to collaborate on Kendrick Lamar’sTo p---- a Butterfly LP. The independent grind had proven to pay off for both of them in many ways.

    Both Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder now run their own indie labels, Javotti and Jamla, respectively, and together have launched the new Indie 500 collective, which will be celebrated on November 6th with their debut album of the same name. The record is a celebration of the independent spirit, with many of the movement’s finest artists collaborating on it, including Pharoahe Monch, Slug of Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Hi-Tek, Problem, NIKO IS and others. Cuepointchatted with both Talib and 9th to talk about the birth of the independent hip-hop movement that inspired this album, as well as the beautiful struggles of being entrepreneurial artists.

    Cuepoint: This is great that we are all together now talking, because we all had a part in the birth of the independent hip-hop movement and worked together in the past in different junctions. So now that you guys are doing the Indie 500 record, let’s look back on those early days. Can you each tell your story about the moment that you broke into the industry?

    9th Wonder: With everyone that I crossed paths with over the years, I probably had one of the most unconventional ways of breaking in. It was a new way of breaking in. This was around ‘97–98, when it was still a situation of getting demos out there, having a 12”, something physical that somebody can have to listen to, that you can hand to an A&R, or something like that. Me coming in around ’99, 2000, 2001, our version of the 12” was HipHopSite.Com or Okay Player or Sandbox Automatic. These particular sites where you could go and drag your mouse and click on something to listen to. HipHopSite.Com was probably the first place I heard (Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek’s) “Fortified Live.” I didn’t live in New York, I’m not from New York, so there wasn’t a lot of stores around North Carolina selling wax. Most stores were selling mixtapes from DJ Clue and Doo-Wop, but not selling a ton of wax that you could buy. I got into it searching for new music that way and then we thought, “Well, if people are now searching for music this way, maybe they will search for our music this way too.” So you still had a lot of the older cats, or just cats with a different mind frame that would just go to the store and pick something up. But slowly but surely you’d end up at HipHopSite. There was a generation of people coming along that would click on something. That’s where we started the Justus League and Little Brother and said, “Let’s put ourselves on the line and make a message board.” All of this stuff that was kind of like, “Why in the h--- would you do that for?” So that’s kind of how I broke in, doing remixes like God’s Stepson, of course Little Brother’s The Listening album and different things with different sites. We kind of laid the foundation for every artist to break on the internet.

    I had a conversation with some of the higher ups at Atlantic Records, Judy Greenwald and Craig Kallman. I was up there recently and one of the conversations we had was like “When Little Brother was on Atlantic in 2005, we really wasn’t prepared to handle you guys, because we were in a situation where we didn’t have the staff to run an ‘internet based group.’ We were basically going after fans we can’t touch or see.” In 2004, 2005 it was unheard of, but now it’s common. This is why I still have a great relationship with Julie and Craig to this day, because it wasn’t really their fault that Little Brother didn’t blow up or anything like that. It was just too early in the game for any particular major entity to be ready for us.

    So that’s the long and short of how I broke in. Not only did I hear “Fortified Live” on HipHopSite, I heard Slum Village “Players,” and “Get This Money” and stuff like that. So I was like “Oh, this stuff still exists. It’s not on the radio per say, but it’s still able to be reached and its accessible, so why don’t I fall in line, if this is where you are getting the sound now.”

    Talib: My story is a little more well documented than 9th’s, but just to add on to what he says, it is interesting because that era when 9th and Little Brother broke, I was becoming removed from that community. If 9th was influenced by “Fortified Live,” that was dope. But by that time I was moving into dealing with major labels and trying to have my s--- on Hot 97. The OkayPlayer community supported me, but I wasn’t a part of that community. HipHopSite, 88 Hip-Hop all these sites supported me and I was aware of them, but I didn’t participate because I was very analog. I didn’t own a computer, I didn’t own a laptop. I didn’t have interest in going on a comment section or going on a board or anything. All that stuff that was happening.

