Music

Mashed Potatoes and Gravy

Talib Kweli Balances Art and Politics

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"BOTH MY PARENTS are professors," explains Brooklyn-based rapper Talib Kweli. "My mother is professor of English and my father of sociology. My father is currently at Adelphi in Long Island and my mom is at Medgar Evers." Talib's younger brother, a law professor at Columbia, rounds out the Kweli family. And while the sociopolitical, philosophical, and empyrean rhymes are products of Kweli's environment, he insists they are not primarily a teaching tool.

"That's just the gravy, that's not the mashed potatoes," Kweli says by phone. "What I do is not activism, it's entertainment. My job—and I want to be very clear about this—is to entertain people."

So when it comes to rappers who see heaven as a champagne room and value world peace at a distant second to leasing a Bentley, Kweli softens his stance. Take for instance Lloyd Banks, a member of G-Unit, whom Kweli shared the stage with recently.

"So he raps about more materialistic stuff and I rap about more heady and spiritual stuff," Kweli says. "But in New York City we both grew up listening to Run- DMC and loved hiphop." He continues, insisting that the similarities of art outweigh the differences. I tell him I think content is a pretty big deal and ask, "You're passionate about what you rap about, right?"

"I think Lloyd Banks is passionate about being in Bentleys," Kweli explains. "He drove away in a Bentley. That's his passion. Afroman rapped about 'Because I Got High,' that was his passion." Kweli says he never pushes his ideas on other artists, no matter how passionate he feels. The only way to turn others on, he insists, is to lead by example.

"From the election of Barack Obama, to the economy, to the war, to our national resource situation—all these things affected the record," Kweli explains when discussing the recently released Revolutions Per Minute, his second full-length collaboration with DJ Hi-Tek under the Reflection Eternal moniker. The first, Train of Thought, came out in 2000, and the soulful original is Kweli's most adored and well-balanced recording. And while politics colored the sequel, Kweli explains they weren't the genesis.

"The second full-length is based on the success of the first one," says Kweli. "The first one was based on me going to Cincinnati, seeking out Hi-Tek's sound." Indeed Hi-Tek's funky, organic, laidback, and atmospheric beats complement Kweli's penchant for feeling, spirituality, and sprawling missives.

For a single producer to back an entire album these days is rare, and many emcees reach out to all corners for the banging-est beats in search of club hits. "It's more about the single at this point," Kweli says of the industry at large. As a result he adds, "A lot of hiphop is disposable." With most producers concentrating only on creating hits, few are capable of creating a singular, arching vision throughout the course of an album. But with Hi-Tek on board, Revolutions flows seamlessly.

And to Kweli, it's the music that matters most. Of all the young people who come to his shows—including those who might dig Lloyd Banks too—Kweli hopes they take away one thing: "I just want them to have a good time and learn musical history," he says. "In my show I do new songs, but I always pay tribute to the artists who came before me, whether I incorporate old-school music into my set or just do some sort of tribute."

So music is the mashed potatoes. Gravy's up to you.

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