    I’m sitting here with NIKO IS. When he first started, he used to battle and freestyle against dudes online in the comment section. That s--- is so foreign to me. The first time I got involved with anything like that I went into the comments section on OkayPlayer and I thought, “It’s OkayPlayer, these are fans, we’re all in this together.” I didn’t realize there was a new generation of kids that looked at me as something different than them, as some big artist. There was a lot of pushback, like “Kweli’s not this..” There was one kid who wanted to boycott my album on OkayPlayer because I didn’t show up to some in-store. I didn’t understand what the internet was. I didn’t understand the language of the message boards, the comment section, and jumped into it like a wild banshee, not really understanding that there is a community there that 9th just described, that have their own language, their own rules, their own way of getting heard, that’s not quite the same as what happened to me two or three years prior. It took me a couple of years to learn how to properly engage that community.

    9th: Which is crazy because him saying that he wasn’t a part of that community at first, after “Fortified Live,” when we’re getting into Blackstar,Soundboming 2, Reflection Eternal and all of that stuff, and even going all the way to Quality, Rawkus became the mainstream-alternative. It was mainstream, but to the left. If I’m in the barbershop and you want to argue about Lil Jon, I’m the one who’s going to argue about Rawkus. It got to the point where it became a line in the movieBrown Sugar: “If you want to keep it real, go to Rawkus.” Rawkus became that particular entity. For us as Little Brother, we looked at it like “This is what we like, but this is also our competition. Our competition is not cats on the internet anymore. We’re not gunning for cats on the ‘net, we’re gunning for the ones that we can see that are actually out there.” And that was Kweli, Mos, Pharoahe, the High & Mighty. For Kweli, him being that close to the transition where it shifted worked for him. If you talked to someone that was from the early 90s, late 80s, trying to make that transition is a little tougher. Because they are like, “I’m really removed from this s---. I really don’t understand what’s going on, and I really can’t jump start my career again like I want to,” like the ones that figured it out, like MF Doom, Masta Ace. But Rawkus became the mainstream alternative for us. They went from HipHopSite all the way to Reflection Eternal to Quality to “Get By.” Now he’s a viable artist like 50 Cent or another mainstream artist, he’s just different. So we were like “Okay, underground is really not a tag that we really want. We want to keep our sound, but we want to be known too.”

    Did you ever feel from other emcees or industry people that because you guys both came in through these new, unconventional means that they would say things like “Oh, you’re an internet rapper.” Like as a negative connotation because you came through that avenue.

    9th: Yeah, “Internet rapper” or being a “conscious rapper,” or me being from the South, “You make New York style beats!” or “You want to keep it real,” whatever, whatever. All of that was a like a “downgrade” or negative comment. At one point, if you listen to most people talk, everybody that says more than ten words when they spit “sounds like Common,” and everybody that has a soulful voice “sounds like Bilal or D’Angelo,” everybody. That was kind of like the box they put a lot of us in. All the way to making beats on the computer. That was another thing, people were like “You make beats on a computer? What is that?!?” They used to exempt me from certain beat showcases because I made beats on my IBM Thinkpad. Now beats and computers are synonymous. Being an “internet star” — let’s take it even deeper — being a Vine star or an Instagram star, where it’s only six seconds long, that’s the new star now. Fifteen years ago, you breaking on the internet? You’re a nobody. But now you can have four million followers on IG and be “famous.”

    Talib: That’s right. Labels ain’t even checking for anything else. How many followers do you have on Facebook or Twitter? Even the label based acts, they try to roll them out like they don’t have anything to do with it.

    9th: Right, to try to keep that “organic” situation, like “We don’t want to break up what you have, because your internet fanbase might not like the fact that you are now associated with the machine.” They don’t understand, Instagram is the machine (laughs).

    9th, let’s talk about God’s Stepson for a minute, when you remixed Nas’God’s Son album without his permission. This was really an unconventional method of getting your beats out there at the time.

    9th: I was in the business of remixing a lot of stuff, anything I could get my hands on because I lived in an area where the style of beats I was making and the type of rappers that lived around here, we were in the minority. We’re talking about 2002, 2003. We’re in the middle of crunk and a lot of stuff going on. Everybody was like “Your beats are too underground,” same story. So my roommate at the time was a DJ, and I was like “let me start taking acapellas and remixing them, because I got all these beats with nobody to put over them.” So DJ Bumrush brought me the Nas acapellas, because he had heard all of the other remixes I had done, like “I’m just curious what you will do with these.” So I just took them, and while I was doing it, the whole time I’m like, “Now this is the type of s--- everybody wants to hear Nas on” (laughs). So I was just making beats, producing, but I was also a fan. And as a fan, this was what I wanted to hear Nas over, but it just so happens that I’m doing the beat as well, so it was kind of this duality thing I was going through when I did it. Once I did it, I let a few friends hear it, and then, my man Ian Davis from ABB hit me and was like ‘Yo, let’s call it God’s Stepson.” He came up with the cover and the name and I was like “Okay, alright!” Because again, I was not so deep where I am now. As artists we kind of tread lightly with the things that we choose to do, always keeping in the back of our minds, “If we put this on the internet, what is the community going to say? What’s the backlash going to be?” In 2003, I didn’t give a d---, I was like “Okay!” So we did it and the next thing you know, I start doing work with you guys, I go to Japan and there’s a thousand Japanese kids holding up the God’s Stepson CDs. It had become synonymous with how I broke into the game, moreso than when I produced a Jay Z beat. People are like “You had the groundbreaking Nas remix project,God’s Stepson…” After that came Nastradoomus and all the Jay Z remix albums. That became a way to break in and I was looking at it like, “I didn’t do it to break in! (laughs). It was kind of weird. I just did it because I wanted to hear something different. It just goes to show that if you do something just from the heart or for the passion of it, you’ll get more reward than if you just try to orchestrate some s---. It never works that way. It never works.

    So did Nas ever hear it, or did he ever comment on it?

    9th: I think he said something about it in an article once, but other than that. But I’ve seen Nas several times, talked to him several times, but that was never a topic of conversation (laughs). It was more like “When are we going to work together,” or “I like the artist that you have,” but it was never like “Yo, thatGod’s Stepson s--- you did awhile back, I never got a chance to totally tell you but I thought it was dope.” Man, that has never been a conversation (laughs).

    I guess I have that same question with your Jay Z remix albums of The Black Album and American Gangster. Did Jay ever give you feedback on those?

    9th: Same thing, and I’ve remixed two Jay Z albums. It’s never a topic of conversation. Every time I have a chance to talk to Jay, it’s never about that. It’s about sports, it’s about life. It’s never, “So did you get to check that remix album I did?” There’s been times when he came to me like “Yo that joint you did with Badu, ‘Honey,’ yo, that joint was hot.” He’ll say something to me first, but I have never been like “Yo, so uh, did you get to hear the remix album that I did….” (laughs). I’ve never ever done that.

    You both have had albums with major labels in the past. I’m sure there are perks to having the machine behind you in promoting your music, but also the downside of not having complete creative control. Can you talk about that a bit?

    9th: To be honest, I can say that I have only been signed to a major label once, Atlantic Records. I can honestly say that we’ve never had that album. Little Brother turned in The Minstrel Show album done.

    Talib Kweli: I never had that problem either.

    9th: There was never an A&R saying “Oh, you should do a joint with this producer, or you should do a song with this rapper.” It was kind of like we were stuck in our ways. We had The Listening done before Beni B even signed us (to ABB Records) and by the time Atlantic had heard The Minstrel Show, it was done in its entirety, skits and everything. We were like “This is it.” They were looking at us across the table like, “This is it?” “Yeah, this is it.” The only thing that we changed was the title. The original title for The Minstrel Show was going to be called n----- Music. They were like, “Noooo, we can’t do that.” Even the idea of The Minstrel Show, they were like, “Uhhhh, are you sure you want to name it this?” And we’re like “That is what we want to name it.” We knew there was going to be ripples, but we were like “f--- it.” This is how we came in, but we’re not changing for anybody. We never had that problem. Now, did we not get the support from different TV stations or whatever it was because of what we named it or how we sounded? Maybe so.

    Talib: It’s not just the TV stations, from my experience. I agree with 9th, fans have a misconception. They read these things on the internet. There’s a story on the internet about some guy who had a meeting with some label and how they told him there was a conspiracy in hip-hop to destroy the black community. It’s not as sinister as that. But it’s almost like the Ice-T quote, “Freedom of speech, just watch what you say.” If you have a strong heart and mind as an artist, there’s no way that they can change what you create. But in the building, are they going to support it at that label? No they won’t. It’s in their programming and how they see music. They hear the new 9th Wonder project and they’re like “Can I play this for DJ Oompa-Loompa at the strip club? He’s not going to like it, so I don’t know what to do with this.” And then their thought process stops right there. That permeates the building if you don’t have a good product manager or someone in the building who has a lot of power who really has your back. Besides Rawkus, I never had that in my career and I’ve been signed to many major labels. I’ve been duped and bamboozled into thinking that someone was going to have my back when the building didn’t. The label didn’t support it. So they’ll give you the money and you make what you want and they won’t f--- with you creatively. If you’re not handing them singles that they personally — and some idiot A&R dude or some idiot radio promo dude doesn’t know what to do with — then your project will not get treated well. My wife is a DJ, so I’ve seen the emails and heard the conversations where some promo guy who is supposed to be working my record will come to her with everyone else’s records on the label except for mine. She’ll ask them, “Didn’t you just get that new Talib Kweli,” and he’ll be like “Yeah, but you know, that’s that underground s---. We need you to play this new whatever…”

    This kind of goes back to the Angel Diaz piece with his argument about Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco songs not being good for barbecues. I hear what he is saying about there being a time and a place for “real hip-hop” records and for party records. But the big hole in that argument is that the barbecue is going to end. Nobody is going to give a f--- about that fleeting barbecue in ten years. For someone like you guys, when you are making music with integrity, it’s going to last so much longer in the hearts and minds of your fans than the temporarily hot songs you might hear at a barbecue. Where are the die hard Plies fans? Where are the people that really ride for Mims in 2015? These guys had huge hits but now everyone is like “on to the next one.” There has to be some value in making the music that you want to make, rather than making the music the system expects of you.

    9th: Those particular writers, what they talk about, they are fans of all of us. Whether it be at a barbecue or a bar mitzvah, whatever it is, they are fans of all of us. What they don’t understand is, if he puts Kweli, Lupe, myself and all of us on the side of the fence that is “conscious” or whatever, not only do we not like it, but the ones he proclaims to be championing, they don’t like it either. I just told one of my students this. Outside of the boxes that they put us in, there are only six or seven rappers that don’t use the same airport terminals that I use, maybe. We’re all on the same planes, we’re all on the same airports, we all deal with the same artists, we all deal with the same agents, we all deal with same bloggers, we all deal with the same people. Other than like seven or eight rappers and even in that we are probably one degree separated.

    Talib: Right.

    9th: It’s the fans that want to compartmentalize and put us in different boxes. I have respect for Drake. I have respect for Future. I have respect for these artists that they think we are not like. What he doesn’t understand is that those artists are fans of us. What a lot of people don’t understand is that people equate the things that I do, the things that Kweli does, the things that Pharoahe Monch and all of these artists that are supposed to be conscious, people equate that to not being wealthy or not having money or not being able to sit down at these same restaurants that these other cats say down in. If me and Kweli go down to St. Louis and put out a Tweet, some club in St. Louis is going to want to give us a table and a bottle. They think that that is not our world or that is not going to happen. Or on the flipside, they also think cats like Future, T.I. who are put in a box of “trap” or whatever, are not political, that they don’t have a political mindset. “Why is this rapper at the Million Man March. I expect to see Common there, but didn’t expect to see Jeezy!” What kind of s--- is that? That is the real crux of that article. “I can’t have fun listening to Kweli, but I can have fun listening to this.”

    Talib Kweli
    Talib: That’s exactly right. But also when you add in the groupie aspect, the part you said 9th is also very important about they think we are the type of artists that aren’t having fun or anything like that. I think in the back of his mind, Angel Diaz was hoping that Drake would read that and bring him on tour with him. Like why do you even feel the need to do that? You don’t need to throw anybody else under the bus. It’s really some groupie s---. It’s like what was written 20 years ago, groupies with pens have no skin in the game and no journalistic integrity or accountability. He just wanted to say some wild s--- that he knows is going to upset people and then pat himself on the back like “I did my job because I shocked people.” Well you shocked people. Now you are known for being an idiot.

    9th: It’s not earning any points with Drake. If he in his mind thought he was earning points with Drake by talking about Kweli and the cats that Drake actually looks at as forefathers in this and even cultivated his sound and style — Kweli, Mos, Little Brother, Slum Village — that’s a crew that Drake at one time wanted to be a part of. So if he thought that was going to buy him some points by talking about some music that actually formed Drake, there’s no way. It’s crazy.

    That is interesting, because I remember Drake actually being a huge fan of Little Brother early in his career. Didn’t he say somewhere “I’m the biggest Little Brother fan in the world,” or something like that at one point?

    Talib: Yeah, absolutely. He said it on record.

    9th: If there’s no Phonte, there’s no Drake. 100% accurate. If there is no Phonte Coleman, there is no Drake. And that’s not a diss, that’s just what it is. Just like if there is no DJ Premier and Pete Rock, there’s no me.

    Talib: And look, I DJ. I understand. I’ve learned why DJs play certain records in the club. And Pizzo, you and me have had this conversation. What I’ve learned as a DJ, how I played five years ago? I do parties every week where someone comes up to me like “Kweli, play your s---.” And I’m like “No, I’m not playing ‘The Blast’ right now, that will k--- the vibe of the party.” I know when and how my music works. Me being a DJ, I’m paying attention to all of this and I’m learning. But at the same time, there’s plenty of Drake songs that do not work at a f---ing barbecue. A lot of them.

    When you were first starting out, as a hungry and unsigned artist, did you ever feel like you were being annoying or were you bothered by having to ask for support from those in power?

    9th: Nah, not me.

    Talib: I was bothered by it later in my career. In the beginning of my career, from Rawkus to Priority to Geffen to Warner Bros, I always had people that I had to depend on. When I figured out late in the game that those people weren’t doing their jobs, I then would lean on my manager or pay indie promoters. I didn’t really learn how to do that on my own until maybe 2011 when I put out Gutter Rainbows. Now that I put out my own music, I take much more of an active hand in promoting and doing that. I spent two or three years emailing people, emailing DJs, emailing bloggers, “Please listen to this, listen to this new song I got, listen to this new artist I got.” I’ve actually slowed down with that, I don’t do that as much because I’ve learned recently that if I put that same focus into the Indie 500 crew, into the Colours of the Culture, into what I’m doing with KweliClub, if I do that properly, if I do that right, the people will be banging on my doors. I used to email Fader, I used to email Complex, I used to email Pitchfork and these are people who I feel like came in the game after me and should respect anything that Talib Kweli says to them, but they don’t. So I had to learn that hard lesson that they have people emailing them all the time trying to get eyes or to click on their site. Now I just focus on what I’m doing. If someone pays attention, the more I do that, the more they come to me for their click-bait, because they feel like they are missing out. There’s a strategy that works. Me doing an album with 9th Wonder, I’ve been able to employ that strategy again with the way we’ve been rolling out these songs. The music speaks for itself, so if we just present it in the right way let them know that this is what this crew is doing, then they’re going to feel like they’re missing out. That’s something that’s been working for me lately.

    9th: It’s definitely an “If you build it they will come” mentality for me. Especially in starting my label, knowing that particular sites are not going to post you or whatever it is. I had to learn to run with the sites that was running with me and pushing my brand, instead of “Yo, can you please put this up on your site,” and “Can you please do this?” I’ve learned, “These are the sites that run with me and these are the sites I’m going to stick with.” After while, the cup will runneth over and the rest of these sites will be like “d---, what have I been missing out on?” That’s what I had to learn with my own brand, doing it that way.

    At what point for each of you would you say that the opportunities just started coming in, rather than having to chase after them?

    Talib: My shows have been on autopilot for ten years plus. I’m at odds with my old management, there’s a lot of nonsense going on that needs to be resolved, but the one thing that can definitely say with Blacksmith Management is that they kept me on the road and to this day. I pay my bills not from selling records but from going on the road. So I don’t solicit shows, they just come to me. But as far as getting the music online, again, it’s recent as putting out the Lost Lyrics album. I did a year’s worth of promotion for Prisoner of Conscious. I did a few months of promotion for Gravitas. I didn’t do any promotion for this Lost Lyrics thing, I sent one Tweet. I woke up the next morning and it was a story all over the internet because Pitchfork or one of these sites picked it up. And I know why they picked it up, because my Tweet said “New album featuring unreleased songs with Kanye West, Killer Mike, Common.” Everyone wants to have new Kanye music. So I knew what it was. But I’m like, I have these relationships. I can use this to my advantage. So when I want on Bill Maher, I dropped f--- The Money an hour before I went on. That was very deliberate. Four or five million people watch Bill Maher, so I’m going to drop it now. I’m going to use the fact that people want to hear my political opinion to get my records crackin’. I didn’t email anybody when I dropped f--- The Money. I didn’t ask anyone. The way that I dropped it everyone covered it. Blogs that had never covered me before. Rolling Stone, everyone covered it. It was like, “Okay, that worked twice in a row for me.” I didn’t promote it, I anti-promoted it and it worked.

    9th: For me, you spend your time, trying to chase, trying to chase, trying to chase and trying to chase. I don’t think people understand how it is, I knew it was tough, but I didn’t know how tough it was to have a female artist on your team and to push her. That’s been the biggest thing for me, working with Rapsody and Kweli working with K. Valentine.

    Talib Kweli & Rapsody perform on the Tonight Show with The Roots
    Talib: Even with Jean Grae before Rapsody. That’s part of why Jean is not really involved in hip-hop.

    9th: Right. There’s such a push back as far as women that rhyme. And if you do rhyme, you have to do a certain thing. It first I was just trying to push the music, but then I realized how things are one sided and sexist in the industry. Then it became more than just the music, then I became an advocate at that point. The moment I backed off, that’s when Kendrick Lamar called. After that, I don’t have to say anything anymore. Now it’s validated, like “Okay, this is real.” It’s almost like you have to sit back and wait for something to validate you and you don’t even know when and where it’s coming from. Although Rapsody and Kendrick had a great relationship over the years as friends, I never would have thought that Kendrick would say something and then right after that Dr. Dre would say something.

    Talib: I knew it. I knew when years ago I heard Ab Soul and Kendrick talking about her. I was like, “Yeah, Rap is on their radar.” But it’s funny because I thought she was dope back then, because I remember when you were doing what you were talking about, getting all of your emails. It took me maybe two years before I actually went and bought an album. I didn’t buy a Rapsody album until we decided we were going to do Indie 500. I was “Okay, Rapsody’s dope.” 9th would Tweet a video and I would look at it and say she’s dope, she can spit. But since I’m inundated with so many things all day long, it just wasn’t my top priority to buy a Rapsody album. But when we decided to do Indie 500, and I thought “Okay, I need to get more familiar with what Jamla is doing is general.” And I was like “Wait, Rapsody’s got how many albums?” I wasn’t paying attention, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear all this work that had been being done. But it took me, someone who is that close to 9th this long to even get involved. So imagine if they ain’t even checking.

    Talib Kweli, Rapsody, 9th Wonder
    It’s interesting that you talk about validation because it seems to me these music directors and A&R people are like “Okay, get that guy, because everybody is using that guy,” and that’s the sole reasoning. Essentially everyone starts copying one another. Where are the actual tastemakers in these industries? This guy is making hot beats, so everyone uses that producer for a year. The people in these positions, do they know what they are doing, or are they all just copying each other?

    9th Wonder: It’s a copy, it’s all about name recognition and your brand. It’s not about what you can do, it’s your name. Me and Kweli have seen, especially in the DJ world, there are so many people DJing just because of their name, they are not actually great DJs, they are just using their name. And that’s the truth of the matter.

    Kweli: Yeah, I just did a song with Thirstin Howl in Puerto Rico and he told me I could sell table salt. He was like “I’m serious, you could sell Talib Kweli Table Salt right now. Someone would buy it.” He was serious too. He was putting together a plan for the table salt.

    In the major label world, there seems to be an air of artists having to be inaccessible and having an untouchable, rockstar-like image. But it seems like in the last ten or twenty years that has changed, led by Questlove and OkayPlayer really allowing people to connect with them. How accessible should an independent artist be before they destroy their mystique?

    9th: That’s a gift and a curse. Me living in North Carolina, I’ve learned that nobody is going to believe I’m doing what I’m doing until I become inaccessible. That’s the crazy thing about it. Once I get missing and become more of a myth, then I become a real thing. People need to feel like what you do is extraordinary. What I do is ordinary. So if I see you every day, you must be ordinary. I had to learn that here. Now that’s a fine line, because you don’t want to feel like you are better than anybody. But sadly, this is how the world works. This is how people think. You try to find a balance. Should I talk to all my fans? Should I reach out to my fans? Am I being too humble by talking to all of my fans? If I’m too humble, then they are going to believe that I’m not “real.” That’s kind of the fight that we all have, this inner battle. There’s certain people that can’t walk down the street. Jay Z can’t walk down the street. Kanye can’t walk down the street. These people are what we call “larger than life.” Larger than life. People like us, we’re not larger than life. Then you get the question of, “When are you really going to blow up?” And I’m thinking “What the f--- does that actually mean?”

    Talib: Right. We’ve been successful artists for 20 years, what are you talking about? What have you been doing the last 20 years? When are YOU going to blow up?

    9th: Blow up to the point to where my ticket sales for the concert are where you can’t buy them? Is that blowing up to you?

    Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Blackstar
    Talib: I think about this a lot, because I’ve made myself very accessible on Twitter and not accessible on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or any place else. I used to do every interview, because I used to believe that I had to do every interview. Now, I really don’t. Me and 9th did Combat Jack, I did Medium because I think Medium really lets us speak our own voices, but I have stopped doing interviews. I straddle the fence, because I have friends like Yasiin Bey and Kanye West who are not accessible at all. I see how Drake plays the internet. Drake drops songs on Soundcloud and Twitter like “I don’t even need more press.” He’s like, “Ya’ll talk about me so much, I don’t need you to talk about me any more.” It would be foolish for me to think that I am on that level. Like 9th said, we are not larger than life. But it’s absolutely important that I look at that level as an attainable goal. Mos Def, I can’t really reach him on email, he won’t really be on Twitter, none of this s---, but people still talk about him like he is participating. And that is because what he has contributed is so great. He doesn’t need to do that. Mos Def is a clear, closer example for me. It’s not like Mos Def has sold millions of records like Kanye or Jay Z, but he’s impacted the culture in such an influential way that he can’t walk the street either. So I straddle the line, because I learn from newer cats like Underachievers who really embrace their social network as far as being accessible, I just have to find a balance between that world and also being an artist creating my myth. The older I get, the easier that is for me and the more I want to be inaccessible, for the sake of allowing people to value what we do. If we don’t value what we do — and that includes giving it away for free, our time and energy — nobody is going to value it.

    It’s interesting that you say that about Mos and it kind of goes back to the whole “barbecue” argument that we were talking about earlier. Mos and yourself have created timeless music. So what you’re kind of saying is that it looms over the culture as something that never really dies or expires, as if it is always there, whether you are currently participating or not. That’s the mark of a classic.

    9th: Some people are lucky enough in this game to get where they have solidified their name. A) They can do no wrong and :emoji_sunglasses: they don’t even have to do a lot for you to talk about them. Some people make it to that threshold, some people don’t. Some have a lasting career that way no matter what. D’Angelo was one of those people.

    Talib: Yeah and Sade. Which is crazy, because now I am more famous and more prolific than I have ever been in my career. Ever. Even in the Rawkus era, and it’s because the amount of music I’m dropping, I feel. Which is the opposite of what you are saying.

    9th Wonder
    You guys are both among a lot of great artists that came out of the indie hip-hop scene and eventually went mainstream. People like Aloe Blacc, Eminem, Red Foo, Run the Jewels, and Chromeo all started from this movement. It really shows the independent grind really pays off, whether it’s quickly for someone like Eminem or long term for someone like Run The Jewels.

    Talib: Yeah, it does and I’ve learned a lot from Duck Down, from Jamla, from Mike and El-P. El-P in particular. Think of how many times El-P has reinvented himself as an artist. From El Producto, to Company Flow, to Def Jux, Cannibal Ox and all that. He just keeps going. And him being a white boy, there’s been doors that have opened to him because he’s white, but there’s also barriers that he’s had to break down, and he’s constantly been able to reinvent himself. Him and Mike, they are impressive to me. All of them that you named are super impressive to me.

    Yeah and there are so many great artists that came up in this movement that we just don’t hear from anymore, because they kind of gave up. Do you feel that it’s worth it to keep going, or eventually someone like Jean who might just say “f--- it?”

    Talib: Well I need to clarify what I said about Jean because I’m sure she’d want me to if she read this. What Jean has accurately pinpointed about herself as an artist is that hip-hop is just one part of her wheelhouse. She’s a great emcee and she’s given a lot of sweat, blood, and tears to hip-hop and no one could ever contest her contribution to hip-hop. But I don’t personally feel like hip-hop has given back to her or to female emcees in the way that it should have. Why should she limit herself to just being a rapper. People see Jean Grae, but she can sing, she makes beats, she writes whole TV shows, she does stand-up comedy, she opens for Hannibal Buress. And soon as she decides she’s going to do stand up, she becomes one of the premiere stand up comics in the country. To me, Jean not rapping, a lot of us fans of Jean Grae the MC, look at it like “Aw shucks, c’mon Jean, why.” But we have to sort of take our personal feelings out of it, including myself, and look at it as growth. Jean Grae is The Phoenix. She’s literally becoming something much more grand and we get to watch.

    Yeah I think for someone like her, hip-hop is in her blood. She’s been doing this for so long. Like back when Jay Z was like “I’m retiring,” I was like “You ain’t retiring man. You’re a dude that doesn’t write his raps down. Are you telling me that you’re just going to stop rapping? Even in the shower?”

    Talib: That just means I’m not hearing some great records from you in the next couple years.

    Yeah, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Jean’s comedy career were to become really big and later we see he come back to music, even using that as a vehicle.

    Talib: Yeah, she’s already doing it. Her last albums are hilarious.

    The indie hip-hop movement kind of imploded around 2007, with Fat Beats closing, a lot of labels folding, record stores closing. How did you navigate this and the ever changing music industry for so long?

    Talib: My hard work, my efforts and having good relationships and good management back in the day, to being on Rawkus, to having good relationships with people like Mos Def, Dave Chappelle, The Roots early in my career, before anybody knew who they were now, having those relationships and out-working a lot of people has allowed my brand to be bigger than I could have ever anticipated. I’ve always been down for collaboration, but sometimes that makes it where people really don’t understand what your part in something is and you’re forced to do things on your own. My name, Talib Kweli, what I do is worth something and I can take it around the world, whether I put out another record or not. But I’m not one to rest on my own laurels, so rather than sit back and be like “Hey, remember me from ‘Get By’?” I’ve always been involved with new projects and new artists. It’s a grind, from Strong Arm Steady to Jean Grae to now Niko, Cory Mo, Jessica Care Moore and K. Valentine, it’s always me attempting things. I’ve lost a lot of money. There’s things I’ve broke even on, there’s things I’ve made money on, but I’m still learning how to run my company to help things other than myself make money. But I don’t make any promises to these artists that I can’t keep. And this is not a boss/employee relationships, these are partnerships. I can provide a platform for a lot of the artists and I think people know more about them based on me being involved. It doesn’t take anything away from who they are as artists and all of those artists are still working as artists because I don’t lock anybody in, but hopefully it’s something I get better at. I look at Jamla, 9th’s had half the opportunities that I have had. But he saw from the beginning — being in North Carolina — that he needed to be independent and have some sort of control over their distribution channels. He did the whole Atlantic thing, but after that he saw a way to do it on his own, so I respect that. The creative partnership is great, but there’s also a great business partnership where I get to learn from him and he gets to learn from me.

    @WPG @Narsh @BigCountry @Charlie Strangelove @captain awesome
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    golddust and Ordinary Joel like this.
    May 23, 2022